The Harris County Public Defender The New York Times Forgot
July 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — On Sunday, July 10, 2016, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called “Proof Negative,” about the widespread use of commercially manufactured field tests for controlled substances that regularly produce false positive results. Those bad tests often cause criminal defendants to mistakenly plead guilty to possessing substances that are not actually illegal drugs.
I am very familiar with this situation since I am the chief public defender for Harris County (Houston), Texas, the jurisdiction that is the focus of the article. In fact, Harris County led the nation in exonerations last year precisely for this reason.
The article gives deserved praise to our district attorney, the chief of her Conviction Integrity Unit, and the former assistant district attorney who came up with a system to spot these cases and attempt to notify the wrongly convicted persons after the definitive and exonerating lab results become available.
However, the article fails to credit one of my lawyers, Nicolas Hughes, who spent thousands of hours locating these persons, getting permission to represent them, and filing the necessary pleadings to overturn their wrongful convictions. Instead, the article accidentally punishes him for his good work.
The cover of the magazine is an image of a letter on the letterhead of the Harris County District Attorney, file-stamped by the district clerk, addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” and signed by an assistant district attorney. The letter states in part: “[Y]ou were prosecuted for a criminal drug offense and convicted in error.” It then invites the recipient to contact the lawyer of their choice, the court or “Nicolas Hughes of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office at [our office’s main number].”
Since that article was published, Nicolas has collected at least 40 phone messages, mostly from elderly New Yorkers, either confused or irate about their convictions in Harris County. Because the letter is on the cover of a magazine, inside their Sunday paper, it is difficult to understand how they came to the conclusion it had anything to do with them. However, some are quite adamant, including one who challenged an employee, “Do you think this is funny?”
I am not sure what this implies about the readership of the New York Times. These were hard copy subscribers or newsstand purchasers who may have not have even bothered to read the story.
Apparently, the mere sight of the letter was so compelling that they immediately called the number to clear their names, even though their names were never mentioned in the letter. I suspect many do not know where Harris County, Texas is. Perhaps some prankster tore off the cover and slipped it under their front door.
Still, that does not explain how they missed the words in huge gothic font at the top, “The New York Times Magazine.”