Thursday, December 17, 2015

False guilty pleas: Writer Eric Benson examines, "The Curious Cases of Pleading Guilty While Innocent," in 'TakePart' as he asks, "Why are so many people in Houston admitting to drug crimes they didn’t commit?"

STORY: "The Curious Cases of Pleading Guilty While Innocent," by Eric Benson, published by TakePart on November 20, 2105. (New York-bred, Austin-based Eric Benson has written for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, Grantland, Oxford American, and others).

SUB-HEADING:  "Why are so many people in Houston admitting to drug crimes they didn’t commit?"

GIST: "The 25-year-old had a rap sheet that included prostitution and possession of a controlled substance, and because of the amount of cocaine involved and her prior convictions, she was facing the possibility of 20 years in prison. But from the outset, prosecutors made it clear that it didn’t have to come to that. Batts could plead guilty, get the minimum sentence for her offense, and forgo a trial. Two days after her arrest, she took the district attorney’s deal and began serving two years in state prison. The prosecutors offered Batts the plea deal without ever seeing a lab report. Ten months later, when the result finally came in, it revealed something surprising. The white powder wasn’t cocaine. It wasn’t a controlled substance at all. Batts had pleaded guilty to possession of a narcotic when she was carrying nothing illegal. A week later, she was released from prison. A few months after that, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Batts habeas corpus relief, vacating her conviction. Batts was hardly the only person in Houston who had copped a plea deal for drug possession only to find out that the facts of her case were different from what prosecutors charged....Then, in 2014, the number of such conviction reversals coming out of Houston exploded. When the National Registry of Exonerations issued its annual report in January 2015, it announced that there had been a record 125 exonerations in the United States in the previous year, a 37 percent increase over 2013. That jump, the registry reported, had been “largely driven by a concentration of 33 exonerations in drug cases in Harris County, Texas.” The Houston cases were unusual for the registry. They had been overturned not because of the efforts of a crusading defense attorney fighting an unjust system but because of an internal review by a prosecutor’s office. The defendants had not maintained their innocence during their trials and incarceration. All pleaded guilty before a grand jury even indicted them.  “Plea bargaining can coerce innocent people into accepting a sentence,” said Scott Henson, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas. He underscored the perils of a systemic bias toward getting rapid guilty pleas. “These cases highlight the pressures on the front end for people to plead guilty and just to put it behind them.” Such light felonies often don’t result in exonerations for the simple reason that “they usually aren’t reinvestigated,” explained Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “But in my view, the pretrial guilty pleas you see in these kinds of cases could be the most common factor to wrongful convictions across the board.” That wouldn’t be limited to Houston."

The entire story can be found at:

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