A new study has found that Harris County, Tx., leads the U.S. in exonerations, turning loose 48 people last year alone. That’s because its crime labs take an added precaution most others don’t: testing evidence seized from drug defendants even after they enter guilty pleas, the Texas Tribune reports. When the supposed drugs they possessed were tested, in many cases no illegal drugs were found. A study issued yesterday by the National Registry of Exonerations said Harris County had all but 10 of the state’s 58 exonerations last year. The state with the second highest number, Illinois, had 16 exonerations in 2016.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg isn’t ashamed of the high number. Ogg said her department takes extra precautions “to ensure the integrity of our convictions,” a move she hopes more crime labs across the nation will follow. Most of those convicted and later exonerated for drug-related offenses in Harris County were African American. The researchers found that African Americans are five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites. Judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than are innocent white people. “Harris County is extremely valuable for our research because it’s an unusual example of something you wouldn’t otherwise see,” said University of Michigan law Prof. Samuel Gross, senior editor of the study. “One possibility is that they’re more conscientious. What’s striking is that they do this.” He said the rate of illegal drug use is roughly the same for whites and blacks, but the number of arrests and convictions is much higher for African Americans than for whites. The study also found that African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.