Executed But Possibly Innocent
There is no way to tell how many of the more than 1,470 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients' lives can still be saved. Some cases with strong evidence of innocence include:
Carlos DeLuna: Texas — Conviction: 1983, Executed: 1989
Ruben Cantu: Texas — Conviction: 1985, Executed: 1993
Larry Griffin: Missouri — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1995
Joseph O'Dell: Virginia — Conviction: 1986, Executed: 1997
David Spence: Texas — Conviction: 1984, Executed: 1997
Leo Jones: Florida — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1998
Gary Graham: Texas — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 2000
Claude Jones: Texas — Conviction: 1989, Executed: 2000
Cameron Willingham: Texas — Conviction: 1992, Executed: 2004
Ruben Cantu: Texas — Conviction: 1985, Executed: 1993
Larry Griffin: Missouri — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1995
Joseph O'Dell: Virginia — Conviction: 1986, Executed: 1997
David Spence: Texas — Conviction: 1984, Executed: 1997
Leo Jones: Florida — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1998
Gary Graham: Texas — Conviction: 1981, Executed: 2000
Claude Jones: Texas — Conviction: 1989, Executed: 2000
Cameron Willingham: Texas — Conviction: 1992, Executed: 2004
Troy Davis: Georgia — Conviction: 1991, Executed: 2011
Lester Bower: Texas — Conviction: 1984, Executed: 2015
Brian Terrell: Georgia — Conviction: 1995, Executed: 2015
Richard Masterson: Texas — Conviction: 2002, Executed: 2016
Also Noted — Post-humous pardons and new information about people who may have been wrongfully executed prior to 1976.
Carlos DeLuna Texas Conviction: 1983, Executed: 1989
A Chicago Tribune investigation released in 2006 revealed groundbreaking evidence that Texas may have executed an innocent man in 1989. The defendant, Carlos DeLuna, was executed for the fatal stabbing of Texas convenience store clerk Wanda Lopez in 1983. The evidence uncovered by reporters Maurice Possley and Steve Mills cast doubt on DeLuna’s guilt and points towards another man, Carlos Hernandez, who had a record of similar crimes and repeatedly confessed to the murder. A news piece aired on ABC’s "World News Tonight” also covered this story.
The new evidence cast strong doubt on DeLuna’s guilt. This was the fourth investigation between 2004-2006 pointing to the execution of a probably innocent man. Similar questions had been raised in the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ruben Cantu in Texas, and Larry Griffin in Missouri.
Subsequent investigation by Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School and a team of his students in the Columbia DeLuna Project unearthed powerful evidence of DeLuna's innocence and described in detail serious problems in the prosecution's case against him. Their 2014 book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, describes the faulty eyewitness testimony, the police's failure to investigate Carlos Hernandez, and the misrepresentations by the prosecution that "the other Carlos" DeLuna claimed committed the killing was "a phantom," while one of the prosecutors knew of Hernandez's existence and his criminal history. Hernandez and DeLuna looked so similar that their own families mistook photos of the men for each other. Moreover, Hernandez had a history of violent crimes similar to the murder for which DeLuna was executed. Professor Liebman's website for the book includes extraordinarily detailed documentation of the case, including police and witness records, trial transcripts, and photographs.
See Professor James Liebman and the Columbia DeLuna Project, "The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution" (Columbia Universty Press, 2014)
For a shorter version of Professor James Liebman's investigation, see "Los Tocayos Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution" (2012)
See the Chicago Tribune's Investigation, "Did This Man Die...for This Man's Crime?"
Ruben Cantu Texas Convicted: 1985, Executed: 1993
A two-part investigative series by the Houston Chronicle cast serious doubt on the guilt of a Texas man who was executed in 1993. Ruben Cantu had persistently proclaimed his innocence and was only 17 when he was charged with capital murder for the shooting death of a San Antonio man during an attempted robbery. Now, the prosecutor and the jury forewoman have expressed doubts about the case. Moreover, both a key eyewitness in the state's case against Cantu and Cantu's co-defendant have come forward to say that Texas executed an innocent man.
Juan Moreno, who was wounded during the attempted robbery and was a key eyewitness in the case against Cantu, now says that it was not Cantu who shot him and that he only identified Cantu as the shooter because he felt pressured and was afraid of the authorities. Moreno said that he twice told police that Cantu was not his assailant, but that the authorities continued to pressure him to identify Cantu as the shooter after Cantu was involved in an unrelated wounding of a police officer. "The police were sure it was (Cantu) because he had hurt a police officer. They told me they were certain it was him, and that's why I testified. . . . That was bad to blame someone that was not there," Moreno told the Chronicle.
