Two different men. Two different states. Two drug convictions. Two prison sentences. Two exonerations.
On an October day in 2014, 60-year-old Joseph Crochon was arrested by Houston, Texas police for possession of cocaine. Like many other defendants facing low-level drug charges, Crochon pled guilty two days after his arrest to possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 30 days in the Harris County Jail.
After Crochon served his jail time and was released, the results of the Houston police crime laboratory test came back: the substance seized by police from Crochon was not cocaine, or any other illegal substance. Crochon has been convicted of — and, in fact, had pled guilty to — a crime that never happened. He was exonerated in February 2016.
Many miles away from Texas, and nearly a decade earlier in Illinois 2006, Ben Baker was arrested for selling and possessing drugs. The prosecution’s case was based entirely on the testimony of a team of corrupt officers who worked the notorious Ida B. Wells public housing project. At trial, Baker testified in his own defense. According to the Chicago Tribune, Baker testified that the officers ran the housing project like it was “their own criminal fiefdom, stealing narcotics proceeds, shaking down dealers for protection money and pinning cases on those who refused to play ball.” Baker denied possessing or selling drugs, and claimed that the police officers targeted him because he refused to pay them bribe money in exchange for protection. The judge rejected Baker’s version of events and sentenced him to 18 years in prison. Baker’s sentenced was eventually reduced to 14 years in prison.
Ten years later, Baker was released from prison. The cops, it turns out, were as corrupt as Baker claimed. Baker was exonerated in January 2016.
Both Crochon and Baker did not commit the drug offenses for which they were arrested and convicted. In fact, neither drug offense even occurred. But both men nevertheless were forced to endure the horrors of the criminal justice system; Crochon pled guilty to avoid further potential consequences for his “offense,” while Baker wasted over ten years of his life in a cold, dank prison cell, separated from family and friends.
In addition to the individual human toll, both cases cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars for expenses associated investigation, court proceedings, and imprisonment, plus the unknowable opportunity costs of resources that could have been spent elsewhere. There was no public gain. No net public safety benefit. No crime solved. No nothing, except the needless squandering of people’s lives and public resources.
Innocent people are convicted of crimes that never even happened. These are worst case events that show what happens when the justice system goes completely off the rails. This is true whether a man is convicted of a low-level misdemeanor crime or a more serious felony offense, particularly when those events were not criminal at all.
Surely we have far more pressing things to do as a nation than put innocent people in prison for crimes that did not ever occur. Surely we can do better.