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

DPIC Database: Innocence Database

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

DPIC Analysis: Causes of Wrongful Convictions

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

Jun 10, 2024

Missouri Supreme Court Sets Execution Date for Marcellus Williams Despite County Prosecutor’s Pending Motion for Innocence Hearing

On June 4, 2024, the Missouri Supreme Court set a September 24, 2024, exe­cu­tion date for death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Marcellus Williams (pic­tured), despite seri­ous doubts that he was not involved in the mur­der for which he is incar­cer­at­ed. The announce­ment came just hours after the state Supreme Court ruled that Governor Mike Parson did not vio­late any rules when he dis­solved a board of inquiry estab­lished in June 2023 by his pre­de­ces­sor, Eric Greitens, to inves­ti­gate Mr. William’s claim of…

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News

May 31, 2024

Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Lamont Hunter on His Wrongful Conviction and Release

In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with Lamont Hunter (pic­tured), a for­mer Ohio death-sen­tenced pris­on­er who was wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed of caus­ing the death of his three-year-old son. After near­ly 18 years of incar­cer­a­tion, Mr. Hunter was released from Ohio’s death row on June 15, 2023, after plead­ing guilty to less­er charges in exchange for his free­dom. Since his release, Mr. Hunter has spo­ken wide­ly about his expe­ri­ence with the…

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News

May 22, 2024

Family of Youngest Person Executed in Pennsylvania History Sues County for His Wrongful Conviction and Execution 93 Years Ago

Susie Williams Carter was just a baby when her 16-year-old broth­er, Alexander McClay Williams, was con­vict­ed of mur­der and exe­cut­ed in Pennsylvania in 1931. Over 90 years lat­er, Ms. Carter, now 94, con­tin­ues her family’s deter­mi­na­tion to clear her brother’s name. In June 2022, a Delaware County, Pennsylvania judge agreed that law enforce­ment had dis­re­gard­ed evi­dence and coerced Mr. Williams into sign­ing mul­ti­ple false con­fes­sions. All charges against Mr. Williams were posthu­mous­ly dismissed…

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News

May 21, 2024

Alabama District Attorney Files Amicus Brief in Support of New Trial for Toforest Johnson

On May 20, 2024, Jefferson County, Alabama District Attorney Danny Carr asked a cir­cuit judge to grant a new tri­al to Toforest Johnson (cen­ter), an Alabama death row pris­on­er whose con­vic­tion DA Carr believes is fun­da­men­tal­ly unre­li­able.” This extra­or­di­nary request is the lat­est in a series of appeals for Mr. Johnson, who was sen­tenced to death in 1998 for the 1995 mur­der of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy but has always main­tained his inno­cence. A thor­ough review and…

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News

May 07, 2024

In Amicus Briefs, Conservative Officials, Oklahoma Lawmakers, and Civil Rights Groups are United in Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to Vacate Richard Glossip’s Conviction

On April 30, 2024, a week after the par­ties in Glossip v. Oklahoma filed mer­its briefs at the United States Supreme Court, sev­er­al ami­ci filed briefs in sup­port of the par­ties’ joint posi­tion, ask­ing the Court to grant Richard Glossip (pic­tured) a new tri­al. Ken Cuccinelli, the for­mer Virginia Attorney General and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump, said in his brief that the con­se­quences of fail­ing to over­turn Mr. Glossip’s con­vic­tion are most dire.”…

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