In addition, David Garza, Cantu's co-defendant during his 1985 trial, recently signed a sworn affidavit saying that he allowed Cantu to be accused and executed even though he wasn't with him on the night of the killing. Garza stated, "Part of me died when he died. You've got a 17-year-old who went to his grave for something he did not do. Texas murdered an innocent person."
Sam D. Millsap, Jr., the Bexar County District Attorney who charged Cantu with capital murder, said he never should have sought the death penalty in a case based on testimony from an eyewitness who identified a suspect only after police showed him Cantu's photo three seperate times.
Miriam Ward, forewoman of the jury that convicted Cantu, said the jury's decision was the best they could do based on the information presented during the trial. She noted, "With a little extra work, a little extra effort, maybe we'd have gotten the right information. The bottom line is, an innocent person was put to death for it. We all have our finger in that." (Houston Chronicle, November 20 & 21, 2005 and Associated Press, November 21, 2005).
Read "Did Texas Execute An Innocent Man?" by Lise Olsen, Houston Chronicle (2005)
Watch "Did Texas Execute Innocent Men?" - Dan Rather Reports reveals new details surrounding two capital murder cases in Texas - leading to the executions of Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna that may have occurred as the result of flawed evidence (September 2007).
UPDATE: Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed issued a report in 2007 finding that Ruben Cantu was guilty of the crime for which Texas executed him in 1993. However, critics have noted that Reed was formerly a judge who handled Cantu's appeal and set his execution date, raising a conflict of interest in conducing an investigation of his guilt. For more information see: "Report Fails to Erase Doubt that Texas Executed an Innocent Man."
Larry Griffin Missouri Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1995
A year-long investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has uncovered evidence that Larry Griffin may have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed by the state of Missouri on June 21, 1995. Griffin maintained his innocence until his death, and investigators say his case is the strongest demonstration yet of an execution of an innocent man. The report notes that a man injured in the same drive-by shooting that claimed the life of Quintin Moss says Griffin was not involved in the crime, and the first police officer on the scene has given a new account that undermines the trial testimony of the only witness who identified Griffin as the murderer. Based on its findings, the NAACP has supplied the prosecution with the names of three men it suspects committed the crime, and all three of the suspects are currently in jail for other murders. Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce said she has reopened the investigation and will conduct a comprehensive review of the case over the next few months. "There is no real doubt that we have an innocent person. If we could go to trial on this case, if there was a forum where we could take this to trial, we would win hands down," stated University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who supervised the investigation into Griffin's case. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 2005).
See "NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Report on Larry Griffin"
Listen to "Missouri Execution Case Reopened" from NPR: All Things Considered (July 12, 2005)
Read "Did Missouri Execute An Innocent Man?" by Associated Press (July 12, 2005)
UPDATE: On July 12, 2007 the St. Louis Circuit Attorney concluded that Larry Griffin was guilty after an extensive review.
Circuit Attorney report: Summary
Circuit Attorney report: Factual and legal history
Circuit Attorney report: Appellate process
Circuit Attorney report: Investigative findings, analysis and conclusions
Circuit Attorney report: Appendix A through C
Circuit Attorney report: Appendix D through G
Joseph O'Dell Virginia Conviction: 1986, Executed: 1997
New DNA blood evidence has thrown considerable doubt on the murder and rape conviction of O'Dell. In reviewing his case in 1991, three Supreme Court Justices, said they had doubts about O'Dell's guilt and whether he should have been allowed to represent himself. Without the blood evidence, there is little linking O'Dell to the crime. In September, 1996, the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated his death sentence and upheld his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review O'Dell's claims of innocence and held that its decision regarding juries being told about the alternative sentence of life-without-parole was not retroactive to his case. O'Dell asked the state to conduct DNA tests on other pieces of evidence to demonstrate his innocence but was refused. He was executed on July 23rd.
Read "Virginia Inmate Executed Despite International Campaign" by CNN (July 23, 1997)
See "Commonwealth v. Joseph O'Dell: Truth and Justice or Confuse the Courts? The DNA Controversy"by Lori Urs, New England School of Law: Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement (Winter 1999)
David Spence Texas Conviction: 1984, Executed: 1997
Spence was charged with murdering three teenagers in 1982. He was allegedly hired by a convenience store owner to kill another girl, and killed these victims by mistake. The convenience store owner, Muneer Deeb, was originally convicted and sentenced to death, but then was acquitted at a re-trial. The police lieutenant who supervised the investigation of Spence, Marvin Horton, later concluded: "I do not think David Spence committed this crime." Ramon Salinas, the homicide detective who actually conducted the investigation, said: "My opinion is that David Spence was innocent. Nothing from the investigation ever led us to any evidence that he was involved." No physical evidence connected Spence to the crime. The case against Spence was pursued by a zealous narcotics cop who relied on testimony of prison inmates who were granted favors in return for testimony.
