The national rate of exonerations in criminal cases has dropped along with the number of exonerations in Texas, particularly in Harris County. The county was home to a number of criminal exonerations over the years after testing showed that a number of defendants convicted of drug charges were actually innocent. While the county has continued to sort through past cases, it has found fewer wrongful convictions in recent years as many of the highest-priority cases were previously addressed.
However, the report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations highlighted that Texas continued to lead the nation in exonerations following wrongful criminal convictions with 23 people exonerated in the state in 2017. The Conviction Integrity Unit in Harris County started reviewing drug possession cases in 2014; during the process, they found that many cases that had ended in plea bargains were based on false evidence in which the substances seized were not actually illegal drugs. In 2016, 48 people convicted of drug crimes in Harris County were exonerated while 10 people were exonerated in the county in 2017. This played a major role in lowering the national exoneration number from 171 to 139 over two years.
In Chicago and Baltimore, there were 96 people convicted of drug charges. They were also collectively exonerated following the surfacing of evidence that revealed the police in those areas had planted evidence in order to frame defendants for drug possession cases.
The story of Harris County and the falsely convicted defendants, often on the basis of plea bargains, highlights the dire situation of criminal defendants in Texas facing drug charges. Drug convictions can lead to substantial fines, jail or prison time and a felony criminal record. People who are facing charges for drug offenses may work with a criminal defense attorney to mount a defense and challenge police practices.