This story involves events that took place in Harris County in Texas, not Hennepin County in Minnesota. However, the egregiousness of the situation and the shocking result portrays a criminal justice system that is seriously gone off the tracks. It is a tale of routine, institutionalized injustice so surprising, not the least because it was a County District Attorney that was part of the examination and correction of the issue.
You often hear the line, "Everyone in jail claims they are innocent." It is typically employed by police or prosecutors to diminish those involved in claims of new evidence or witnesses. In this case, it proved too true. Last year, the county had 33 drug cases that led to exonerations, where suspects had plead guilty and were often serving time when tests of substance that were supposed to be illegal drugs proved to be nothing illegal.
Plea bargains are the grease the American criminal justice system runs on. More than 90 percent of all cases are resolved with a plea. If every criminal defendant actually received a trial by a jury of their peers, the entire system would collapse as trial dockets would stretch so far into the future that many defendants would have served their potential term long before their case would come to trial.
What is most exceptional about these cases is that they were not death penalty cases where DNA evidence exonerated the wrongfully convicted. They were low-level drug felonies. These are the types of cases that are almost never subject to exoneration, because typically there is no ironclad guarantee of the defendant's innocence, as there is in DNA cases.
Here, the crime lab would eventually test the "drug" evidence, weeks or months after the plea, only to find the substances were not illegal drugs. More time would pass, eventually prosecutors would inform the courts and finally, in some cases, a year later, the wrongful conviction would be overturned and the individual released.
Source: takeapart.com "Why Do People Plead Guilty To Drug Crimes When They Don't Have Drugs?" Eric Benson, November 20, 2015