Read "A Closer Look at Five Cases That Resulted in Executions of Texas Inmates" by Raymond Bonner and Sara Rimer, New York Times (May 14, 2000)
See The Muneer Deeb Case
Leo Jones Florida Convicted: 1981, Executed: 1998
Jones was convicted of murdering a police officer in Jacksonville, Florida. Jones signed a confession after several hours of police interrogation, but he later claimed the confession was coerced. In the mid-1980s, the policeman who arrested Jones and the detective who took his confession were forced out of uniform for ethical violations. The policeman was later identified by a fellow officer as an "enforcer" who had used torture. Many witnesses came forward pointing to another suspect in the case.
Read "Questions of Innocence: Legal Roadblocks Thwart New Evidence on Appeal" by Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune (December 18, 2000)
Gary Graham Texas Convicted: 1981, Executed: 2000
On June 23, 2000, Gary Graham was executed in Texas, despite claims that he was innocent. Graham was 17 when he was charged with the 1981 robbery and shooting of Bobby Lambert outside a Houston supermarket. He was convicted primarily on the testimony of one witness, Bernadine Skillern, who said she saw the killer's face for a few seconds through her car windshield, from a distance of 30-40 feet away. Two other witnesses, both who worked at the grocery store and said they got a good look at the assailant, said Graham was not the killer but were never interviewed by Graham's court appointed attorney, Ronald Mock, and were not called to testify at trial. Three of the jurors who voted to convict Graham signed affidavits saying they would have voted differently had all of the evidence been available.
See "Guilt of Texas Inmate Gary Graham Debated as Execution Draws Near" by CNN (June 21, 2000)
Read "Death Row Man Executed" by BBC News (June 23, 2000)
See DPIC's Capital Punishment in Context: The Case of Gary Graham
DNA tests raise serious doubts about the conviction of Claude Jones, executed in Texas in 2000. The tests revealed that a strand of hair found at the scene of a liquor-store shooting did not belong to Jones, as was originally implied by the prosecution. Instead, the hair belonged to the victim. Jones was executed for the murder of the store's owner. The strand of hair was the only piece of physical evidence that placed Jones at the scene of the crime, and this revelation raises the question of whether Texas executed the wrong person for the murder. Before his execution in 2000, Jones’s lawyers filed petitions for a stay with both a district court and with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that the strand of hair be submitted for DNA testing. The necessary DNA technology had not been developed at the time the crime in 1989, but was available in 2000. Both courts, along with then-Governor George W. Bush, denied Jones a stay of execution. Apparently, Gov. Bush was not even informed by his clemency advisors about the request for the DNA test. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said “The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”
In 2007, the Innocence Project, along with the Texas Observer, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network filed a lawsuit to obtain the hair for DNA testing. In 2010, Judge Paul Murphy ruled in favor of the Observer and the innocence groups and ordered prosecutors to turn over the evidence for DNA testing. Duane Jones, Claude Jones’s son, said, “Knowing that these DNA results support his innocence means so much to me, my son in the military and the rest of my family. I hope these results will serve as a wakeup call to everyone that serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty.” Jones was one of the last inmates executed before Gov. Bush left office to become President.
(D. Mann, "Texas Observer Exclusive: DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution," Texas Observer, November 11, 2010).
Cameron Willingham Texas Convicted: 1992, Executed: 2004
After examining evidence from the capital prosecution of Cameron Willingham, four national arson experts have concluded that the original investigation of Willingham's case was flawed, and it is possible the fire was accidental. The independent investigation, reported by the Chicago Tribune, found that prosecutors and arson investigators used arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. Willingham was executed in 2004 in Texas despite his consistent claims of innocence. He was convicted of murdering his three children in a 1991 house fire.
Arson expert Gerald Hurst said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire." Former Louisiana State University fire instructor Kendall Ryland added, "[It] made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation.... They executed this guy and they've just got no idea - at least not scientifically - if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."
Willingham was convicted of capital murder after arson investigators concluded that 20 indicators of arson led them to believe that an accelerent had been used to set three separate fires inside his home. Among the only other evidence presented by prosecutors during the the trial was testimony from jailhouse snitch Johnny E. Webb, a drug addict on psychiatric medication, who claimed Willingham had confessed to him in the county jail. Evidence discovered years after the Willingham execution showed that the prosecution had given Webb favorable treatment, then deliberately elicited perjured testimony from Webb that he had been promised and given nothing for his testimony. (The Marshall Project, August 3, 2014).
