BOOKS: Innocence

  • Based on interviews with ten Americans who have all been affected by wrongful convictions, The Deprived: Innocent on Death Row by author Steffen Hou tells the stories of innocent death-row inmates. The book also investigates what leads to wrongful convictions in the United States.

(Steffen Hou, The Deprived: Innocent on Death Row, 2018.)

  • In her new book, Execution’s Doorstep: The True Stories of the Innocent and Near Damned, author Leslie Lytle provides a compelling narrative recounting the harrowing journeys of five innocent men who spent many years on death row. Through extensive research and interviews, Lytle has succeeded in revealing the deep pain and suffering that such injustice yields, putting a human face to the recurring problem of innocence on death row. The book explores all aspects of the cases, from the crime and the trials to the time spent on death row and the difficult struggle to adjust to life outside of a maximum security prison. Through the stories of these five men, Lytle provides readers with a penetrating look at America’s criminal justice and capital punishment systems, showing their fallibility.

    Leslie Lytle is the Executive Director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. (Northeastern Univ. Press 2008). To date, 130 men and women have been exonerated from death row since 1973. See Innocence and Books.
  • The Innocence Commission, a new book by Jon B. Gould, describes how the advent of DNA testing and other forensic advances in the criminal justice system have led to serious efforts to understand how so many wrongful convictions have happened. In particular, The Innocence Commission details the first years of the Innocence Commission for Virginia (ICVA), which was the first in the country to conduct systemic research into all wrongful convictions in the state. Gould, the Chair of ICVA, examines twelve cases of wrongful conviction in Virginia, including one death penalty case, pointing out the instances where the wrongful conviction could have been avoided and offering suggestions on how to prevent such mistakes in the future. Ultimately, Gould concludes, innocence commissions are necessary in every state to ascertain where weaknesses in the system exist and to offer feasible solutions.

    The Library Journal writes that The Innocence Commission is “A thoughtful and disturbing account of his founding in 2003 of the Innocence Commission for Virginia (ICVA) to investigate wrongful convictions. . . . Written for the general public, Gould's book has important lessons for attorneys and policymakers as well.”
    (The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System, by Jon B. Gould, NYU Press, 2008). See Innocence and Books.


  • In "Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment," author Richard Stack uses cases to examine three of the main causes of wrongful convictions - mistaken eyewitness testimony, official misconduct, and incompetent counsel. Stack, a professor at American University's School of Communication, based the book on three years of research conducted with the assistance of students enrolled in his public communication classes. He said that he wrote the book to "put a human face" on the issue of wrongful convictions, a concern that unites both supporters and opponents of capital punishment. "Even if you are an arch conservative, no one wants to see an innocent person executed," he observed. Three of the four stories highlighted by Stack portray death row exonerations, including that of Greg Wilhoit of Oklahoma, and Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee of Florida. Wilhoit's case provides the backdrop for Stack's review of incompentent legal defense, while Pitts' and Wilber's cases illustrate the errors that result from racial bias and systemic corruption. In his review of mistaken eyewitness testimony, Stack tells the story of Ronald Cotton, who spent 11 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. In addition to these four cases, Stack also recounts former Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to commute more than 160 death sentences due to his concerns about the death penalty system. The book finally gives the perspective of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group of victims' family members who oppose capital punishment. Stack calls this section "the exclamation mark" on his argument for an end to the death penalty. He said, "These are the people politicians point to when they beat their chest and say we need the death penalty. But this group's position is, 'We don't want it, and if you're maintaining it for our benefit, you're way off base'." (American (University) Weekly, April 24, 2007; Praeger Publishers, 2006)


