No matter how an individual feels about the death penalty, there’s one thing we can all agree on: courts better be damn sure the person sentenced to execution is guilty before sending them to the proverbial gallows. Unfortunately, records indicate that more than 150 people in the United States alone have been sent to death row for crimes they didn’t commit, and no one started counting until the 1970s. Thankfully, many of these innocent people were later freed, but this hardly justifies the decades they spent in jail before getting exonerated.
There are many ways the wrong person can get sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. In America especially, race can play a huge role in how juries feel about a potential suspect, with countless minorities getting judged because of their skin tone over any actual facts of the case. On top of that, a shocking number of people have been sent to death row on circumstantial evidence alone, and others still have been convicted when third parties perjured themselves to pass the blame or to simply put the case behind them.
Ultimately, there’s no proper restitution when a person is taken off death row for a crime they didn’t commit. Some states do offer money or other forms of compensation, yet nine times out of ten, an exonerated death row inmate will nonetheless feel extremely bitter about the process, and understandably so. Because of this, many have become anti-death row activists to prevent such travesties of justice from ever happening again. For the whole story, keep reading to discover 15 people who were sent to death row for crimes they didn’t commit.
15. Gary Gauger – The Lying Officers
Waking up and discovering the murdered bodies of your parents has got to be one of the most shocking experiences a human being can experience. Just ask Illinois man Gary Gauger, who went through this horror in 1993. Naturally, Gauger’s first instinct was to call the police, who instantly named him as the first and only suspect, interrogating him for 21 consecutive hours. After the officers lied to Gauger and claimed they had evidence supporting the theory he killed his parents, he confessed to the crime, assuming he must have blacked out the night before and couldn’t remember it. As though that confession weren’t dubious enough, there’s also the fact officers arrested Gauger without any actual evidence, meaning any confession he made was illegal. In 1996, an appeals court recognized this information, allowing Gauger a retrial and leading to his release. Gauger has since been interviewed by countless media outlets and wrote a book about his story, titled In Spite of the System.
14. Walter McMillian – Convicted Despite Witnesses Saying He Was In Church
Were someone to ask what the opposite of committing murder is, “attending a church event” would be a pretty good answer. Believe it or not, the fact that dozens of witnesses claimed that’s what Walter McMillian was doing during the 1986 murder of Rhonda Morrison didn’t stop police from suspecting he committed the crime. McMillian’s witnesses were ignored in favor of a police informant who had lied and placed him on the scene, leading to a very hasty trial that saw him sentenced to death. During a retrial, attorneys discovered that the very same tape on which an eyewitness claimed he saw McMillian at the scene contained further recordings on the flip side, on which the witness complained about police forcing him to implicate a man he didn’t know in some random crime. Before long, two other witnesses admitted they had been lying under oath, confessing to perjury. Once all of this information came to light, McMillian was granted a retrial and easily achieved exoneration.
13. Damon Thibodeaux – When Cops Lie
When a young girl goes missing, it affects more than just her parents and her immediate family. Entire towns can feel the sting of a lost child, and this is how so many people in Jefferson Parish blamed Damon Thibodeaux for the 1996 rape and murder of Crystal, his 14-year-old cousin. Discounting that Thibodeaux was with Crystal’s parents when she disappeared, authorities soon named him as the sole suspect. After a three-hour interrogation where police repeatedly lied about the nonexistent evidence they had against him, Thibodeaux confessed to the crime, feeling he would be further tortured until he did so. It didn’t matter that his confession had little in common with what actually took place, as police accepted it anyway, and soon, Thibodeaux was sentenced to die. Feeling like he still had no options, Thibodeaux largely accepted his fate until an outside lawyer took pity on him and convinced him to try and set things right. After numerous appeals, DNA evidence proved that Thibodeaux was in no way connected to the crime and that an abusive stepfather accounted for his easy confession when faced with punishment. Finally, in 2012, an appellate court set him free.
12. Sakae Menda – The Buddhist Priest
America is far from the only country guilty of imprisoning the wrong people, and some of them make it even harder for prisoners to get exonerated should they somehow make their innocence clear. In Japan, for instance, Sakae Menda was, in fact, the first man ever to get released from death row, and it took him nearly 40 years to clear his name. Menda had been incarcerated for the 1948 murders of a Buddhist priest and his wife, largely because he was caught stealing rice in that same general time frame. Though he had no actual connection to the murders, Japanese police tortured Menda into confessing, never once letting him speak to an actual lawyer. Placed in solitary confinement, Menda submitted petitions for a retrial no less than six times, finally gaining one in 1979. At the new trial, Menda provided his true alibi, and a former witness admitted she had lied during the initial trial, leading to his full release. In the three-plus decades since, Menda has spent his life working to abolish the death penalty.