Some of the jurors who convicted Willingham were troubled when told of the new case review. Juror Dorinda Brokofsky asked, "Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent." Prior to the execution, Willingham's defense attorneys presented expert testimony regarding the new arson investigation to the state's highest court, as well as to Texas Governor Rick Perry. No relief was granted and Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004. Coincidentally, less than a year after Willingham's execution, arson evidence presented by some of the same experts who had appealed for relief in Willingham's case helped free Ernest Willis from Texas's death row. The experts noted that the evidence in the Willingham case was nearly identical to the evidence used to exonerate Willis. (Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2004).
Read "Texas Man Executed on Disproved Forensics" by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, Chicago Tribune (December 9, 2004)
Read "Was an Innocent Man Executed in Texas?" by Anderson Cooper 360 Blog (April 9, 2007)
Read "The Prosecutor and the Snitch. Did Texas execute an innocent man?" by Maurice Possley, The Marshall Project (August 3, 2014)
See also The Ernest Willis Case
After a hearing on September 19, 2011, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Troy Davis, despite presentation of testimony casting doubt on his guilt. Brian Kammer, one of Davis's attorneys, said, "I am utterly shocked and disappointed at the failure of our justice system at all levels to correct a miscarriage of justice." Davis's claims of innocence received international attention, and calls for clemency were made by Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and others. Doubts about Davis's guilt were raised when some prosecution witnesses changed their stories after giving testimony against Davis, including accusations pointing to another suspect as the murderer of a police officer in Savannah. The Board heard testimony from a juror in Davis's original trial who now says she has too much doubt about his guilt and would change her verdict. They also heard from a witness who originally testified against Davis, but has since recanted her testimony, and from Davis's family. The Board had held two previous clemency hearings for Davis, but the makeup of the Board had changed since he was denied clemency in 2008, and new testimony had been given at a federal court hearing in 2010. Davis was executed late on the night of Sept. 21, 2011. The U.S. Supreme Court delayed the execution to consider final appeals, but then denied a stay.
Texas executed Lester Bower on June 3, 2015, after he had spent more than 30 years on death row. Bower unsuccessfully challenged his conviction and sentence on numerous grounds, including that prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense supporting his innocence claim. Bower was convicted of the 1983 murder of four men in Grayson County, Texas. He admitted that he had met with one of the men to purchase an ultralight aircraft, which he said the others helped him disassemble and load into his truck. But he consistently denied any involvement in the killings. The evidence against him was circumstantial: calls made to the man selling the aircraft and Bower's possession of the same type of ammunition that was used in the killings. Prosecutors obtained the conviction, in part, by arguing that the ammunition provided a vital link between Bower and the killings because that type of ammunition was extremely rare. After Bower's conviction, his lawyers obtained records from the FBI and prosecutors showing that the ammunition was not as rare as prosecutors had said, and learned that prosecutors had withheld information about a tip to police that the murders may have been connected to drug trafficking. Later, a woman came forward saying that her boyfriend and his friends had committed the murders after a drug deal had gone wrong. The wife of one of the other men corroborated her story. In a court filing shortly before his execution, Bower's attorneys argued "This is a case in which there is a significant lingering doubt regarding guilt or innocence." In addition to issues related to his innocence, three Supreme Court justices said that Bower should have been granted a new sentencing hearing as a result of what they called a "glaring" constitutional error that impaired the jury's consideration of mitigating evidence in his case.
Read: "DOUBTS STILL PLAGUE THE 31-YEAR-OLD LESTER BOWER CASE BUT TEXAS IS ABOUT TO KILL HIM ANYWAY," Jordan Smith, The Intercept, June 1, 2015.
Read: "Texas plans to execute an inmate who has been on death row for 30 years," by Mark Berman, The Washington Post, June 2, 2015.
Just before 1:00 a.m. on December 9, 2015, Georgia executed Brian Terrell. It took a nurse nearly an hour to find a vein for the lethal injection IV and, as the execution drug was being administered, Terrell mouthed the words: "Didn't do it." His lawyers argued that no physical evidence linked Terrell to the murder and that his conviction and death sentence were the product of prosecutorial misconduct and false and misleading testimony. Physical evidence from the crime scene leaves substantial questions as to Terrell's guilt: footprints found near the victim's body were smaller than Terrell's feet, and none of the 13 fingerprints found by investigators matched his fingerprints. Georgia tried Terrell three times. The first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on whether he was guilty. The second resulted in a conviction that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. The third trial concluded with a conviction and death sentence. The key testimony against Terrell came from his cousin, Jermaine Johnson, a witness whom defense investigators say later admitted to having lied to save himself. Johnson spent a year in jail facing the threat of the death penalty before he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Terrell in exchange for a five-year sentence. Johnson told defense investigators that police and prosecutors had pressured him into giving false testimony against his cousin. Terrell's lawyers argued that prosecutors also presented misleading testimony suggesting that a neighbor had seen Terrell at the murder scene, when in fact she had told authorities that he was not the man she had seen. At Terrell's trial, the prosecutor emphasized the importance of Johnson's testimony, saying during his closing statement, "If you never heard anything about Jermaine Johnson in this case, if he had never testified, would you have enough information to make a decision in this case? You wouldn't."
