Many American states continue to uphold capital punishment, believing it to be an effective deterrent of major crime. Humans rights organizations such as Amnesty International argue against the death penalty, stating that it’s used “disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities.”
The large growing financial cost of convicting and caring for prisoners on death row is forcing many states to reconsider the effectiveness of capital punishment. However, these reconsiderations are informed by more than money: It’s an inescapable truth that the death penalty claims the lives of the innocent along with the guilty. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated from death row due to either a lack or improper use of evidence by prosecuting and defense attorneys. Very often, new forensic DNA evidence comes to light that debunks guilty verdicts, as is the case with a number of the former death row inmates on this list.
Whether capital punishment actually “works” to decrease crime is still up for debate. Regardless, the American justice system isn’t perfect, and people are convicted wrongly and sentenced to death too regularly – indeed, if one innocent person is wrongfully sentenced to death by their country, that’s one person too much. The following freed prisoners (presented in chronological order) had their fates sealed with a guilty sentence and a consequent death sentence, but were eventually found innocent and taken off death row after decades of imprisonment. Their lives were spared but the wasteful years spent behind bars will never be recovered.
15. Levon “Bo” Jones
Levon “Bo” Jones served 14 years of his sentence on death row in North Carolina. He was charged and convicted of the homicide of Leamon Grady in 1987. The reason for the release, as given by a federal judge, was the poor work of defense attorneys who represented Jones.
According to the judge, they failed to uncover key pieces of evidence that would have proven Jones to be innocent. In addition, the only witness against Jones swore in an affidavit that she was certain he had nothing to do with the murder of Leamon Grady.
14. Nathson Fields
Nathson Fields was a former El Rukn gang member in Chicago who was charged with double murder in 1986. He was sentenced to death row and carried out that sentence for 18 years.
The conviction was overturned in a new trial in 2009. A file was found by police shortly after his release and Fields used the “new” file to receive $80,000 in damages after a lawsuit. According to Fields, other wrongly convicted prisoners could be freed if similar “street” files are found.
13. Paul House
Paul House was finally released from death row in 2010. At 47-years old, he had spent 22 years imprisoned in Tennessee. He was charged with the sexual assault and murder of his neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, in 1985.
New DNA evidence was later presented that disproved any connection House may have had with the crime. Although he was released, district attorney Paul Phillips wrote in a petition that House could be retried and the new evidence showed it was unlikely House acted alone in the crime. House eagerly reunited with his mother after his release.
12. Robert Springsteen
Robert Springsteen was on trial for the murder of four teens inside a yogurt shop in 1991. Springsteen maintained his innocence but was ultimately convicted along with Michael Scott. In 2009, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction because the suspects were never given the opportunity to cross examine each other.
Conclusive DNA evidence was also used to support to the appeal. The evidence showed that there was nothing to match either defendant to the crime scene.
11. Ronald Kitchen
Ronald Kitchen spent 21 years on death row before finally being exonerated. He was freed in the summer of 2009. Ronald was convicted of the 1988 murder of two women and three children. The conviction rested on the confession of Kitchen.
However, the “confession” was literally beaten out of him by police with electroshock and suffocation torture. The confessions were eventually overturned by attorneys who proved the savage police brutality was racist in nature. After being released, Kitchen met his sons and granddaughter for the very first time.
10. Michael Toney
The case of Michael Toney is tragic on two levels. Toney spent 10 years on death row for a capital murder conviction. He was tried and determined guilty of the 1985 bombing of three people in a Lake Worth trailer. O’Melveny & Myers handled Toney’s case for the successful appeal and complete release.
Sadly, Toney was killed in a car crash one month after being freed. He was not wearing his seatbelt and was pronounced dead at the scene.
9. Joe D’Ambrosio
Joe D’Ambrosio was on death row in Ohio for more than 20 years, having been arrested in 1998 for the murder of Tony Klann. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office withheld 10 pieces of crucial evidence that could have led to a not-guilty verdict in his original trial.
In 2012, D’Ambrosio was set free after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the State’s appeal against him. He was released when he was 50-years old, after he spent his entire adult life in prison.
8. Anthony Graves
Anthony Graves was freed from death row in 2010 after spending 18 years as a wrongly convicted man. He was charged with the murder of a family in Somerville, MA. Bill Parham, the district attorney for Washington, gave the instruction for release after investigating the case for five months.
The investigation concluded that there was nothing that connected Graves to the crime. After being released, Graves immediately visited his mother as a newly innocent man.
7. Gussie Vann
Gussie Vann was dismissed of his charges in September 2001. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for the assault and murder of his own daughter in 1992. After a post-sentence review, a judge ordered a new trial after he determined Vann’s lawyers failed to hire forensic experts to properly defend him.
The forensic experts testified in the new trial that was were no previous signs of sexual abuse of Vann’s daughter. The case was finally thrown out and the State did not attempt an appeal.
6. Damon Thibodeaux
Damon Thibodeaux rejoiced when he was finally released from death row for a crime that he did not commit. Thanks to new advancements in DNA testing and uncovered new eyewitness testimony which provided his alibis supported his release.
In 2012, Thibodeaux was freed from Angola jail in Louisiana where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. His 15 years in prison were spent with a morning coffee (prepared using a handkerchief as a filter) and reading the Bible.
5. Seth Penalver
2006 heralded the day when Seth Penalver was totally acquitted for a triple murder and armed robbery carried out in 1994. The jury at his second trial sentenced him to death.
However, in 1999, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction because the prosecution used improper evidence. A new trial with a new jury reviewed video evidence that inconclusively linked Penalver to the scene of the crime and concluded that he was, indeed, innocent. He is the 24th person to be released from death row in Florida.
4. Reginald Griffin
Reginald Griffin was a death row prisoner since 1973. After years of being in prison as an innocent man, he was released in October 2011 by the Missouri Supreme Court because the state had withheld crucial evidence of his case. In fact, two prison informants received benefits for their false testimony in Griffin’s case.
The evidence showed that Griffin was not responsible for the fatal stabbing of a prisoner. He was the first man to be released from death row in 2013.
3. Glenn Ford
After 30 years of being on death row, Louisiana man Glenn Ford was released in 2014 after being deemed innocent of a murder. New evidence was presented to a Louisiana judge that proved he was not present nor involved in the homicide of Isidore Bozeman in 1983.
At the time, Ford was the longest-serving death row prisoner in the United States. Many groups such as Amnesty International cite Ford’s case as an example of how flawed the American justice system is.
2. Carl Dausch
In the summer of of 2013, the Florida Supreme Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict Carl Bausch of the murder of Adrian Mobley. Although Bausch was fully exonerated from the death sentence due to new DNA evidence, he still had to face his full 60-year prison sentence for a sexual attack he committed before the alleged murder of Mobley. After his release, the murder of Mobley consequently became a cold case, leaving the family of the victim utterly disappointed and without closure.
1. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown
In 1983, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were convicted for the sexual assault and murder of an 11-year old girl in North Carolina. The men’s confessions were largely based on details that the men said were coerced from them by police.
In September 2014, the mentally disabled half-brothers were declared innocent and released from a death sentence after DNA evidence implicated another suspect. Upon their release as ordered by a Supreme Court Judge, the men wept and the courtroom audience erupted in a standing ovation.