Society - Legal
By: - at August 25, 2013

10 Innocent People who Died on Death Row

Torcher deviceJustice can be simplified in the following process – you commit a crime, police apprehend you, and you go to jail to possibly die. But is the death penalty really effective? Does it help in reducing crime? We can’t say for sure, but one thing is certain - it punishes everyone, accused or innocent. The death penalty issue has always been a hot button topic where each side tends to be more and more polarized with their views. Some believe that in the Untied State the death penalty should be used more frequently, while others believe that is is an infraction of human rights and death sentences should never be carried out. These 10 cases of miscarriages of justice by the judicial branch will likely challenge your view of crime and punishment.

10)  Cameron Todd Willingham
Texas is the ultimate capital punisher. You’ll find out why as the list goes on. The first innocent man who was executed in Texas is Cameron Todd Willingham, father of three beautiful and deceased children who he was accused of killing by arson. According to the police, Willingham burned down their family home in Corsicana, Texas in 1991 with the three children still inside.

Picture of Cameron Todd Willingham From His Mug Shot
Picture of Cameron Todd Willingham From His Mug Shot

Willingham maintained his innocence until his execution in 2004. So why did the judges vote guilty? Aside from an outdated fact about how fires work, a jail house informant who the judges claimed to look unreliable, somehow swayed their decision. He was also considered a sociopath, simply because of the Led Zeppelin posters in his room.

Innocent Fact:  In a shocking twist of fate, Willingham’s ex-wife named Stacy Kuykendall stated in a 2011 interview that Texas shouldn’t pardon her ex-husband, and that he was guilty of murdering their children. Throughout the trial, Kuykendall had been supportive of her husband, up until his execution. According to Kuykendall, Willingham admitted everything to her while he was on death row.

9)  Gary Graham
Gary Graham was accused of robbing and shooting Bobby Grant Lambert outside a store. The star witness to the crime was a woman who saw the killer from her car window and was 30-40 meters away from the crime scene. Incredibly, the judges bought it, and Graham was executed in 2000 by lethal injection.

Gary Graham Pictured Prior to his Execution
Gary Graham Pictured Prior to his Execution

Innocent Fact:  Other witnesses in the defense of Graham were two employees of the store who saw the murder, and they both agreed that Graham wasn’t the killer. Compare their 5-feet distance to the 30-40-meter distance of the star witness from the real killer. As of today, three of the judges had signed an affidavit that they would change their decision if only this evidence was presented earlier.

8)  Claude Jones
Some people die defending their country. Some people die protecting someone they love. Some people die in a very awe-inspiring, immortalizing way where their death is celebrated, rather than being mourned. Claude Jones died because of a single strand of hair. Jones was accused of shooting Allen Hilzendager who was working his liquor store shift in 1989. The single evidence the police had against Jones was a single strand of hair found beside the victim’s body.

Claude Jones
Claude Jones

At that time, the technology of DNA testing was yet to be developed. However, Stephen Robertson claimed in court that the hair was Jones’ just by looking at it. Robertson admitted the hair was too small to be tested. Claude Jones was executed in 2000 for a single strand of hair and a case that fell way short of proving him guilty.

Innocent Fact:  Bush denied a stay of execution despite the request to have a decent DNA testing of the hair. In 2010, experts have proven that the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all.

hang-mans-noose7)  John Perry and Family
In 17th Century UK, a certain gentleman named William Harrison went out for a walk. Nighttime came and Harrison didn’t return so his anxious wife told the family servant, John Perry, to go look for her husband. The next morning, neither Perry nor Harrison returned home. Rumors of a full set of clothes that were slashed and covered in blood started spreading, and everyone assumed it was Harrison’s. John Perry was considered the primary suspect. Perry denied the accusations during his trial. After some time however, he admitted that he, together with his mother and brother, have plotted to kill William Harrison for rent money. The three were found guilty and were hanged in 1661.

Innocent Fact:  Wait, the story’s not yet finished. Two years after the Perry family execution, an exhausted but yet in good condition William Harrison returned home. He claimed that he was abducted by three gentlemen in white and was kept in a cargo ship for two years.

6)  Troy Davis
Troy Davis was accused of shooting a police officer in 1989. Back then, forensic science and evidence testing wasn't very really reliable - that can also be said about the witnesses. His case was reviewed multiple times, and during those times the so-called evidence proved to be falsified. The witnesses even changed their statements, making Davis supposedly innocent. But for some reason, the court denied his appeals of innocence, and in 2011 he was finally executed. Davis’ last words were “I am innocent. I did not have a gun.”

World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Holding Pictures of Troy Davis
World Coalition Against the Death Penalty From Paris, France
By World Coalition Against the Death Penalty from Paris, France (Paris Die-in, July 2, 2008) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Innocent Fact:  The execution of Troy Davis caught the attention of the whole world, and his case is considered one of the most blatant examples of a miscarriage of justice. Majority, if not all, believed he was innocent. His supporters include former US president Jimmy Carter, former FBI director William Sessions and even Pope Benedict XVI, yet the all-star roster was not enough to save Davis’ life.

5)  Lena Baker
It’s rare for women to be given death sentences, yet that doesn’t make them susceptible to being inappropriately convicted. Lena Baker, an African-American mother of three, who lived in the same neighborhood Troy Davis lived decades ago. She was tried in 1944 for shooting a Caucasian man, Ernest Knight, who happens to be her employer. Of all the people on this list, she’s the only one proven to have done the killing. So why is she innocent?