  • A new book by Bruce Watson examines the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants whose guilt remains in serious doubt eight decades after Massachusetts carried out their death sentences. The book, "Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind" (Viking, 2007), provides a factual account of the case surrounding the two men, who were convicted of stealing a shoe factory's pay envelopes and killing four people in the crime. Watson's investigation found that there were as many different accounts of the crime as there were people to testify about it, and that the state's prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti was shaped by deep prejudice against Italian immigrants. Police focused their attention on Sacco and Vanzetti after one eyewitness stated that two suspicious-looking men speaking Italian had been seen in the town where the crime was committed, and that one of the men "bore a striking resemblance to Nicola Sacco." Watson's review of historical documents revealed that Sacco and Vanzetti's trial lacked basic due process. The two men were forced to sit in cages during their trial, during which prosecutors exploited the pairs well-known activism in anarchist circles. Even trial judge Webster Thayer called the two "anarchistic bastards" and told a friend that he "would get them good and proper." After Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted, they struggled for six years to prove their innocence, but all attempts to vacate their convictions were denied. Sacco and Vanzetti maintained their innocence throughout their trial and during their years on death row. Their case was among the first to generate widespread protest around the world and within the U.S. Thousands of supporters gathered in Boston and New York to protest the state's prosecution of the two men and to call for a halt to their executions. An editorial about their execution appearing in The Nation stated, "We are shaken to the core. . . . (The executions were) a judicial murder (that) struck at the reputation of the whole nation (and) everywhere strengthened all those who believe that the world can be reformed only by bombs and bloodshed." (Washington Post Book World, August 19, 2007 and The Nation, August 23, 2007).
  • In “Jingle Jangle,” author Jim Rix tells the story of his cousin, Ray Krone, who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die in 1992 for the murder of a bartender in Phoenix. The book details efforts to exonerate Krone, including the important role Rix played in investigating his cousin's innocence claim. "Jingle Jangle" reveals how inaccurate testimony from a forensic science expert and prosecutorial misconduct led to Krone's wrongful conviction. It also closely examines other problems that impacted the case, including police corruption, faulty eyewitness testimony, and jury tampering. Sister Helen Prejean notes that Rix's book is "a must for readers of true crime and anyone wondering why so many innocent people are convicted in America." Journalist Bill Kurtis adds that it "will chill your belief in the American justice system." (Broken Bench Press, 2007).
  • Former Texas death row inmate Kerry Max Cook has authored a book detailing his wrongful conviction and his 22-year fight for freedom. Cook's book, "Chasing Justice," provides a first-hand account of his trial, his two-decade stay on death row in Texas, and his release after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime for which he was sentenced to die. Publisher HarperCollins notes that the book is "a shocking look inside death row, a legal thriller, and an inspirational story of one man's ultimately triumphant fight against extreme adversity." They add that the true story will "forever unsettle our view of the American justice system." Cook is scheduled to make a series of appearances across the country to discuss the book and the issue of innocence. (HarperCollins, 2007). See more information about the book and Cook's book tour schedule.
  • "The Dreams of Ada" by Robert Mayer tells a story strikingly similar to that recounted by John Grisham in "The Innocent Man." Each book involves the murder of a young woman from Ada, Oklahoma in the early 1980s. In both cases, there are two defendants whose convictions rely on little probative evidence but involve "confessions" that emerged from a dream. Both prosecutions were led by Bill Peterson and both involved the same jail-house informant. The defendants in Mayer's book, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were both sentenced to death, as was Ron Williamson in Grisham's book. Williamson and his co-defendant were eventually freed when DNA evidence excluded them from the crime scene. Ward and Fontenot remain in prison for life, after their death sentences were overturned. In their case, there was no DNA evidence to provide a more definitive answer. At the time of their trial, no body had even been discovered. Both Mayer and Grisham believe that Ward and Fontenot were victims of a complete miscarriage of justice. (R. Mayer, "The Dreams of Ada," Doubleday Broadway 1987, with new Afterword 2006).
  • In his new book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), the city editor Jed Horne examines the exoneration of Louisiana death row inmate Curtis Kyles and how his case has impacted the New Orleans criminal justice system. The book investigates the murder of Delores Dye, a 60-year-old housewife who was gunned down in full view of six eyewitnesses. Kyles was arrested and tried twice for the crime. After an initial mistrial, he was convicted of the crime and spent 14 years on death row before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his original conviction. Since then, Kyles was retried unsuccessfully an additional three times and eventually freed with all charges dropped. Horne's book looks at this case and uses Kyles' experiences to demonstrate the broken criminal justice system in New Orleans, including a review of problems such as racism, the suspect nature of eyewitness identification, and the political nature of the relationship between death penalty cases and elected attorneys and judges. (Review, Times-Picayune, Jan. 30, 2005).
  • On October 10th, 2006, John Grisham's first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, will be released. The book is the compelling true story of Ron Williamson, a former hometown baseball hero of Ada, Oklahoma, who was convicted in 1988 of raping and murdering Debbie Carter. In 1999, Williamson was exonerated of the crime after serving eleven years on death row. In the context of this case, Grisham addresses many of the fundamental issues that surround the death penalty in the United States. He describes the poor legal representation that Williamson received and explores the mind of a mentally ill man. There are detailed accounts of life on death row and the execution process. In addition to being a fascinating and well-told story, the book shows how innocent people can end up on death row. Grisham has written numerous international bestsellers, including The Firm, A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief. (The Innocent Man, Random House 2006).
  • Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, has written a book about one of the first accounts of a death penalty exoneration in the U.S. Wilkie Collins, a British author, had written a novel entitled "The Dead Alive" about the convictions and death sentences of Jesse and Stephen Boorn for a murder committed in 1819. They were later exonerated. Warden's book is entitled "Wilkie Collins's The Dead Alive: The Novel, the Case, and Wrongful Convictions" and he provides examples of other mistakes in capital cases. Scott Turow wrote the Foreward for this new book. (Northwestern University Press, December 2005; all proceeds go to the Center on Wrongful Convictions).
  • Victims of Justice Revisited, a new book by Thomas Frisbie and Randy Garrett, details the innocence case of Rolando Cruz, an Illinois man who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. The book tells the story of Cruz and his two co-defendants, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley, from the day of the crime to the groundbreaking trial of seven law enforcement officers accused of conspiring to deny Cruz a fair trial. Cruz's case was one of several innocence cases that led then-Governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in Illinois. In this book, the authors use Cruz's case to provide readers with a detailed study of the death penalty in the United States. Author Scott Turow notes, "This is the first comprehensive account of the most extraordinary criminal case I know - the infamous Nicarico murder -and the 12-year crusade for justice which it inspired. The two men who were on the scene the longest, and who probably know more about this case than anyone else, have written a gripping, provocative, often moving account of how great evil -and good-came to take place." (Northwestern University Press, May 2005).
  • In her new book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Sister Helen Prejean uses her personal experiences as a counselor to those on death row to explore the issue of innocence and the likelihood of executing a wrongly convicted person. The book also traces the historical and legal underpinnings of the death penalty in the U.S. Prejean, who authored the #1 New York Times bestseller "Dead Man Walking," begins her new book by focusing on the cases of Joseph Roger O'Dell and Dobie Gillis Williams, both of whom she believes received unfair trials and probably were innocent. O'Dell was executed in Virginia in 1997 and Gillis was executed in Louisiana in 1999. Prejean was closely involved with each of their cases and accompanied both men to the death chamber. Their cases sparked "The Death of Innocents" and Prejean's closer look at wrongful convictions, inadequate defense, the capital appeals process, race, poverty, and the politics of capital punishment. (Random House, 2005).
  • Scott Christianson's new book, Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases, examines mistakes in New York's criminal justice system with an emphasis on mistaken identifications, perjury by eyewitnesses, ineffective counsel, false confessions, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. The book includes a log of the state's wrongful conviction cases, including some capital cases. Christianson reminds readers, "Unfortunately, not much is known about the current nature and extent of wrongful conviction. The state does not maintain a master list of its mistakes." He does applaud state and national efforts to review and improve accuracy, including programs such as The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School and North Carolina's study to investigate the causes of wrongful convictions. (New York University Pres, 2004).