Read: "Georgia man set to die for killing of mother's friend," Kate Brumback, Associated Press, December 5, 2015.
Read: "Clemency Hearing to be Held for Georgia Death Row Inmate," Associated Press, December 7, 2015
Read: "Brian Keith Terrell appeals to federal court to stop execution," Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 7, 2015;
Read: "Georgia Executes Brian Keith Terrell after struggling to find vein," Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 9, 2015.
Read Brian Terrell's application for clemency here.
Texas executed Richard Masterson on January 20, 2016, amid questions as to whether any murder had occurred at all. Masterson had sought a stay of execution based on what his lawyers alleged was "evidence of State fraud, misconduct, and his actual innocence." Masterson's filings challenged the forensic testimony presented by the prosecution in the case, the accuracy of instructions given to jurors, and the constitutionality of Texas' lethal injection secrecy law. Medical examiner, Paul Shrode, after having been told that Masterson had confessed to putting a sleeper hold on the victim duringan episode of erotic asphyxiation, ruled Darrin Honeycutt's death a homicide and testified that Honeycutt had died by strangulation. Masterson's lawyers argued in federal court filings that prosecutors had concealed evidence that Shrode was unqualified to perform Mr. Honeycutt’s autopsy, botched the autopsy, falsified his credentials, and gave false testimony in this case and in other capital murder trials. Two pathologists who examined the Honeycutt autopsy data say that the Shrode was unqualified and incorrectly ruled the death a homicide, when it was most likely caused by a heart attack. In 2010, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Richard Nields based upon concerns about Dr. Shrode's assertion that the victim in that case had been strangled. Shrode was subsequently fired as chief medical examiner in El Paso County, Texas, after discrepancies were found in his resume and revelations were made about his unsupported testimony in the Ohio case.
Masterson's attorneys argued that Masterson falsely confessed to the murder charges during a period of withdrawal from addictive stimulants in which he exhibited suicidal behavior. In a separate filing, they challenged the fairness of his trial because the judge had failed to inform jurors that they could have convicted Masterson of a lesser offense, rather than capital murder. A third filing had challenged the constitutionality of Texas' lethal injection secrecy law, which prevented inmates from obtaining information about the source of the state's execution drugs.
Read: "After court defeat, Houston killer's lawyers launch appeals blitz in state and federal courts," Allan Turner, Houston Chronicle, January 12, 2016.
Read: "DID A DUBIOUS CONFESSION SWAY A MEDICAL EXAMINER’S AUTOPSY IN A TEXAS DEATH PENALTY CASE?," Jordan Smith, The Intercept, January 19, 2016.
Read: Masterson's stay motion here and his petition for writ of habeas corpus here.
Texas executed Robert Pruett on October 12, 2017, after the Texas courts deemed DNA evidence in his case "inconclusive" and denied him a stay of execution to further review the evidence in his case. Pruett was sentenced to death in 2002 for the 1999 stabbing death of Officer Daniel Nagle, a state correctional officer who was at the center of a prison corruption investigation. Pruett had long maintained that he had been framed for the murder. Earlier on the day of the mjrder, Officer Nagle had given Pruett a disciplinary write-up for eating a sandwich in an unauthorized area. A bloody shank and a torn-up copy of the disciplinary report were found next to the officer’s body. Pruett had no history of prison violence. The prosecution's case turned on dubious testimony from prison informants and the junk-science testimony of a forensic analyst who linked the tape wrapped around the handle of the shank used to kill Nagle to the prison craft shop in which Pruett’s cellmate worked. A state investigator’s notes that had not been disclosed to the defense revealed that a key prison witness—Harold Mitchell—had been promised a transfer to a prison close to his family’s home in Virginia if he testified against Pruett, and had been threatened with being charged with Nagle’s murder if he did not. Pruett's post-conviction lawyers later debunked the forensic methodology the state's expert had used to link the tape on the murder weapon to Pruett, and results of a subsequent DNA test of the murder weapon found DNA that did not match either Pruett or Nagle. According to Pruett’s clemency petition, Officer Nagle had been working to identify corrupt correctional officers who had been helping prison gangs launder drug money, and Nagle's name had been discovered on a secret note that had been passed between inmates, which said that a prison gang wanted the officer dead. The same day Pruett was indicted, four correctional officers were indicted on federal bribery charges for participating in a drug smuggling ring. Pruett’s lawyers argued that the unidentified DNA may belong “to the person [who] killed Nagle.”
