Wrongful Use or Threat of Capital Prosecutions Implicated in Five Exonerations in 2018
At least five people were exonerated in 2018 after having been wrongfully convicted in cases that involved the misuse or threatened use of the death penalty, a DPIC analysis of data accompanying a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations has shown. The National Registry’s annual report on wrongful convictions, Exonerations in 2018, recorded a record 151 new exonerations across the United States in 2018, including 68 exonerations resulting from wrongful homicide convictions. Two of those exonerations freed death-row prisoners Vicente Benavides and Clemente Aguirre.
A record number of the exonerations in 2018 were the product of wrongful convictions obtained by police and/or prosecutorial misconduct (107) or perjury/false accusation (111), with both often occurring in combination. The two also were the leading factors contributing to wrongful homicide convictions, 79.4% of which involved police and/or prosecutorial misconduct (54 cases) and 76.5% of which involved perjury/false accusation (52 cases). Historically, those two factors are the leading causes of wrongful capital convictions. Both were present in more than two-thirds of the homicide exonerations (47 cases, 69.1%) in 2018, including the wrongful capital convictions of Benavides and Aquirre. DNA evidence helped to exonerate 14 of those wrongfully convicted of homicide in 2018, only 20.1% of homicide exonerations. The prosecution presented perjured testimony or false witness accusations in all of the murder cases involving DNA, and police and/or prosecutorial misconduct was also present in more than 60% of those cases. DNA helped to rebut false or misleading forensic evidence presented by the prosecution in five of the homicide exonerations.
At least three other homicide exonerations in 2018 involved the wrongful use or threat of the death penalty. Bobby Joe Maxwell was capitally prosecuted in Los Angeles, California for a series of ten murders and five robberies attributed to the “Skid Row Stabber” in 1978 and 1979. No physical evidence directly linked Maxwell to the murders and witnesses failed to identify him or his voice in police lineups. He won a new trial in 2010 after new evidence exposed the prosecution’s prison informant as a “serial liar.” The prosecution dropped charges against Maxwell after he suffered a heart attack that left him comatose. Matthew Sopron was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1998 in Chicago, Illinois after an 18-year-old prosecution witness falsely implicated him after having been threatened with the death penalty. William Bigeck subsequently admitted that Sopron “had absolutely nothing to do with the murders” and testified in post-conviction proceedings in 2018 that he would have done anything to avoid the death penalty and that he had changed his initial statement to obtain a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table. Daniel Villegas was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in El Paso, Texas in August 1995 for a drive-by double murder. The 16-year-old falsely confessed to the murders after a police detective handcuffed him to a chair, threatened to take him to the desert and “beat his ass,” slapped him, and said he would die in the electric chair if he didn’t confess. “[T]errified out of his mind,” Villegas confessed. The Texas state courts overturned the conviction in 2012, citing ineffective assistance of counsel. Presenting evidence of innocence at his third trial, Villegas was acquitted in October 2018.
(National Registry of Exonerations, Exonerations in 2018, April 9, 2019; DPIC ANALYSIS: 2018 Exoneration Report Shows Official Misconduct and Perjury Remain Leading Causes of Wrongful Homicide Convictions, Death Penalty Information Center, April 23, 2019.) See Innocence and Prosecutorial Misconduct.