11. Earl Washington, Jr. – The Intellectually Disabled Man
This list covers a mere 15 people because the truth is our world may never know how many people have wrongly been sent to die. The good news is the trend is heavily on the down slope, with almost all of these crimes taking place well before DNA testing was possible. With this new form of technology, guilty people are being freed left and right, including Earl Washington, Jr. In Washington, Jr.’s case, though, DNA wasn’t the only story—there was also the issue that he’s intellectually disabled, making him strongly prone to suggestion. What does this mean? Well, when police questioned Washington, Jr. about the 1982 rape and murder of a young woman, although he had never met her, he quickly confessed. Of course, during that same interview, he also confessed to four other crimes he had never committed and had to be walked through his written statement for it to make sense. Amazingly, none of this information was enough to set Washington, Jr. free. Thankfully, DNA evidence would finally get introduced in the year 2000, leading to his full pardon and exoneration.
10. Debra Milke – The Roommate
Rational minds have trouble understanding how a woman could ever possibly murder her own child, and for her entire life, Debra Milke has been wondering the same thing. Tragically, Milke’s roommates murdered her 4-year-old son in 1989, one of the roommates implicating her as the mastermind behind the crime. On top of that, a rogue police officer named Armando Saldate, Jr. lied under oath and claimed Milke had confessed to him, an incident that most likely never happened. It took nearly 25 years, but in 2013, Saldate’s lies would ultimately be what saved Milke, as an appeals court reviewed his entire career as an officer and found a pattern of misconduct that proved he was probably lying about the whole thing. Milke was freed after a retrial, and though prosecutors appealed for a third trial in an attempt to send her back to prison, a judge dismissed all charges with prejudice.
9. Timothy Evans – At The Mercy Of A Serial Killer
Not every story of wrongful conviction ends with a happy ending seeing the guilty party set free. The stories on this list don’t start until the late 1940s because anyone convicted of a crime before then had little chance of getting the sentence overturned. Timothy Evans, executed in 1950, was one of the many people unable to prove his innocence before his death, though in his case, the facts were genuinely stacked against him. Initially, Evans claimed he had “accidentally killed” his wife in an attempt at performing an illegal abortion, later changing his story to claim that his downstairs neighbor, John Christie, had actually committed the crime. Between Evans telling police his wife had died and his arrest, Christie also murdered Evans’ daughter, and presented with the information of her death, Timothy strangely confessed despite still believing Christie was responsible. Though he recanted his confession, courts executed Evans in 1950, hanging him for his alleged crimes. Three years later, police discovered Christie was, in fact, a serial killer who had killed the Evans family and at least six other women, posthumously exonerating Evans of the act. Of course, this hardly brought him back from the dead.
8. Darby J. Tillis – A Message From God
It would be reasonable to assume the men and women on this list all walk away from their wrongful convictions feeling pretty damn bitter about the situation. The longer the time spent behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, the angrier they’re entitled to become, and yet, Darby J. Tills reportedly never resented the ordeal he was put through. A likely part of the issue is that Tills was a strongly religious man of faith, who took his 9 years on death row and subsequent release as a message from God. Tills was convicted of murdering two men in 1979 and sentenced to death on spurious evidence. Several years later, a man came forward with testimony that a third party had confessed the crime to him, a story courts found factual enough to exonerate Tills, releasing him with a free pardon. From then on, Tills dedicated his life to campaigning for peace and the abolition of the death penalty, driving a limo emblazoned with the words “thou shalt not kill” around his native Chicago until his death in 2014.
7. Delbert Tibbs – The Hitchhiker
Most people are aware of the dangers of picking up a hitchhiker. One can never be sure of the type of person who begs for rides on the street, and helping them out could easily go south, fast. Case in point: a man and woman offered a ride to another man in Fort Meyers, Florida. Almost immediately, the hitchhiker murdered the man and raped the woman, leaving her for dead. Some 200 miles away, Delbert Tibbs was also hitchhiking, though his intentions were merely to get from one place to another. On top of that, Tibbs looked absolutely nothing like police photos of the perp. Despite this, he was named as a suspect anyway, and for some reason, the surviving victim thought he looked close enough to the man who attacked her to say it was him. Making matters worse, a prison informant falsely claimed Tibbs had confessed to him, and testifying to such sealed Tibbs’s fate. However, once that informant recanted, Tibbs was released and would spend the rest of his life campaigning against the death penalty.
6. Randall Dale Adams – The Hitchhiker Did It
It could be argued every story on this list deserves a documentary or two so the wrongfully convicted parties can finally tell the truth about what happened to them. Unfortunately, most of them weren’t given the option, so the film about Randall Dale Adams may have to suffice for them all. One night in late 1978, Adams was hitchhiking and picked up by a strange teenager named David Ray Harris. After the two parted ways, Harris murdered a police officer, bragged about it to his friends, and then blamed Adams for the crime when authorities were alerted. For whatever reason, courts sided with Harris’s story and sentenced Adams to death, but the public at large wasn’t satisfied. Also unhappy was director Errol Morris, who knew for a fact Harris had committed the crime. To bring things to light, Morris wrote and directed the documentary The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The very next year, courts retried Adams’s case and released him, allowing him to spend the rest of his life campaigning against the death penalty’s continued existence.