Read: "Junk Science? Unreliable Witnesses? No Matter, Texas Plans to Execute Robert Pruett Anyway," Nathalie Baptiste, Mother Jones, October 10, 2017.
Read: "Days from execution, man convicted in prison guard's murder insists on innocence," Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune, October 10, 2017;
Read: “Killer or Fall Guy? Was Daniel Nagle murdered by a man acting alone, or was it part of a larger conspiracy?,” Chase Hoffberger, The Austin Chronicle, April 24, 2015.
Georgia executed Carlton Michael Gary on March 15, 2018 without any federal court review of substantial evidence suggesting that he did not commit the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Prosecutors argued that in the late 1970s a single serial rapist and murderer killed three elderly white women and burglarized and raped a half-dozen others with a signature style that led the media to salaciously dub him the "Stocking Strangler." But if, as the prosecution insisted, a single person committed these murders, evidence that was never presented to the jury and never considered by any federal court suggests that it couldn't have been Carlton Gary. Although Gary was charged with three rapes and murders, the prosecution presented evidence of other uncharged crimes under the theory that they had all been committed by the same person. The most damning of that evidence was the eyewitness testimony of a surviving victim who dramatically identified Gary as the person who had raped her and tied a stocking around her neck. However, a police statement withheld from the defense indicated that the witness had initially told investigators that she had been asleep and her bedroom dark at the time of the assault and she could not describe, let alone identify, her attacker. Post-conviction DNA testing of semen stains on the victim's bedclothing excluded Gary. Gary sought to test DNA evidence from other crime scenes that was in the possession of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but as a result of improper handling, the samples had been contaminated and were untestable. During the post-conviction process, Gary learned that police had made a mold of a bite mark from one of the victims and had consulted with a leading forensic odontologist, but had never presented him as a witness. When that expert examined the mold, he concluded that the markings could not have been made by Gary. Shoeprint evidence from the scene was also withheld from Gary’s defense team until 20 years after his trial. The size 10 print found at one of the crime scenes could not have been left by Gary, who wears size 13½ shoes. Finally, police claimed that Gary had confessed to participating in the crimes, but not to raping or murdering the victims. But police neither recorded nor contemporaneously documented his alleged statement, which he denied making, and his lawyers argued that the supposed statement “fits all the recognized hallmarks of a false confession that never happened.” In his unsuccessful clemency petition, Gary's lawyers argued: “We are not talking about questionable recanting witnesses who came forward long after trial, but hard physical evidence of innocence.” The Georgia Board of Pardons denied the petition.
Read: David Rose, The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice (The New Press, 2011 ed.).
Read: David Rose, DNA Shows He’s Not a Killer. Georgia Still Wants to Execute Him Tomorrow, The Daliy Beast, March 14, 2018.
Read: Tim Chitwood, In final appeals, Stocking Strangler attorneys say Ga. is about to execute innocent man, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, March 13, 2018.
Read: Kate Brumback, Citing new evidence, condemned Georgia inmate seeks mercy, Associated Press, March 8, 2018.
Likely Innocent But Died on Death Row
Donnis Musgrove Alabama Convicted 1988 Died on death row in 2015
David Rogers Alabama Convicted 1988 Died on death row
Donnis Musgrove died of lung cancer on Alabama's death row on November 25, while his case, which included a substantial claim of innocence, was pending before a federal judge. Musgrove's attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge David Proctor to rule quickly because of Musgrove's medical condition. Musgrove and his co-defendant, David Rogers, who previously died on Alabama's death row, were sentenced to death in 1988. Rogers' lawyer, Tommy Nail—a state court judge at the time of Musgrove's death—said he believed Musgrove and Rogers "got a raw deal and I've always felt they were not guilty of this offense." He said the case shared "eerie" similarities with that of death row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton: both cases were tried by the same prosecutor before the same judge, and the prosecution presented questionable weapons testimony from the same ballistics expert. The ballistics testimony in Hinton's case was contradicted by three other ballistics experts, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after saying they could not link the bullets from the crime to a gun that belonged to Hinton. Nail said the defendants in both cases also presented solid alibi evidence. Musgrove's attorneys argued that, in addition to similarly unreliable ballistics testimony, Musgrove's conviction was tainted by falsified eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and false testimony by a jailhouse informant who later recanted. Musgrove's attorney, Cissy Jackson, said "It was a privilege to know and represent Donnis. My husband and I have been working for his release since 1997, and we are so sorry that he did not live to be exonerated."
