Possible Innocence – Sentence Commuted

The following former death row inmates had their death sentences commuted to life in prison because of doubts about their guilt.

Kevin Keith

Ohio Conviction 1995, Commuted to Life: 2010

Governor Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Kevin Keith to life without parole on September 2. Strickland granted clemency because of doubts that had been raised regarding Keith’s guilt, as well as concerns regarding the investigation of the case. The governor said he was open to considering the case further if new evidence emerges: “Should further evidence justify my doing so, I am prepared to review this matter again for possible further action.”

(Governor’s Statement, September 2, 2010).

Henry Lee Lucas

Texas Conviction: 1984, Commuted to Life: 1998

Lucas originally confessed to the murder of an unnamed hitchhiker in Texas in 1979. He also confessed to hundreds of other murders including the murder of Jimmy Hoffa and his fourth grade teacher, who is still alive. Most of his confessions have proved false. Two investigations by successive Attorneys General in Texas have concluded that he almost certainly did not commit the murder for which he faced an execution date of June 30, 1998. Gov. George Bush commuted his sentence to life upon recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in June, 1998.

Read “Serial Confessor” by Carley Petesch, Columbia University: 801, 2006. See “Henry Lee Lucas” by Katherine Ramsland, Court TV: Crime Library.

Joseph Payne

Virginia Conviction: 1986, Commuted to Life: 1996

Although the defense knew of 17 witnesses willing to testify on Payne’s behalf, they only used one, and Payne was convicted of murder by arson of another inmate at the Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia. While the jury was deliberating, the prosecution offered Payne a plea whereby he would receive a sentence to run concurrently with the sentence he already was serving, but the offer was refused because his lawyers thought an acquittal was likely. Instead, he was sentenced to death and was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 7, 1996. The chief witness against Payne, Robert Smith, received a 15 year reduction in sentence. At one point, Smith admitted that he had lied at Payne’s trial. Three hours before his execution, and after Payne agreed not to appeal, Payne’s sentence was reduced to life without parole by Governor George Allen.

See “Death Sentence Commuted After Jurors’ Pleas” The New York Times, November 8, 1996. Read “Virginia Prisoner Receives Rare Mercy on Death Row” by Mike Allen, The New York Times, November 10, 1996.

Herbert Bassette

Virginia Conviction: 1979, Commuted to Life: 1992

Bassette was convicted of murdering a gas station attendant in 1979. Doubt later arose about the testimony presented at trial, and a police statement indicated that one of the witnesses had implicated another person in the killing. Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Bassette’s sentence to life without parole after expressing doubts about the conviction.

Joseph Giarratano

Virginia Convicted: 1979, Commuted to Life: 1991

In 1979, Joseph Giarratano awoke from a drug-induced sleep and found that his roommate Barbara Kline and her daughter had been murdered. With no memory of the previous night, Giarratano assumed he had killed the two. He turned himself into the police and confessed. Later discovered evidence, however, suggests that Giarratano is innocent. His confessions contradict themselves, and physical evidence suggests Giarratano was not the murderer. Footprints and pubic hairs found at the scene did not match Giarratano’s and experts assert Kline was stabbed by a right-handed assailant; Giarratano is left-handed. Three days before his scheduled execution in 1991, Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano’s death sentence to life imprisonment and left open the possibility of a new trial. Virginia’s attorney general, however, indicated that she would not re-try the case. Twenty-six years later, the Virginia State Parole Board voted to grant Giarratano parole.

See “Legal Scholar on Death Row Fights to Halt Own Execution” by David Margolick, The New York Times, March 5, 1990. Read “Last Plea by Condemned Inmate Who Has Rare Blend of Defenders” by Drummond Ayres Jr., The New York Times, February 17, 1991. Read “Joseph M. Giarratano, controversial former death row inmate, granted parole” by Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 21, 2017.

Ronald S. Monroe

Louisiana Conviction: Commuted to Life: 1989

Monroe had been convicted of murdering his next-door neighbor, based mainly on the testimony of the woman’s children. Later, the victim’s husband was convicted of killing his new wife in a manner similar to the way in which the first woman was killed. While in prison, the husband all but admitted killing his first wife. Governor Buddy Roemer commuted Monroe’s death sentence to life because of doubts about his guilt.

Read “Governor of Louisiana To Spare Inmate’s Life” by Peter Applebome, The New York Times, August 17, 1989.