Lena Baker in 1945 During Prison Transfer
Lena Baker in 1945 During Prison Transfer

She claims Knight had been keeping her as a sex slave. The last time Knight tried to rape her, she took the gun he was pointing at her and shot him to defend herself. She surrendered that same day, and even with a valid reason, she was still convicted.

Innocent Fact:  Baker was tried in an all-male, all-Caucasian court. That pretty much sums up her fate. She never had a chance and the following year, she sat on the electric chair and died for defending herself. Justice came 61 years later as Georgia pardoned Baker’s crime in 2005.

4)  Thomas and Meeks Griffin
When a miscarriage of justice occurs, you can’t really choose who to blame - the witness who stated false information, or the members of the court who would actually believe anything they heard. This was the case of African-Americans Thomas and Meeks Griffin when they were executed for the murder of a Confederate Army veteran.

stars and bars

Also in capital cases back then, racism played a major factor in a convict’s fate. The Griffins were tried in an all-Caucasian court, just like Lena Baker. Surprisingly, more than a hundred people, most of them Caucasian, petitioned to postpone the execution. Despite massive support, the Griffins were executed in 1915 by electric chair.

Innocent Fact:  The man that got two innocent men executed was a small-time thief named John Stevenson, and he had a rather interesting reason for hemming them up. He thought the Griffins were rich enough to afford legal services, giving them a higher chance of acquittal. True, the Griffins earned a large area of land that could have been used to finance better legal services. They were pardoned in October 2009.

3)  Joseph O’Dell
Not everyone on this list is actually innocent when it comes to personality and criminal records. Joseph O’Dell has served time in jail for kidnapping and robbery cases in Florida. The victim claimed O’Dell tried to rape her. He was then accused of raping and killing Helen Schartner in 1983. Blood on his shirt at the time of the murder and a rumor started by a prison snitch caused O'Dell to be arrested in the first place. O’Dell tried to appeal to the court to examine and test the blood on the shirt, but he was rejected twice.

Joseph O'Dell
Joseph O'Dell

His roster of supporters included both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Despite that, he was executed in 1997.

Innocent Fact:  His tragic fate wasn’t really the most painful thing O’Dell had to deal with. It was the fact that he won’t even get to spend time with his new wife Lori Urs, a Boston University law student who helped by advocating his innocence. The two were married hours before the time of the execution. The newlyweds were then separated for obvious security reasons. Put that on your list of most tragic love stories.

2)  Ellis Wayne Felker
What could Ellis Wayne Felker had done to agitate the court of Georgia that they would go as far as to seclude vital evidences, alter an official finding, and denying Felker of a second trial that might have saved his life? Ellis Wayne Felker was a suspect to the rape and murder of Evelyn Joy Ludlum in 1981. An untrained technician conducted an autopsy on the victim and found out that the body had been dead for three days. The technician thought this might eliminate Felker as a suspect, so he deliberately changed it to five days. Felker was clearly innocent and there was a ton of evidence to prove it.

Ellis Wayne Felker
Ellis Wayne Felker

A DNA test conducted proved no connection between the victim’s body and Felker. Aside from that, a sworn statement of the real murderer was uncovered by Felker’s attorney but they were all kept in seclusion for the sole purpose of executing him. Felker was unlawfully executed in 1996.

Innocent Fact:  Ellis Wayne Felker was just a mere leather shop owner, although he had been previously imprisoned in 1976 for aggravated sodomy. Before he was executed, he asked a person to videotape the execution of the guy before him, to prove that the death penalty is wrong and inhumane.

1)  Carlos De Luna
In the classic comedy play ‘Menaechmi’, two identical twin brothers who were separated when they were young kids cross paths in Epidamnus. As soon as the two set foot on the place, everyone would always mistake the one from the other. In the end, the two brothers meet and went back to their hometown of Syracuse. In the Carlos De Luna Case however, a mistaken identity didn’t end in a good way and actually cost someone his life. In 1983, Wanda Lopez was stabbed during her night shift at a gas station. When police came to investigate, they found Carlos De Luna hiding under a pick-up truck. He was hiding because he violated his drinking probation, but he didn’t know he would be apprehended and executed for the murder of a woman he never knew.

Carlos De Luna Being Photographed Upon His Apprehension
Carlos De Luna Being Photographed Upon His Apprehension

Innocent Fact:  Police didn’t even bother looking for another suspect. Witnesses positively identified De Luna as the suspect, not knowing that the real killer looks almost like him. What’s worse is that they share the same name, too. Carlos Hernandez was a more sinister Carlos – he had 17 stabbing incidents before the Lopez murder. Comparisons of the two Carlos mug shots show the likeness of the two - Hernandez sporting a distinct mustache. Hernandez even admitted to the murder himself, but it didn’t help poor De Luna. In the end, De Luna was executed in 1989.

Final Thoughts
Poor detective work, incompetent judges, unreliable witnesses, questionable informants or racism – whatever you blame it on, it is apparent that something with the death penalty needs to be fixed. As the old proverb says, “It is better to let ten guilty people escape, than to let one innocent man suffer.” If only these people were properly tried and judged, doubts in the judicial system would never exist. Whatever your stand on death penalty is, you have to remember that a good judicial system would make any form of penalties effective and above all else, mitigate the likelihood of condemning innocent people to death.





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