The death penalty is reserved for certain kinds of people. The ones that murder innocent people, and who probably planned it out before they did it. They had plenty of chances to change their minds, but they didn’t. The kinds of people who are sentenced to death are often without remorse, and their crimes are so terrifying, and gruesome, that a jury believed they not only did not deserve their freedom, but they didn’t even deserve to live.
Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder in 1976, and it has also been abolished in all European countries except a couple, but there are still 32 states in the US where a death sentence is an option. In recent years, there has been an average of 1 execution for every 325 murder convictions, meaning, it is saved for the most extreme cases.
With the advance of DNA evidence, and more technologically savvy ways to find proof of a crime, it is less likely that an innocent person will be convicted. But Newsweek reported on a study earlier this year that found that 1 in 25 sentenced to death in the U.S is actually innocent. Meaning false accusations, and convictions are a lot more common than we think. Here are 10 people who were sentenced to death, but are widely believed to be innocent.
In 1983, Carlos DeLuna was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk named Wanda Lopez. Throughout his trial, he maintained that he was innocent, and even suggested another man, named Carlos Hernandez had actually committed the crime. No one, including the police, or DeLuna’s own lawyers believed that Hernandez existed, and De Luna was sentenced to death. He was executed in 1989 by lethal injection at the age of 27. It wasn’t until 2006, that the Chicago Tribune and a team from Columbia Law School started looking into the case, and found, without much trouble, the existence of Carlos Hernandez, a career criminal who had stabbed two other women with the same kind of weapon used to kill Wanda Lopez. After all the new evidence came to light, even Wanda’s brother, Richard, has admitted he believes it was Hernandez, and not DeLuna, who killed his sister.
Glen Chapman was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murders of two women. He spent 15 years on death row, and always maintained his innocence. In 2007, a new trial was ordered due to withheld evidence, “lost, misplaced or destroyed” documents, the use of weak, circumstantial evidence, false testimony by the lead investigator, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel during Chapman’s original trial. There was also evidence that one of the victims may have died of a drug overdose, and was not murdered. Chapman was set free in 2008, after the court determined the lead investigator on the case had covered up evidence, and perjured himself on the stand, and one of Chapman’s attorneys had been drinking heavily throughout the trial.
In 1981, Clarence Brandley, an African American man, was working as a janitor at a high school in Texas where 16-year-old Cheryl Ferguson was found raped and murdered. Three of Brandley’s co-workers made statements pointing to his guilt, but he maintained his innocence. Key evidence, including semen found on the victim’s body, and blood that didn’t belong to Brandley, was ignored, and he was found guilty, and sentenced to death. The case had clear racial biases, and after 9 years on death row Brandley was released, and all charges were dropped. None of the officials, including the Texas Ranger who was suspected of threatening witnesses into testifying a certain way, were ever disciplined.
In April 1985, John Thompson was convicted of three crimes that took place on two separate occasions. First a carjacking, and then an armed robbery and murder. Because of his prior conviction for the carjacking, Thompson was unable to testify on his own behalf during the murder trial. Only 30 days before Thompson’s execution date, a private investigator hired by the defense discovered a report on blood taken from the carjacking crime scene. Turned out that the blood did not match Thompson, and the prosecution had concealed it. He was granted a new trial on the grounds that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to testify at his own trial. The jury acquitted him after only a 35 minute deliberation.
Kirk Bloodsworth was the first American ever to have his death sentence overturned by DNA evidence. He was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in 1985, and spent 9 years in prison. It was discovered that the prosecution had withheld key evidence from the defense, including a semen sample found in the victim’s underwear. Despite five eyewitnesses who reported seeing Bloodsworth with the victim, his DNA did not match the sample, and he was released from prison in 1993. It wasn’t until 2003 that Bloodsworth was officially exonerated, after the real killer was identified, also through DNA evidence.
There were many reasons why 17-year-old, Johnny Garrett should not have been executed for the rape and murder of 76-year-old nun, Tadea Benz in 1981. He was a minor at the time of the crime, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him concluded that he had multiple personalities. He testified in his own defense, explaining why his fingerprints were found in the convent (he had broken in the night before). He was also suspected of committing a similar crime 4 months earlier, and prosecutors said they “were too similar to not have been committed by the same man”. DNA evidence at the scene did not match Garrett, but he was executed in 1992 anyway. It wasn’t until 2004, that DNA evidence matched another man to the crimes, making Garrett’s innocence more likely.
Earl Washington was a mildly mentally disabled farm hand who was accused of the murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams in 1982. He confessed to the crime despite seeming to have little knowledge of the victim’s appearance, or the location of the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to death, and he served 12 years on death row before DNA evidence was tested, and his sentence was converted to life in prison shortly before his scheduled execution. He was fully exonerated in 2000, due to further DNA testing, and the fact that his confession had been coerced.
Hope Collins just met Kenny Richey at a party only hours earlier when she asked him to stay in her apartment over night to watch her 2-year-old daughter, Cynthia, while she spent the night at her boyfriend’s house. The building caught fire, and Richey escaped, leaving Cynthia to die of smoke inhalation. The fire was ruled an arson, and Richey was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. After numerous appeals, and a scheduled retrial, Richey ended up taking a plea bargain where he plead no contest to attempted involuntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to time served (21 years). The scientific evidence that was presented at his trial to prove he started the fire was highly disputed, and ended up being the main reason his conviction was overturned.
Levon “Bo” Jones
African American man, Levon Jones was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 1993 for shooting a white man, Leamon Grady. The prosecution’s sole witness, a woman named, Lovely Lorden, had been the major reason Jones was convicted, but she admitted in 2006 (after Jones had spent 13 years on death row), that she had lied on the stand. Lorden was a professional, paid informant who changed her story several times before going to trial. Jones came within weeks of his scheduled execution date, but was spared thanks to the diligence of his lawyers. His conviction was overturned, and charges were dropped, releasing him from prison, in 2008.
18-year-old, Damien Echols, along with Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, became known as The West Memphis Three after they were accused of torturing and murdering three 7-year-old boys. The case got a lot of media attention, including theories surrounding Satanic cult ties. Echols was immediately a suspect because of his reputation around town, but it was Misskelley (who had an IQ of 72), who confessed, leading to the conviction, and death sentencing of Echols. There was widespread criticism on how the police handled the crime scene, and a key witness ended up recanting her testimony. There has also been speculation that the stepfather of one of the boys was the real murderer. In 2008, a retrial was requested due to new DNA evidence that didn’t link the West Memphis Three to the crime scene, and jury misconduct in the original trial. The three entered Alford pleas, meaning they admitted the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them, but they were still maintaining their innocence. They were released from prison in 2011, and although they haven’t been fully exonerated, they are widely believed to be innocent.