In recent years a large number of individuals in the U.S. have been exonerated after spending years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Some spent decades in prison and some were on death row. In a number of highly publicized murder and rape cases DNA evidence was critical in showing the individuals convicted were in fact innocent.
Last year there were 125 exonerations nationwide. Of these, Harris County accounted for about a fourth, with 33. But it was not DNA evidence that proved their innocence, and the cases did not involve violent crimes. Instead, the Harris County exonerations came about after a thorough review by the D.A.'s office of drug convictions in which questions had arisen about the accuracy of lab test results.
The 33 individuals exonerated in Harris County had been convicted on relatively minor charges of drug possession. The individuals had pleaded guilty before lab results came back. When the D.A.'s office later reviewed the lab results, it found insufficient evidence of an illegal substance.
Some people may wonder why a person would plead guilty to a crime they know they didn't commit. The answer most likely lies in the procedures governing pretrial release. The individuals who were exonerated probably couldn't afford bail and could not get a recognizance bond. As a result, they would have to remain in jail until their trial, separated from their loved ones and risking the loss of jobs. Drug lab results can take months to come back, and many individuals likely pleaded guilty in order to get released earlier.
The number of innocent people exonerated shows the importance of an aggressive defense in drug cases. An experienced defense lawyer can fight for pretrial release and scrutinize lab results for mistakes and inconsistencies before trial.
Source: Houston Chronicle, "Harris County leads way in 2014 exonerations," Anita Hassan & Mike Tolson, Jan. 26, 2015