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Texas leads in exonerations, largely due to people falsely convicted of drug crimes

Exonerations in the United States have reached record levels with 125 in 2014 alone, according to the Dallas Morning News. Texas led the country in exonerations, with over twice as many as any other state. The exoneration rate in Texas was largely due to lab evidence proving that dozens of people in the state had been wrongly convicted of drug crimes. Despite the encouraging news that these people have since had their convictions overturned, the story raises concerns about the likelihood of many other people currently burdened by wrongful drug convictions.

Exonerations soar

Last year was the first time that exonerations in the U.S. exceeded 100. The 125 exonerations in 2014 were 34 more than the previous year. Texas far outpaced any other state in terms of exoneration numbers. The state exonerated 39 people last year, more than double the rate of the next leading state, New York, which saw 17 exonerations.

Most of the exonerations were for homicides and sex crimes, together accounting for 65 of all exonerations in the U.S. last year. The most notable difference in the statistics, however, was the number of people who were exonerated for drug convictions. Again, Texas was in the lead for drug crime exonerations, with Harris County alone accounting for 33 such exonerations.

Innocent plead guilty

Perhaps most troubling, according to the San Antonio Current, was the fact that most of the people who were wrongfully convicted of a drug crime had in fact pleaded guilty to the charges against them. In the case of Harris County, it was often only because authorities continued with lab tests even after a guilty plea that many convictions were proven to be false. In some cases, no crime had even been committed. Experts say that some people may end up pleading guilty to a crime they didn't commit because they cannot afford bail or because they are offered a plea bargain by prosecutors that seems too good to refuse.

While the reversal of those convictions is good news, it does bring into question how many other innocent people have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. While Harris County continued to carry out lab tests even after a conviction, that practice is not repeated in all other counties or states.

Facing a drug charge

The above story should be a reminder of the need for expert legal defense when facing a criminal charge, including drug charges. Making the right decisions following a drug charge and maintaining both one's freedom and reputation often depends on receiving the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Such an attorney can discuss what options are available to defendants and how best to respond to a criminal charge.