A recent study found that at least 4.1% of all death row inmates in the United States were innocent, reviving discussions in America as to the legality, constitutionality and morality of capital punishment. Most Western nations do not use the death penalty in their justice systems, and with only Iran, Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia executing more citizens in 2012 than the US, the stories of those who were wrongfully sentenced to death have entered the public debate once more.
1. Johnny Garrett
Texas executes more convicts than any other US state, so it is not surprising that a man convicted of raping and murdering a nun would be sentenced to die. This was the case with Johnny Garrett, who was executed in February 1992 despite maintaining his innocent plea from the time of his arrest to his death. Despite police believing at the time that there was a link between the crime of which Garrett was accused and another murder four months previously, the case was considered closed until 2004, when cold-case investigators reopened the files. They used DNA testing and unexplored fingerprint evidence to prove that Garrett was in fact innocent, and that the murderer in both cases was one Leoncio Rueda.
2. Cameron Todd Willingham
Just before Christmas 1991, when Willingham’s three young children died in a fire at his family home in Corsicana, Texas, police and investigators charged him with their murder, alleging that he deliberately started the blaze that killed them. Despite pleas for a stay of execution to allow evidence to be re-examined, Willingham was put to death by lethal injection in 2004. Subsequent investigations, including by renowned fire investigator Gerald Hurst, have indicated that the fire was likely not started deliberately and was simply an accident, and that evidence which was not made available at the trial could have led to an acquittal.
3. Carlos De Luna
Another example of the Texan legal system at work, this concerns a case of clear mistaken identity where two Hispanic men were present at the scene of a stabbing murder. De Luna was found by police shortly after discovery of the body, hiding from them underneath a pickup truck due to the fact that he had been drinking in a bar opposite the gas station where the victim worked, a violation of his parole. Despite the fact that stab victims obviously lose a lot of blood, not a trace was found on De Luna’s clothing, and he testified in court that he had seen a man named Carlos Hernandez at the gas station. Hernandez had a long history of knife attacks and had previously been romantically involved with the victim; despite this, police did not properly investigate this second suspect and coached the lone eyewitness to positively identify De Luna as the suspect. He was convicted and executed in 1989.
4. Derek Bentley
Not all wrongful death sentences take place in the US, and the case of Englishman Derek Bentley is one example. Aged just 19, Bentley and his accomplice Christopher Craig were seen trying to burgle a warehouse in south London in 1952, with Craig injuring one police officer and killing another who tried to apprehend them. Due to the legal principle of ‘joint enterprise‘, Bentley was tried and found guilty for the murder of officer Sidney Miles despite the fact that it was Craig who fired the shots and evidence suggested that he had tried to persuade his accomplice to give themselves up. Craig did not face execution due to being only 16, while Bentley was hung just three months after the attempted burglary.
5. Timothy Evans
If the execution of Derek Bentley stirred the first serious protests against the death penalty in the UK, the enquiry into the conviction of Timothy Evans was capital punishment’s own death knell in the country. In 1950, Evans was accused and convicted of murdering his wife and baby daughter at their home in north London, and sent to his death at Pentonville Prison just three months later. Three years later, it was discovered that Evans’ neighbour – whom he had always accused of committing the murders – was in fact a serial killer who had murdered several women in the house they shared. A formal inquiry into the trial found multiple instances of police misconduct and concluded that the conviction was a miscarriage of justice, its preliminary findings contributing significantly to the abolition of capital punishment in the UK in 1965.
6. Ellis Wayne Felker
In 1981, Falker was placed under surveillance after being considered a suspect in the disappearance of a cocktail waitress, Evelyn Ludlum, in Georgia. During his two-week round-the-clock surveillance, Ludlum’s body was discovered in a creek; she had been raped and murdered. In the first of several cases of mishandling of evidence, initial autopsies suggested that the time of death would rule Felker out of contention for her murder; these estimates were subsequently revised. Felker was nevertheless tried and convicted of Ludlum’s murder and sentenced to death by electric chair, a sentence which was challenged right up until it was carried out in November 1996. Though court-ordered DNA testing four years later was ruled inconclusive, many continue to believe Felker’s conviction was unsound.
7. James O’Dell
When O’Dell was accused of the rape and murder of Helen Schartner in 1985, he was already known to authorities, having been on parole for robbery and kidnapping in Florida, however only the testimony of a jailhouse informant and some questionable blood evidence tied him to this particular crime. He maintained his innocence throughout proceedings, launching several appeals, one of which went to the US Supreme Court, where Justice Blackmun found that there was cause for serious questions to be asked about O’Dell’s assumed guilt. Awareness of appeal proceedings spread across the globe, and a campaign to save O’Dell’s life garnered some high profile international supporters. All appeals were denied, however, and the execution was carried out in 1997, with all evidence destroyed by the state in 2000 to prevent any posthumous investigation.
8. Teng Xingshan
The People’s Republic of China executes in the region of over 2000 of its own citizens each year, some for conventional crimes and others for politically-motivated reasons, so it is no surprise that some convicts prove to be innocent. Admissions of wrongdoing by the Government are rare, but at least one tale of judicial incompetence has been revealed. After the discovery of a dismembered body in Hunan province’s Huaihua, police forensics identified it as that of a missing woman, Shi Xiaorong, and arrested local man Teng, charging him with rape, robbery and murder. Teng was convicted, sentenced and executed in 1989, only for Shi Xiaorong to reappear in her village in 1993, claiming that she had been kidnapped and taken to the coastal province of Shandong. Authorities did not admit Teng’s innocence until as late as 2005.
9. Larry Griffin
When 19-year-old Quintin Moss died in a drive-by in St Louis, Missouri in 1980, the subsequent conviction of Larry Griffin was based primarily on the testimony of a career criminal who had been at the scene. He said that three black men had been in the car the shots were fired from, and that he clearly saw Griffin shoot Moss from the car window with his right hand. Aside from the fact that Griffin was left-handed, a point not brought up by his rookie state-appointed defence attorney, Griffin’s fingerprints did not appear anywhere on the car, nor the murder weapon which had been retrieved by police. Griffin was on death row for fifteen years before his execution by lethal injection in 1995.
10. Jesse Tafero
When two Florida Highway Patrol officers approached a parked car and found Tafero along with his partner, her two children and friend Walter Rhodes, they also saw a gun lying on the floor. After asking the occupants to step out of the car, one of them shot the officers before the group fled the scene in the police car. When they were caught, Rhodes and Tafero blamed each other for the shootings – despite forensic analysis clearly showing that gunpowder residue on Rhodes’ clothing meant only he could have fired the weapon, Tafero was convicted of first degree murder. Tafero was eventually executed by electric chair, a process which took seven full minutes. Rhodes, who has received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Tafero, confessed to the shootings after the execution had taken place.