A marked uptick in the number of exonerations coming out of Houston, Texas, has refocused attention on the role guilty pleas play in generating wrongful convictions, notes Eric Benson in a recent article published by the social action platform
“Plea bargaining can coerce innocent people into accepting a sentence,” Scott Henson, executive director of the
Innocence Project of Texas
, told Benson, pointing out the added risks of a systemic bias toward getting rapid guilty pleas. “These cases highlight the pressures on the front end for people to plead guilty and just to put it behind them.”
According to an article by the
National Registry of Exonerations
, some 95% of felony convictions in the United States are obtained by guilty pleas, yet only 15 percent of people who have been exonerated for crimes for which they didn’t commit entered guilty pleas. According to the article, that’s not because most people who plead guilty are innocent but because it is extremely difficult for innocent people who plead guilty to challenge their convictions.
The recent Houston exonerations help to illustrate the scope of the problem. Since early 2014, 71 people were exonerated who plead guilty to drug possession in Harris County, Texas (Houston). In these cases, people plead guilty based on the results of field tests which are so imprecise that they have misidentified “Jolly Ranchers, breath mints, oregano and even air as illegal drugs,” writes Benson. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, most of these people agreed to plead guilty “because they faced months in jail before trial, and years more if convicted.” They were exonerated because the alleged drugs were submitted to testing after conviction and were found not to be controlled substances.
An investigation by Inger Chandler, chief of the Conviction Review Section at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, revealed a picture of “a system with serious flaws at every step”:
“First, there was an overreliance on field tests. Officers were using them as the basis for their arrests, and the D.A.’s office was using them as the basis for its plea deals. But field tests have a reputation for being imprecise, and they are not used as evidence at trial.”
The Harris County D.A’s office has since identified 425 cases from 2003 to 2015 in which a defendant had pleaded guilty to a drug crime, only for a lab report to come back contradicting the plea.
“In more than half of those cases, the lab returned a result of ‘no controlled substance,’” writes Benson. “In the remaining ones, the lab found that the defendants had pleaded guilty to the wrong drug or had copped a plea deal for a greater quantity than had been present. Such discrepancies could mean the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, state prison or community supervision.”
These cases from a single jurisdiction make up 67% of all guilty plea exonerations involving drug cases. While it is impossible to know how many people are pleading guilty to drug cases for which they are innocent, it is almost certain that this is happening in other jurisdictions around the country. It’s also important to note that there is no way to know which jurisdictions are testing the drugs after a guilty plea as they did in Houston. Read the full article on guilty pleas