Texas saw 54 exonerations in 2015, 42 of which were drug cases from Harris County. Addressing the drug exonerations, the registry report asked the obvious question:
Why did these defendants plead guilty? Inger Chandler offers two explanations: some probably thought the pills or powders they were carrying contained illegal drugs when in fact they didn’t; others — especially defendants with criminal records, who generally cannot post the comparatively high bails that are set for them and who risk substantial terms in prison if convicted — agreed to attractive plea bargains at their initial court appearances, despite their innocence, rather than remain in pretrial custody and risk years in prison.
There is some evidence that pretrial detention and the fear of long terms of imprisonment did influence these false guilty pleas. Twenty of the 25 Harris County drug exonerees who pled guilty to significant terms of imprisonment (3 months to 7 years) had felony records that we know about, while 15 of the 23 who had no known criminal records got no time in jail at all.
In 41 of the 73 drug crime exonerations in Harris County the defendants were arrested on the basis of “field tests” that indicated the presence of controlled substances. (In the other cases the arresting officers mistook an innocent white powder for cocaine, a hand-rolled cigarette for marijuana or non-prescription pills for controlled drugs.) Commonly-used drug field tests are notoriously unreliable; they routinely misidentify everything from Jolly Ranchers to chalk to motor oil as illegal drugs. They are inadmissible as evidence in court but sufficient to justify an arrest and they may convince an innocent defendant that she is bound to be convicted at trial.The 149 exoneration cases nationally, as a whole, include more cases than any previous year in which:
- Defendants falsely confessed
- Government officials committed misconduct
- The convictions were based on guilty pleas
- No-crime fact occurred
- A prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Unit worked on the exoneration
Another notable fact bite: "Five defendants who had been sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015: one each in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. They had been imprisoned for 30, 25, 28, 19 and 10 years, respectively." Alfred Brown out of Houston was the Texas death row exoneree.
Under the subhed, "Unmaking Murderers," the report noted that 58 murder convictions were overturned in 2015, the most ever. They also recorded the highest ever number of overturned convictions based on false confessions (27).
A whopping 44% of 2015 exonerations nationwide came after defendants pled guilty! (Harris County's drug cases boosted that number.)
Finally, it's worth pointing out one of the final Texas' exonerations of 2015, that of Calvin Day in Bexar County, a doctor charged with sexually assaulting patients in his office. According to the registry's summary of his case, Day passed a polygraph related to allegations that he had extramarital relations with then-elected DA Susan Reed. In response, her First Assistant Cliff Herberg essentially threatened the defense attorneys who in turn did not aggressively interrogate the key witness against their client. (See related Grits coverage.) In open court in December when Day's case was dismissed, the trial judge accused Reed and her first assistant of "inappropriate" conduct. In this instance, the case falling apart may have less to do with Day's lack of culpability than the state's bungling. He still faces criminal charges related to an alleged assault on a different patient.