Many people oppose the death penalty, but many people also support it. In states like Texas and Florida, capital punishment is still thriving, but the hard truth is that with an imperfect justice system, mistakes are made. In these ten cases, these mistakes caused innocent people to be murdered by the state.
These ten victims of the justice system are examples of misconduct and corruption by police officers and prosecution. Read about Jesse Tafero, whose execution went awry in the most horrific way, and Cameron Todd Willingham, who was accused of the most heart-wrenching crime of all. If you’re still convinced that the death penalty is a viable option, remember that in a place where capital punishment is on the table, anybody’s head could be on the line. Sometimes it’s just about luck.
10. Cameron Todd Willingham
In 1991, a fire killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters. In 2004, Willingham was executed by lethal injection. However, new evidence has since proved that Willingham, who maintained until his dying day that he was innocent, may be have in fact been wrongfully executed for the arson charges against him. After Willingham’s execution, the Innocence Project acquired evidence from leading arson experts and the help of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that the scientific analyses used to convict Willingham were not valid and that the fire may have been an accident.
9. Jesse Tafero
In 1976, a highway patrolman and constable were shot dead after stopping a car with five people: Jesse Tafero and Sonia Jacobs, plus their two children, and Walter Rhodes. Decades later, Jesse Tafero was executed by the state in a procedure during which his head apparently caught on fire while he was still breathing – a wickedly cruel punishment. And a full review of the case reveals that Tafero may not have been the shooter after all. He was convicted on the testimony of Walter Rhodes, who named Tafero in exchange for a lighter prison sentence but who also changed his mind and confessed three different times. When gunpowder tests were performed, the only person found to have shot a gun was Rhodes, and two eyewitnesses for the state testified that Tafero was being held over the hood of the car while the other was shot.
8. Ellis Wayne Felker
When Evelyn Joy Ludlam disappeared, the police turned their eye to Ellis Wayne Felker, who had served over a decade of time for aggravated sodomy. When Ludlam’s body was found two weeks later, an autopsy revealed that Ludlam had already been dead for five days and, according to the surveillance put on Felker, he was innocent. However, the police didn’t change suspects as they should have; they just changed the evidence so that it stated that the body had been dead no more than three days. Felker was convicted to die despite a multitude of evidence withheld by the state that included a confession made by another suspect. In 1996, he was executed despite serious doubts that he was guilty.
7. Leo Jones
Leo Jones was convicted of the sniper killing of a Jacksonville police officer in 1981 despite over a dozen witnesses implicating another man as the murderer. Besides this, the two key officers in his case left the department shortly afterward because of mounting rumors of improper interrogation tactics: a fellow officer later testified that one was known for bragging about violence against suspects. The implicated suspect had been heard bragging about the crime which Leo Jones was executed for.
6. Troy Davis
Death row inmate Troy Davis was denied a retrial for failing to “prove his innocence.” Anyone familiar with the United States justice system will cringe at these words; the phrase is “innocent until proven guilty,” not the other way around. Troy Davis, though, seems to have been denied this sort of legal process. He was sentenced to death on the evidence of nine people, seven who later recanted, and of the two who did not, one may have been the murderer himself. No DNA or forensic evidence linked Davis to the murders, not even a gun; no, it was only the testimony of nine people, one of whom was illiterate when signing the police statements and several of whom later testified that they had been threatened by the police into signing. Davis suffered through four scheduled executions – one where he was pardoned only ninety minutes before he was supposed to die – and if these close brushes with death weren’t torture enough, Davis was finally executed in September 2011.
5. Carlos De Luna
The police made one mistake. After that, it spiraled into an investigative disaster that led to the death of an innocent, mentally impaired man. In 1983, Wanda Lopez was stabbed to death while working the night shift at a gas station convenience store. The police failed to respond to her first two calls, only springing into action after the third – and by then, it was too late. When they got to the scene, they found an intoxicated Carlos De Luna hiding under a truck. When he offered to name who had killed Lopez, the police ignored him and took him into custody. Later, upon inspecting the crime scene, they found a shoe heel print framed in blood, a cigarette that may have belonged to the assailant, a red button from the shirt of the assailant, and the murder weapon. They trampled all over this evidence and seized none of it. Despite all evidence pointing to a man named Carlos Hernandez, who even confessed to the crime, De Luna was executed in 1989. Carlos Hernandez would live for another ten years, during which he would commit several more assaults remarkably similar to the death of Wanda Lopez. To this day, the police refuse to admit that they executed the wrong Carlos.
4. Timothy Evans
Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950 for murder. However, he was innocent; guilty, at best, of soliciting an illegal abortion that, due to the actions of a murderous downstairs neighbor, went horribly wrong. When in 1949 Evans’ wife Beryl discovered that she was pregnant with a second child, whom she feared the family could not afford, their downstairs neighbor John Christie offered to help. Instead of performing an abortion, however, Christie poisoned Beryl with carbon monoxide and, when Timothy came home, simply said that his wife had died during the procedure. Evans went to the police and admitted to accidentally killing his wife with a bottled substance that he had been given to induce an abortion. He confessed to killing his wife and baby daughter. It did not come out until years later, when Christie was discovered to be a serial killer, that Evans was innocent.
3. David Spence
David Spence was executed for the murders of two 17-year old girls and one 18-year old boy in an alleged hit. Several investigators voiced serious doubts about Spence’s guilt; Spence had been convicted of sexual abuse and was serving a 90-year sentence, but they didn’t think he could be guilty of the three murders that would ultimately cost him his life. The prosecution had built its case on bite marks found on one of the victims’ bodies, but experts found that despite the state’s claims the bite marks could not be matched to Spence. He maintained until his last breath that he was innocent.
2. Joseph O’Dell
Despite objections by a Supreme Court justice, Mother Teresa, and the Pope himself, Joseph O’Dell was executed in 1997. In fact, one anti-death penalty activist named Lori Urs actually married him in prison a few hours before his death in order to gain access to the evidence in his case. The case against him for the rape and murder of Helen Schartner was mostly based on allegations from a “jailhouse snitch,” a group which is notoriously unreliable, and unreliable DNA evidence. He was not allowed to tell the jury that if they didn’t give him the death penalty he would still have to spend the rest of his life in jail.
1. Ruben Cantu
Ruben Cantu was executed in his twenties for a murder committed when he was seventeen years old. In 1984, two Hispanic men were murdered at night while keeping watch over the construction site where they worked. Cantu and his friend David Garza, who was 15, tried to rob the men, but when one tried to grab a pistol from under his mattress both men were shot about nine times. Cantu and Garza fled, thinking they had killed the men, but one of them – Juan Moreno – survived and implicated Cantu as the killer, although he recanted his story a decade after the teen’s execution. Several witnesses against him later reported that they had been pressured by the police to testify against Cantu. After being convicted of first degree murder, Ruben Cantu wrote a letter to the city of San Antonio: “My name is Ruben Cantu and I am only 18 years old. I got to the 9th grade and I have been framed in a capital murder case.” He was executed in 1993.
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