  • The Innocents- This book of photography by Taryn Simon features portraits of 45 men and women who served more than 500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The book includes summaries of each case accompanied by related images, such as re-creations of the scenes of the arrest, portraits of alibi witnesses, or vignettes from the lives of the wrongfully convicted. The book also contains commentary by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York. (Umbrage Editions, 2003).
  • "The Wrong Men: America's Epidemic of Wrongful Death Row Convictions" by Stanley Cohen is slated for release in October 2003. This book tells the story of how more than 100 innocent people found themselves on death row in the United States. Through an examination of eyewitness error, jailhouse snitches, racism, junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and incompetent counsel, Cohen provides a behind-the-scenes look at the problems leading to wrongful convictions. He also captures the stories of those individuals whose dogged determination helped exonerate the innocent. Among the cases highlighted in this book are those of Anthony Porter, Randall Dale Adams, and Earl Washington. (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003)
  • In "An Expendable Man," Virginian-Pilot editorial writer Margaret Edds uses the case of death row exoneree Earl Washington, Jr. to examine "the secret, shameful underbelly" of capital punishment. Washington, a black, mentally retarded farm-hand, spent 9 years on death row and almost 18 years in Virginia prisons for a crime that DNA evidence proved he did not commit. Edds uses Washington's case to demonstrate the relative ease with which individuals who live at society's margins can be wrongfully convicted, and the extraordinary difficulty of correcting such a wrong once it occurs. (New York University Press, 2003)
  • "Wrongly Convicted: Perspectives on Failed Justice"- This book features a collection of essays and articles about wrongful convictions by some of the nation's most respected lawyers, sociologists, criminologists, and psychologists. The essays consider the causes of wrongful convictions, the social characteristics of the innocent men and women sent to prisons and death rows, personal stories and case studies of these innocent inmates, and suggestions for system-wide reforms in order to prevent future wrongful convictions. (Saundra D. Westervelt and John A. Humphrey, eds., Rutgers University Press, July 2001)


