The US saw a record number of exonerations in 2014, and it was due in part to 33 cases in Texas in which individuals had their drug convictions dismissed after lab tests determined they never had illegal substances, a report released today shows. The National Registry of Exonerations said 125 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year. That's 34 more than in 2013, the year with the previous highest total. The registry is a project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools and has documented more than 1,500 such cases in the US since 1989. The breakdown in 2014 was typical of previous years, with homicides and sex crimes making up more than half with 65 cases. Texas had the most exonerations with 39. New York was second with 17.
But the big difference in 2014 was an increase in cases where individuals convicted of drug-related charges were exonerated by lab tests that showed they didn't have controlled substances, said Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor and registry editor. Of the 39 drug cases in the US in 2014, Harris County in Texas—home to Houston—had 33 of them. Most of the 33 drug cases in Harris County in 2014 were ones where individuals pleaded guilty before a lab test was completed. There were often delays in completing tests and even when they were finished, there could be additional delays in getting the results to prosecutors or defense attorneys. Authorities there say they have since streamlined the process. (Read more exoneration stories.)