Read: "Attorney: Alabama Inmate Seeking Freedom From Death Row Dies," Associated Press, November 26, 2015.
Read: K. Faulk, "Attorney: Alabama Death Row inmate dies in prison," AL.com, November 27, 2015.
Read: "Alabama judge: Death Row inmate got 'raw deal,' was wrongly convicted," Associated Press, May 30, 2015.
Read: Jay Reeves, "Alabama death row inmate: Another innocent man?," Associated Press, April 25, 2015.
Colorado Governor Grants Unconditional Pardon Based on Innocence to Inmate Who Was Executed
On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy’s execution and is the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor's office stated, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else." The governor also pointed to Arridy's intellectual disabilities. He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler. The governor said, “Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”
The governor's press release gives significant credit to Mr. Arridy's attorney, David Martinez: "The request for Arridy’s pardon was brought to Gov. Ritter by local attorney David A. Martinez, who has spent years researching the case."
("72 Years after Execution, a Posthumous Pardon," 9News.com, January 8, 2011). Read Gov. Ritter's statement of pardon. See Innocence, Clemency, and Intellectual Disabilitiy.
South Carolina Pair Exonerated 94 Years After Execution - The South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services voted 7-0 to pardon Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin for the 1913 murder of former Confederate Army veteran John Q . Lewis. The pair were executed in 1915 for the murder after another man, Monk Stephenson, plead guilty and received a life sentence in exchange for implicating the Griffins. "Stevenson later told a fellow inmate that he had implicated the Griffin brothers because he believed they were wealthy enough to pay for legal counsel, and as such would be acquitted," said legal historian Paul Finkelman. Two others, Nelson Brice and John Crosby, were also executed for the crime. The pair were great uncles of nationally syndicated radio show host Tom Joyner. "It's good for the community. It's good for the nation. Anytime that you can repair racism in this country is a step forward," Joyner said. (CNN.com, October 15, 2009). See also Race and Innocence.
Georgia Board to Pardon Woman 60 Years After Her Execution - The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in August 2005 issued a formal pardon for Lena Baker (pictured), the only woman executed in the state during the 20th century. The document, signed by all five of the current board members, will note that the parole board's 1945 decision to deny Baker clemency and allow her execution was "a grievous error, as this case called out for mercy." Baker, an African American, was executed for the murder of Ernest Knight, a white man who hired her . Baker was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in one day by an all-white, all-male jury. Baker claimed she shot Knight in self-defense after he locked her in his gristmill and threatened her with a metal pipe. The pardon notes that Baker "could have been charged with voluntary manslaughter, rather than murder, for the death of E.B. Knight." The average sentence for voluntary manslaughter is 15 years in prison. Baker's picture and her last words are currently displayed near the retired electric chair at a museum at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 16, 2005). See Race, Clemency and Women.
From Prof. Michael Radelet, Univ. of Colorado:
In Illinois in 1893, Governor Peter Altgeld pardoned three of the Haymarket defendants, six years after four of their co-defendants had been hanged. An eighth defendant had taken his own life on the eve of his scheduled execution. Altgeld issued the pardons because all eight "had been wrongfully convicted and were innocent of the crime . . . ." P. AVRICH, THE HAYMARKET TRAGEDY 423 (1984).
In Massachusetts in 1977 (on the 50th anniversary of their executions), Gov. Michael Dukakis apologized for the massive due process violations in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti.
In 1987, Nebraska Governor Bob Kerry pardoned William Jackson, who had been hanged exactly 100 years earlier in Beatrice for the murder of a man who later turned up alive.
In Maryland in 2001, Governor Paris Glendening issued a pardon to John Snowden, a Black man who was hanged in 1919 for the rape and murder of the wife of a prominent White businessman. Two key trial witnesses had recanted their testimony and before the hanging, eleven of the twelve jurors had pled for mercy.
In 2009, South Carolina pardoned two African-American men, Thomas and Meeks Griffin, who had been electrocuted in 1915 for murdering a white Confederate War veteran. They were convicted on the perjured testimony of the actual murderer, who falsely fingered the men to save himself from the executioner.
New Evidence: The Case of Joe Hill, Labor Organizer Executed in Utah in 1915
New York Times, August 26, 2011
Examining a Labor Hero’s Death
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
At Woodstock, Joan Baez sang a famous folk ballad celebrating Joe Hill, the itinerant miner, songwriter and union activist who was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. “I never died, said he” is the song’s refrain.
Hill’s status as a labor icon and the debate about his conviction certainly never died. And now a new biography makes the strongest case yet that Hill was wrongfully convicted of murdering a local grocer, the charge that led to his execution at age 36.
