Texas led the nation in the number of exonerations of criminal defendants in 2017 with 23 people exonerated across the state following the exposure of wrongful criminal convictions. While the number of exonerations dropped across the country in 2017, Texas continued to lead, particularly due to the exoneration of drug defendants in Harris County. Over the previous several years, the county saw a number of criminal exonerations after testing years later showed that the convicted defendants were actually innocent.
A report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations explained the situation in Harris County where a Conviction Integrity Unit was established and began addressing drug convictions in 2014. The unit found that many convictions were based on plea bargains that were obtained despite the fact that the substances seized from the defendants were not actually illegal drugs. While 10 people were exonerated in Harris County in 2017, already a substantial number, 48 had been exonerated of false drug charges in 2016. The shift in the Harris County number following the clearing of high-priority cases played a major role in the national decrease in exonerations from 171 to 139 between 2016 and 2017.
Those years also saw 96 people in Chicago and Baltimore exonerated in a group. Evidence came to light in these cities revealing that local police had systematically engaged in frame-ups by planting false evidence in drug crimes.
Many defendants accused of drug charges are pressured to accept plea bargains, and the consequences have become apparent in Harris County and elsewhere. Drug convictions can lead to a felony criminal record as well as significant fines, asset confiscation and even prison time. When people are facing charges for drug crimes, a defense attorney may help them present a defense before and during trial, including challenges to police behavior.