Exonerations in the United States have been increasing, and 2016 was no exception. The National Registry of Exonerations found that in 2016, a record-breaking 166 people were exonerated.
Surprisingly, Harris County stood out as having the most defendants exonerated for non-violent offenses, mostly drug possession or sale. The fact that Harris County had been jailing the highest number of innocent people on drug charges should be alarming.
But Harris leads in another area, as well.
Since 2003, over half of the exonerations that took place by Conviction Integrity Units – divisions that prevent, identify, and correct false convictions – have come from Harris County. For perspective, that is 128 out of 225 conviction integrity unit exonerations, just in Harris County.
In 2016, Texas claimed 58 (all but 9 in Harris) of the 166 exonerations.
Many of the drug-related cases in Harris stemmed from false guilty pleas. Given the choice of taking a reduced charge, or taking their chances at trial, many opt for pleading to a reduced charge while knowing they’re innocent.
To address this, Harris County’s CIU now requires quicker testing after guilty pleas, and, according to the NRE report, the District Attorney’s office no longer offers plea bargains on felony drug cases without lab tests, unless the bargain includes no further incarceration. But, the report notes that there is more that can be done.
Oregon’s Multnomah County has changed its policy to require a request and report confirming testing by the Oregon State Police Forensic Lab on all controlled substance cases.
One of the most widely covered exonerations in 2016 was the San Antonio Four case. The women were sent to jail in 1998, convicted of sexual assault. After the victims recanted their testimony and forensic evidence was retested, the four women were released in 2013 but weren’t fully exonerated until 2016.
The report credits most of the exonerations that Texas sees to the CIUs. In 2016, 79 percent of drug exonerations have been a result of the unit, and the percentage was even higher the year before.
“The record numbers of exonerations that we have seen in recent years have not made a dent in the number of innocent defendants who have been convicted and punished,” reads the report.
“Most counties have no Conviction Integrity Unit of any variety, and many states do not have even a single overworked innocence project. Many prosecutors continue to fight innocence claims to the hilt, and many courts continue to ignore them.”