Policy Issues

Innocence

The death penalty carries the inherent risk of executing an innocent person. Since 1973, at least 197 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated.

DPIC Database: Innocence Database

A Death Penalty Information Center data­base of every death-row exon­er­a­tion since 1972.

DPIC Analysis: Causes of Wrongful Convictions

The Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death Penalty Convictions: Official Misconduct and Perjury or False Accusation

Overview

Given the fallibility of human judgment, there has always been the danger that an execution could result in the killing of an innocent person. Nevertheless, when the U.S. Supreme Court held the administration of the death penalty to be unconstitutional in 1972, there was barely any mention of the issue of innocence in the nine opinions issued. Although mistakes were surely made in the past, the assumption prevailed that such cases were few and far between. Almost everyone on death row was surely guilty.

However, as federal courts began to more thoroughly review whether state criminal defendants were afforded their guaranteed rights to due process, errors and official misconduct began to regularly appear, requiring retrials. When defendants were now afforded more experienced counsel, with fairly selected juries, and were granted access to scientific testing, some were acquitted and released. Since 1973, 197 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row.
 

At Issue

It is now clear that innocent defendants will be convicted and sentenced to death with some regularity as long as the death penalty exists. It is unlikely that the appeals process—which is mainly focused on legal errors and not on factual determinations—will catch all the mistakes. Reforms have been begrudgingly implemented, increasing both the costs and the time that the death penalty consumes, but have not been sufficient to overcome human error. The popularity and use of capital punishment have rapidly declined as the innocence issue has gained attention. The remaining question is how many innocent lives are worth sacrificing to preserve this punishment.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has led the way in highlighting the issue of innocence. Its list of exonerated individuals is presented in a searchable database, with links to more complete descriptions of each case. DPIC has issued a series of reports on this issue, collecting the latest information on why so many mistakes occur. It also follows the related questions of whether innocent individuals have already been executed and whether some defendants are in fact innocent, despite not being completely exonerated in the eyes of the law.

News & Developments


News

Sep 08, 2023

Former Oregon Death Row Prisoner Freed 2 Years After Reversed Conviction, 194th Death Row Exoneration

On September 5, 2023, Jesse Johnson (pic­tured) was released from Marion County Jail in Oregon when pros­e­cu­tors for­mal­ly declined to retry him for the 1998 mur­der of Harriet Thompson. Mr. Johnson was con­vict­ed of Ms. Thompson’s mur­der in 2004 and sen­tenced to death. In ask­ing the Marion County Circuit Court to dis­miss the case against Mr. Johnson, the coun­ty District Attorney’s office stat­ed that based upon the amount of time that has passed and the unavail­abil­i­ty of crit­i­cal evi­dence in this case, the state no longer believes that it can…

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News

Mar 01, 2024

Death-sentenced Philadelphia Prisoner Daniel Gwynn Exonerated After Nearly 30 Years

On February 27, 2024, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott approved a motion from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to dis­miss first-degree mur­der, arson, and aggra­vat­ed assault charges against 54-year-old death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Daniel Gwynn. Mr. Gwynn is the 197th per­son exon­er­at­ed after being sen­tenced to death since 1973, accord­ing to DPIC’s Innocence Database. Today is most­ly for us a day of tremen­dous relief and sad­ness, a guy like him, an inno­cent soul spent that amount of time wait­ing for his exe­cu­tion lan­guish­ing in jail,” said Mr. Gwynn’s defense attorney…

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News

Feb 23, 2024

Black History Month Profile Series: Craig Watkins

This month, DPIC cel­e­brates Black History Month with week­ly pro­files of notable Black Americans whose work affect­ed the mod­ern death penal­ty era. The third in this series is for­mer Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who died on December 122023

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News

Feb 21, 2024

City of Tampa Agrees to Pay Exoneree Robert DuBoise $14 Million in Wrongful Conviction Settlement

Florida death-row exoneree Robert DuBoise (pic­tured) will receive $14 mil­lion from the city of Tampa as com­pen­sa­tion for the 37 years he was incar­cer­at­ed for a rape and mur­der he did not com­mit. On February 15, 2024, the Tampa City Council unan­i­mous­ly vot­ed to approve the set­tle­ment. The set­tle­ment resolved a 2021 suit Mr. DuBoise filed against the City of Tampa, four Tampa police offi­cers, and the foren­sic odon­tol­o­gist who tes­ti­fied against him. The suit alleged that the offi­cers and odon­tol­o­gist con­spired to present fab­ri­cat­ed evi­dence against Mr. DuBoise and…

