DPIC Analysis: 13 Exonerated in 2020 From Convictions Obtained by Wrongful Threat or Pursuit of the Death Penalty

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of data from the National Registry of Exonerations has found that law enforcement use or threat of capital prosecution against suspects or witnesses contributed to the wrongful convictions of 10% of the people exonerated in the United States and more than one-fifth of all murder exonerations in 2020.

Reviewing data from the National Registry of Exonerations’ 2020 Annual Report, DPIC found that the death penalty was pursued or defendants or witnesses were threatened with the death penalty in the cases of at least thirteen of the 129 people exonerated in 2020. The National Registry classified official misconduct as a factor in 12 of those cases and perjury or false accusation was present in all 13. The National Registry reported 61 murder exonerations in 2020 and the coercive use or threat of capital prosecution was implicated in 21.3% of those exonerations.

Four of the exonerations were from the city of Philadelphia and three were from Chicago, two of the jurisdictions with the most death-row exonerations in the country. Eleven of the 13 exonerations involved wrongful convictions of African-American defendants.

Six of the exonerations involved defendants who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. In three other cases, the exoneree faced the death penalty at trial but received a life sentence or was convicted of lesser murder charges. One exoneree was tried before a death-qualified jury with a co-defendant who was sentenced to death. One exoneree falsely confessed after being tortured by police and threatened with the death penalty. Two others were wrongfully convicted of murder when the lead prosecution witness falsely implicated them after having been threatened with the death penalty.

Collectively, the exonerees spent more than 300 years incarcerated for these wrongful convictions, averaging 28.4 years in jail. That was nearly double the length of time exonerees as a whole lost to their wrongful incarcerations (13.4 years).

Thirty-seven wrongfully convicted men and women have now been exonerated in the last three years in cases in which prosecutors secured convictions or delayed an innocent person’s release from prison by threatening witnesses or defendants with the death penalty. In addition to the 13 death-penalty-related exonerations in 2020, the use or threat of the death penalty was implicated in 19 exoneration cases in 2019 and five exonerations in 2018.

Here are the exonerations in 2020 in which wrongful convictions were secured as a result of the use or threat of capital prosecution:

Name

State

County

Most Serious Crime

Convicted

Exonerated

Sentence

Race

Sex

Contributing Factors

How Death Penalty Implicated

John Brown, Jr.

Arkansas

Dallas

Murder

1992

2020

Life

Black

Male

Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense

Lead prosecution witness confessed and falsely implicated Brown and co-defendant Tina Jimerson after having been threatened with the death penalty. Prison informant also told him he could get the death penalty. When witness recanted, his false statement was read to the jury.

Paul Browning

Nevada

Clark

Murder

1986

2020

Death

Black

Male

Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted. First sentenced to death in 1986. After his death sentence was overturned, he was wrongfully sentenced to death again in August 2006.

Robert DuBoise

Florida

Hillsborough

Murder

1985

2020

Death

White

Male

False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted. Trial judge overrode jury recommendation for life sentence and imposed the death penalty. Florida Supreme Court vacated his death sentence but he remained imprisoned for 35 years.

Curtis Flowers

Mississippi

Montgomery

Murder

1997

2020

Death

Black

Male

Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Wrongfully prosecuted six times for the same offense by the same District Attorney. Received death penalty four times, each overturned for prosecutorial misconduct. The other trials ended in mistrials.

Tina Jimerson

Arkansas

Dallas

Murder

1992

2020

Life

Black

Female

Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense

Lead prosecution witness confessed and falsely implicated Jimerson and co-defendant John Brown. Jr. after having been threatened with the death penalty. Prison informant also told him he could get the death penalty. When witness recanted, his false statement was read to the jury.

Kareem Johnson

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

Murder

2007

2020

Death

Black

Male

False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted.

Roderick Johnson

Pennsylvania

Berks

Murder

1997

2020

Death

Black

Male

False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted after prosecution withheld five separate police records related to its lead witness and information concerning favorable treatment witness had received. Same information was withheld in separate wrongful capital prosecution of Shawnfatee Bridges, also sentenced to death.

Walter Ogrod

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

Murder

1996

2020

Death

White

Male

False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense

Falsely confessed after coercive police interrogation. Twice wrongfully capitally prosecuted. First trial ended in mistrial, with 11 jurors voting to acquit. Convicted and sentenced to death in second trial.

Robert Smith

Illinois

Cook

Murder

1990

2020

Life without parole

Black

Male

False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted.

Keith Walker

Illinois

Cook

Murder

1994

2020

Life without parole

Black

Male

Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Falsely confessed after being tortured by Chicago police over the course of two days. The torture included being beaten and given electric shocks, denied food and access to a bathroom, threatened with a gun, and threatened with the death penalty.

Terrance Williams

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

Murder

1985

2020

13 1/2 to 27 years

Black

Male

Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct

Wrongfully capitally prosecuted but just convicted of non-capital third-degree murder charge. Conviction used as aggravating circumstance in a second case in which Williams was sentenced to death. That death sentence was later overturned for prosecutorial misconduct.

Although misconduct occurred in a sizable number of exonerations, it was much more prevalent in cases in which police or prosecutors threatened or pursued the death penalty. Overall, the National Registry reported official misconduct in 87 exonerations (67.4%). By contrast it was present in 92.3% of the cases in which the death penalty was implicated.

Police or prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in 79 of the exonerations in 2020 (61.2%), or 90.8% of the cases involving official misconduct. However, they were 50% more likely to withhold exculpatory evidence in the death-penalty-related cases. Law enforcement suppressed exculpatory evidence in all 12 death-penalty-related cases in which misconduct occurred. And while prosecutors committed misconduct in less than half of all 2020 exonerations (51 of 129 cases, or 39.5%), they committed misconduct in 84.6% of the exoneration cases in which the death penalty was pursued or threatened (11 of 13) — more than twice as frequently as in other cases. By contrast, there was little difference in the rates at which police misconduct occurred: it was present in 74 of the 129 exonerations overall (61.2%) and in 8 of the 13 death-penalty-related exonerations (61.5%).

Name

State

County

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Police Misconduct

Withheld Exculpatory Evidence

False Confession From Misconduct During Police Interrogation

John Brown, Jr.

Arkansas

Dallas

x

x

x

Paul Browning

Nevada

Clark

x

x

Robert DuBoise

Florida

Hillsborough

x

x

x

Curtis Flowers

Mississippi

Montgomery

x

x

x

Tina Jimerson

Arkansas

Dallas

x

x

x

Kareem Johnson

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

Roderick Johnson

Pennsylvania

Berks

x

x

Walter Ogrod

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

x

x

x

x

Robert Smith

Illinois

Cook

x

x

x

x

Keith Walker

Illinois

Cook

x

x

x

Terrance Williams

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

x

x

Jackie Wilson

Illinois

Cook

x

x

x

x

Theophalis Wilson

Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

x

x

Sources

National Registry of Exonerations, 2021 Annual Report, March 312021.