2015 Set New Record for Total Number of Exonerations, with Texas at the Top of the List

Calcium sulfateA report released in early 2016 by the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), a joint project by the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law, states that courts around the country exonerated 149 people in 2015. This is believed to be the highest number for any year in U.S. history. Texas accounted for more than one-third of the total, with 54 exonerations. The exonerees were serving an average prison sentence of 14 years. “Exoneration” is not a formal legal term, but instead it refers to multiple possible processes by which a person who has been convicted of a criminal offense is essentially cleared of all criminal liability for that offense and, in many cases, any lesser included offense, based on evidence showing that the person is innocent.

Exoneration may occur through a process initiated by an inmate or by the state. An increasing number of jurisdictions maintain conviction integrity units (CIUs) to review cases and identify errors. The NRE report notes that the CIU for Harris County, Texas was responsible for most of the exonerations in Texas in 2014 and 2015. It has been particularly active in reviewing drug possession cases, many of which involve a person charged for possession of something initially believed to be an illegal drug, who pleaded guilty to avoid the risk of a longer sentence. Subsequent testing revealed that the substances were entirely legal.

Since exoneration generally requires new evidence, a petition for habeas corpus is a common method used by defendants. Once a court vacates a sentence, the exoneration process is complete when the prosecutor drops the charges. Without new evidence, however, courts may be unwilling to enter a formal finding of “actual innocence.” This was the case with the former day care owners in Austin convicted of sexual abuse in the early 1990s. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated their convictions in 2013, but it declined to rule on the question of innocence.

In one Texas exoneration case identified by the NRE, field tests of a substance found in the defendant’s possession indicated that it was codeine. The defendant pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance five days later in a Harris County court, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Tests performed on the substance nearly two years later indicated that it was not a controlled substance at all. County officials relayed this information to the person’s attorney, who filed a habeas petition. See Tex. Code Crim. P. Art. 11.07.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the defendant’s conviction, Ex parte Baltrip, No. WR-83,018-01, op. (Tex. Crim. App., Apr. 1, 2015), and the district attorney dismissed the charges. The court found that the defendant’s guilty plea was “involuntary,” citing a case that held that a plea is not voluntary unless the defendant “possesses an understanding of the law in relation to the facts” and has a “sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances.” Ex parte Mable, 443 S.W.3d 129, 131 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Board-certified drug crimes lawyer Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of people facing state and federal criminal charges in west Texas courts for more than 20 years. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Places Third in Number of Exonerations Over the Past Two Decades, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 29, 2012

Innocence Project Finds That Texas Prosecutorial Misconduct Has Gone Unpunished Since 2004, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 29, 2012

New Study Highlights Hazards of False Confessions, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 21, 2010

Photo credit: Martin Walker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.