5. Anthony Porter – Gang Member With Low IQ
When a gang member is spotted running away from a crime scene, it’s hard to blame witnesses from assuming there may be a correlation. That said, this alone is known as “circumstantial evidence,” and is a far cry from actually proving said gang member committed any crimes. Unfortunately, in the case of Anthony Porter, throw in the fact he had an IQ of 51, and that gang member may well voluntarily walk into a police station upon hearing he’s wanted. As if things weren’t questionable enough already, Porter’s lawyer allegedly fell asleep during the trial, leading to a quick trial that ended in him getting sentenced to death. Porter’s mental capacity meant he never understood his own punishment, which saved him from the gallows no less than 50 hours before he was scheduled to die. From there, the Medill Innocence Project caught wind of his story, conducted their own investigation, and poked holes in everything the police had done up until then. After securing a retrial, Porter was released in 1999, but the story doesn’t end there—a second suspect named Alstoy Simon would go through pretty much the whole thing immediately afterward, getting arrested, sentenced to a long prison term, and exonerated, albeit in slightly faster fashion.
4. Levon “Bo” Jones – Betrayed By His Girlfriend
Three years is a long time for a murder to go unsolved, but this doesn’t, in any way, excuse police cutting corners and finding an explanation. In 1987, Leamon Grady was murdered, and by late 1990, police were still fairly clueless about who had committed the crime. It wasn’t until Lovey Lorden told the sheriff’s department that her boyfriend Levon Jones had committed the crimes that the police even named him as a suspect. Of course, Jones wasn’t, in fact, guilty, and the world may never know why Lorden, his former girlfriend, turned him in. The entire pretense of a fair trial was more or less thrown out when a family member of Grady was appointed as Jones’s council, and he was swiftly convicted of murder and sentenced to die. In 2006, Lorden admitted she had been lying the whole time and had even accepted a $4,000 reward for her prior testimony. With this information coming to light, Jones was released almost immediately, completely exonerated.
3. Glenn Ford – The Guy Who Did NOT Murder His Boss
For over 40 years, Ford sat in a jail cell due to the 1984 murder of his boss, Isadore Rozeman. Although Ford was near the scene of the crime, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he worked there, he had absolutely no other connection to Rozeman’s death; nor was there any evidence directly linking him to it. Unfortunately, Ford also couldn’t afford a lawyer, and the ones appointed to him were vastly inexperienced, almost to the point of incompetence. Opposing counsel managed to successfully bar African Americans from the jury, and the all-white crowd of 12 selected were quick in deciding Ford’s guilt. Nearly four full decades later, that same team of prosecutors was informed that a second man named Jake Robinson had confessed to the crime. Ford was ultimately released in 2014, but the stress of jail had paid its toll, and he was released a frail and ill man, dying two years later.
2. Riley Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman – 12-Year-Old Boy Sets The Record Straight 40 Years Later
Given the stories on this list, it sometimes feels like police will do absolutely anything to coerce a confession out of innocent parties, and that may be true. For suspects Riley Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman, police didn’t even bother asking them for their side of the story before tricking a third party to testify against them. That this third party happened to be an easily influenced 12-year-old in no way stopped the police from using this testimony to send Jackson and Bridgeman to jail. According to young Eddie Vernon, the two had been spotted fleeing from the scene of Harold Frank’s 1975 murder, aided by Bridgeman’s brother, Ronnie. Years later, however, Vernon revealed that police had used his fragile 12-year-old mind to basically force him into fingering Jackson and Bridgeman, despite the fact that he couldn’t even identify the two in a lineup. Nearly 40 years later and now an adult, Vernon no longer feared the police and decided to set the record straight, soon leading to Jackson and Bridgeman’s release and full exoneration. Given Vernon’s age at the time, neither wrongfully convicted men blamed him, instead feeling it was the police and justice system that had made a mistake.
1. Anthony Ray Hinton – Screwed By His Own Lawyer
While it may not be common knowledge that multiple types of bullets exist, one might hope the criminal justice system is aware of this fact. Anthony Ray Hinton was aware of this fact, but it somehow wasn’t enough to save him during a 1985 trial for a string of murder-robberies through Alabama. The only evidence connecting Hinton to the spree is that his mother owned a gun containing the same type of bullets as used in the crime, and even calling this “circumstantial” feels like a huge stretch. Nonetheless, the court was able to convict Hinton of two murders and decided the only just punishment would be to kill him for these crimes. Hinton soon contacted the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), who then discovered his original defense lawyer had made some serious mistakes in pleading the innocent man’s case. Most important was the fact that the defense ballistics expert was the cheapest available and probably didn’t do the best job. With the EJI’s help, a second trial was granted in 2014, leading to Hinton’s full exoneration.
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