STORY: "298 wrongful drug convictions identified in ongoing audit 298 plead guilty, but lab results counter roadside screenings," by Lise Olsen and Anita Hassan, published by The Houston Chronicle on July 16, 2016;
GIST: "A Houston police officer pulled Barry Demings over as he headed to work in Beaumont and plucked a spot of white powder off the floorboard of Demings' year-old Ford Explorer. Demings had just detailed the SUV - and wondered later if a speck of soap upended his life. "I never even saw it," he said, explaining how the officer dropped the speck into a small test kit and said "it came back for cocaine." Demings was charged with felony drug possession based on the results of the primitive test that costs about $2 and has been found to have a high error rate. He was told he could face a sentence as long as 30 years based on old prior convictions - no one mentioned waiting for a crime lab to verify the officer's roadside result. He insisted he was innocent but got scared and accepted a plea deal. He lost his job, his girlfriend and his Explorer. Upon release, he decided to leave Texas behind forever. In 2015 - seven years later - the Harris County District Attorney's Office notified him that Houston's crime lab found no cocaine in the sample. He filed a writ of habeus corpus with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and was finally exonerated. He is among 298 people convicted of drug possession even though crime lab tests later found no controlled substances in the samples, according to a far-reaching audit of drug cases by the Harris County District Attorney's Office. So far, 131 of them, like Demings, have had their convictions overturned in cases that go back to 2004. About 100 other cases remain under review for potential dismissal. In all 298 cases, prosecutors accepted both felony and misdemeanor plea deals before lab tests were performed. The $2 roadside tests, which officers use to help establish probable cause for an arrest, cannot be used at trial as evidence under Texas law. So far, only a few of the exonerees have been deemed "actually innocent" by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals - a necessary step to win compensation from the state for being wrongfully convicted. Strict detention policies. The New York Times and ProPublica reported last Sunday that over 200 wrongful drug convictions in Harris County had resulted from erroneous roadside tests. Beyond those cases, the Times and ProPublica estimated that at least 100,000 people plead guilty nationally each year to drug offenses based on the tests, which the Houston police and many other local departments continue using. Other wrongful convictions identified in Harris County have come from officers' misidentification of additional illicit drugs, including prescription pills and marijuana, using means other than the roadside tests, according to a review of exonerations and court records. In many of the wrongful convictions, defendants were jailed pretrial because they were unable to post bail - and accepted pleas in order to get out sooner, though some claimed innocence, according to court records and interviews. Many were sentenced to serve time in jail or prison. State Sens. John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, said the wave of exonerations provides yet another compelling reason that Harris County judges should reform their tough pretrial detention policies. They argue that police should cite and release low-risk suspects accused of minor drug crimes until the evidence against them is verified by one of the county's accredited drug labs.........The forensic evidence problems uncovered by Chandler's unit began around 2005, when Houston's city crime lab - then overseen by HPD - lost several staff members and simultaneously saw a huge increase in drug cases, which created a backlog. Lab officials implemented a triage system for drug testing with the DA's office: Drug cases slated to go to trial would get processed first. For defendants who had accepted plea deals, the crime lab would later go back and test samples, often months or years after the guilty plea had been entered. Chandler's audit of wrongful convictions has been possible because the Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly HPD's crime lab, preserved and tested the evidence even in the plea deal cases."We were keeping the evidence, and with the agreement with the District Attorney's Office that we would continue to process even if it was pled," said James Miller, manager of the center's controlled substances section. "Because we both understood there was always the possibility that the substance may not actually be illegal." So far, prosecutors have identified and examined 456 flawed cases. Of those, 298 people had been convicted despite having no illegal controlled substances in their possession at all. In 29 of the 298 wrongful convictions, there had been no filing for relief because a defendant declined to pursue the case or faced other legal obstacles. In other cases among the 456, the types or quantities of controlled substances were misidentified or there was too little evidence left to perform a confirmatory test. About 78 percent of the 456 flawed cases came from the Houston Police Department, which still uses roadside tests that were developed in the 1970s. Chemicals in small vials turn colors when exposed to cocaine and other illegal drugs but can be easily misinterpreted by officers and can have high false positives, Miller and other experts said."