  • "The Wrong Man: A True Story of Innocence on Death Row" (2001) by Michael Mello, with foreword by Mike Farrell, is the story of Mello's twenty-year fight to save "Crazy Joe" Spaziano from execution for a murder he didn't commit. In a gripping personal account, Mello, a well-known author, activist, and legal commentator, describes the details of the case and the controversial extremes to which he was driven by it. "The Wrong Man" is available at bookstores or from University of Minnesota Press at (773) 568-1550. For more information about "The Wrong Man" visit Also see the Spaziano case timeline.
  • Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted (Doubleday, 2000). This excellent new book by DNA experts Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld and columnist Jim Dwyer, tells the stories of ten innocent men wrongly convicted and sentenced to death or to prison and the effectively explains how such miscarriages of justice come about. Read DPIC's summary of Actual Innocence.


  • Victims of Justice, is a book about Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, two innocent men wrongfully sentenced to death. The book, written by Thomas Frisbie and Randy Garrett, is published by Avon Books.
  • A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men by Rob Warden and David L. Protess. The dramatic true story of how a journalist, a professor, and three students solved a murder and helped free four wrongly convicted men, two of them from death row (Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson) after 18 years in prison. Hyperion Press, August 1998.
  • A book about the injustices in the trial and likely innocence of Roger Keith Coleman has just been released. Coleman was executed in Virginia in 1992.The book is May God Have Mercy: A True Story of Crime and Punishment, by John C. Tucker, Norton Press, 1997,which was reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday, Dec. 14.
  • Connery, Donald S., ed.: "Convicting the innocent: the story of a murder, a false confession, and the struggle to free a 'wrong man'"; Brookline Books, Cambridge, MA, 1996
  • Parloff, Roger: "Triple jeopardy: a story of law at its best - and worst"; Little Brown and Company, New York, 1996
  • Harris, Arthur Jay: "Until proven innocent: a true story of murder, honor, and justice"; Avon Books, New York, 1995
  • Perske, Robert: "Deadly innocence?"; Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1995
  • Earley, Pete: "Circumstantial evidence: death, life, and justice in a Southern town"; Bantam Books, New York, 1995
  • Davies, Nick: "White lies: rape, murder, and justice Texas style"; Pantheon Books, New York, 1991
  • Radelet, Michael L, Bedau, Hugo Adam: "In spite of innocence"; Northeastern University Press,
  • Adams, Randall Dale, et al.: "Adams vs. Texas", St. Martins Press