A record 125 defendants falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated in 2014, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. The figure represents a one-third increase in exonerations from 2012.
A bulk of the increase came from a single county: Harris County, Texas — home to Houston — where 33 people were exonerated after having been convicted of drug possession. Most of the defendants in those cases had pled guilty and were exonerated only after tests revealed they had not been carrying illicit substances.
"There is some evidence that pretrial detention and the fear of long terms of imprisonment did influence these false guilty pleas,” the report stated.
Tests to determine whether a substance contains illicit materials are relatively cheap, according to Samuel Gross, a Michigan University law professor and the report’s author. That means that "false guilty pleas to possession of illegal drugs that don’t exist could be erased entirely in short order, in Harris County," said Gross.
Gross said the high exoneration rate in Harris County was due to an initiative spearheaded by the county's district attorney, Devon Anderson, who had the office review old drug possession convictions. The office "has gone a long way through getting through the backlog they had," said Gross.
False guilty pleas were not limited to Harris County. In all, 38 percent of the defendants exonerated in 2014 had pled guilty to crimes they had not committed. The vast majority of them had been accused of drug charges.
At least 90 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. result in a guilty plea, according to Criminal Justice, a publication of the American Bar Association. Criminal justice reform advocates have criticized the proliferation of plea bargains, saying too much power rests in the hands of the criminal prosecutors trying to extract a guilty plea.
Exonerations by DNA evidence were up slightly in 2014 compared to previous years, but the bulk of exonerations — more than 80 percent — were not the result of DNA evidence. A bigger factor in the rising number of exonerations, writes Gross, is the expanding number of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) cropping up in district attorneys’ offices. CIUs are groups of prosecutors that review old convictions to determine whether the convicted party should be exonerated.
The first such unit was established in 2008. Today there are 15 nationwide. CIUs accounted for 49 of the 125 exonerations that occurred in 2014, according to the study.
The overall incarceration rate in the United States, which began a stratospheric rise in the mid-1970s after President Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs,” has only just begun to decline within the past decade.