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News

Feb 05, 2024

Two Death Row Exonerees Passed Away in January 2024

Two of the 196 peo­ple who have been exon­er­at­ed from death row in the U.S. died in a two-week span in January 2024. Their cas­es high­light the human costs of wrong­ful con­vic­tions and the chal­lenges faced by exonerees. Clifford Williams, Jr. (pic­tured, left), who was wrong­ful­ly incar­cer­at­ed for 42 years in Florida, died January 11, less than five years after he was freed. Michael Graham, Jr. (pic­tured, below), who spent 14 years on death row in Louisiana before being exon­er­at­ed in 2000, died January 24.

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News

Jan 30, 2024

Louisiana Supreme Court Grants New Trial Based on Prosecutorial Misconduct while New Governor Landry Moves to Expand Methods of Execution and Restart Executions

On January 26, 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court grant­ed a new tri­al to death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Darrell Robinson based on egre­gious pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct. The Court held that Mr. Robinson did not receive a fair tri­al, or a ver­dict wor­thy of con­fi­dence.” Mr. Robinson’s quest to prove his inno­cence advances at the same time that Governor Jeff Landry seeks to expand the state’s meth­ods of exe­cu­tion and restart exe­cu­tions. During a tumul­tuous 2023 in which out­go­ing Governor John Bel Edwards sup­port­ed clemen­cy review for Louisiana’s entire death row, only to be blocked…

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News

Jan 22, 2024

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Richard Glossip’s Appeal: High-Profile Innocence Case Where the State Supports Relief

On January 22, the Supreme Court grant­ed cer­tio­rari to Richard Glossip, sen­tenced to death in Oklahoma, whose inno­cence case has received inter­na­tion­al atten­tion. Mr. Glossip’s exe­cu­tion had been sched­uled for May 18, 2023, before the Court issued a stay on May 5 pend­ing the out­come of his peti­tions for cer­tio­rari. Mr. Glossip’s case is unusu­al in that the State of Oklahoma con­ced­ed error and sup­ports his request for a new tri­al. However, Mr. Glossip was forced to peti­tion the Supreme Court when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reject­ed a…

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News

Jan 18, 2024

Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Life After Death Row with Anthony Graves

In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with for­mer death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Anthony Graves. Exonerated from Texas’ death row in 2010, Mr. Graves has since become an advo­cate for crim­i­nal jus­tice reform, cre­at­ing the Anthony Graves Foundation, work­ing with the ACLU and Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and tes­ti­fy­ing before the U.S. Senate on prison con­di­tions. Mr. Graves has also authored an auto­bi­og­ra­phy titled Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul.

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News

Jan 17, 2024

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Despite DNA Evidence Clearing Marcellus Williams, Missouri Intends to Execute Him

The Missouri Supreme Court is con­sid­er­ing how to apply a rarely used state law intend­ed to pre­vent wrong­ful exe­cu­tions. Marcellus Williams (pic­tured), a death row pris­on­er who main­tains his inno­cence, could face exe­cu­tion if the state’s high court allows Governor Mike Parson to dis­solve a board of inquiry that for­mer Governor Eric Greitens formed to exam­ine Mr. Williams’ inno­cence claims. Mr. Williams’ attor­neys argue that state law requires the board to pro­vide a report and rec­om­men­da­tion to the gov­er­nor, while Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey argues that Gov. Parson’s clemency…

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News

Dec 19, 2023

Noel Montalvo Exonerated Twenty Years After Pennsylvania Sent Him to Death Row

On December 18, Pennsylvania dropped all homi­cide charges against Noel Montalvo, twen­ty years after he was con­vict­ed and sen­tenced to death in York County. Mr. Montalvo (pic­tured) pled guilty to one count of tam­per­ing with evi­dence in exchange for release and one year on pro­ba­tion. The Death Penalty Information Center has deter­mined that Mr. Montalvo meets the cri­te­ria for inclu­sion on our exon­er­a­tion list because the charges that placed him on death row have been dismissed. 

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