The book’s author, William M. Adler, argues that Hill was a victim of authorities and a jury eager to deal a blow to his radical labor union, as well as his own desire to protect the identity of his sweetheart.
A Salt Lake City jury convicted Hill largely because of one piece of circumstantial evidence: he had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest on the same night — Jan. 10, 1914 — that the grocer and his son were killed. At the trial, prosecutors argued that he had been shot by the grocer’s son, and Hill refused to offer any alternative explanation.
Hill, who bounced around the West as a miner, longshoreman and union organizer, was the leading songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, a prominent union that was widely feared and deplored for its militant tactics. He penned dozens of songs that excoriated bosses and capitalism and wrote the well-known lyric “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
His conviction was so controversial that President Woodrow Wilson twice wrote to Utah’s governor to urge him to spare Hill’s life, and unions as far away as Australia protested on his behalf.
After his death, Hill was immortalized in poetry and song, including the 1936 ballad embraced by Ms. Baez, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and others: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”
Historians say the letter is groundbreaking because it is apparently the first time anyone has stepped forward to explain exactly how and why Hill was shot. Neither Hill nor Ms. Erickson testified at his trial, although Hill did tell the doctor who treated his wound that a rival suitor had shot him.
The prosecution maintained that Hill had been shot by the grocer’s son, even though the police never found any bullet cartridges or traces of blood, other than the victims’, at the murder scene. Prosecutors used Hill’s silence to persuade jurors that he must have murdered the grocer.
Ms. Erickson wrote the letter in 1949 to Aubrey Haan, a professor who was researching a book on Hill. The book was never published, and Mr. Adler found the letter in papers stored in the professor’s daughter’s attic.
“When I first read the letter, it was a ‘holy cow’ moment because all these years people wondered about what happened that night,” Mr. Adler said in an interview.
In his book, which was published by Bloomsbury, Mr. Adler also lays out what historians say is highly incriminating new information about the person police originally suspected of the two murders, Frank Z. Wilson.
The police arrested Mr. Wilson the night of the murders after they found him walking without an overcoat near the grocery. They also found a bloody handkerchief on him.
Mr. Adler said Mr. Wilson had lied repeatedly to the authorities after they arrested him, but they soon released him for reasons that remain unclear. Mr. Adler also discovered that Mr. Wilson had used at least 16 aliases during his many arrests and convictions, several for robbing trains. He was later involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, with a getaway car registered under an alias he often used.
“His research is just incredible — it expands what we know in really dramatic ways,” said John R. Sillito, co-author of a new book on radicalism in Utah and a retired archivist at Weber State University in Ogden. “It builds a strong case that Wilson should have been the prime suspect.”
Hill declined to testify at his trial, standing on the principle that he should not have to prove his innocence, especially when he believed that the prosecution could not possibly prove he was guilty with the limited evidence it had.
Mr. Adler’s book suggests that Hill also did not testify partly because he wanted to safeguard Ms. Erickson’s privacy. She was in her early 20s at the time, the niece of the two Swedish brothers he was boarding with.
Rolf Hagglund, a grandnephew of Hill’s who lives in Stockholm, has read galleys of the new book and welcomed its findings. “From the start, people knew he was set up,” Mr. Hagglund said in a telephone interview. “This book presents the strongest case so far that there was an alternative shooter and how Joe was shot and why he was shot.” (Hill immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1902, changing his name from the original, Joel Hagglund.)
But John Arling Morrison, a grandson of the murdered grocer, put little stock in Mr. Adler’s findings. “Joe Hill was the one who murdered our grandfather and destroyed the economy of our family,” said Mr. Morrison.
Mr. Adler, a Denver resident, decided to write about Hill after reading Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” which argued that the Hill case was a miscarriage of justice.
“Initially I saw the book as a murder mystery, and I saw myself in the role of gumshoe,” Mr. Adler said. “I also wanted to explore how Hill went from being an anonymous worker to finding his voice as a songwriter to becoming a working-class hero to becoming, ultimately, a martyr.”
Like many historians, Gibbs M. Smith, author of a Hill biography, said the trial was unfair. “Under today’s laws of evidence, he never would have been convicted and executed,” Mr. Smith said. Historians have observed that the judge unjustifiably ruled against Hill on evidentiary questions and that the prosecution coached witnesses to say they saw Hill near the grocery that night.
Shortly before his execution, Hill wrote supporters an emotional note, saying, “Don’t waste time mourning, organize,” which later became the union catchphrase, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.”
Others suggest that more than 40 people have been executed in the United States despite serious doubts as to their guilt. See EXECUTED BUT INNOCENT?, Save-Innocents.com.
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