Capital punishment is a topic that has been debated for centuries. The death penalty is reserved for the most heinous, unbelievable crimes that shake us to our very core, but not everyone thinks that taking a life in exchange for another life that has been taken is considered justice.
There are plenty of cracks in the justice system, including mishandled cases, corrupt cops and politicians, sneaky lawyers, and lazy lab technicians. Every day, criminal cases find themselves in court because of evidence that wasn’t properly tested or hidden information that could’ve made the difference between an innocent or a guilty verdict. Sure, there are hardened criminals who deserve their time in jail for the crimes they commit, but what about those who truly aren’t responsible for what they’ve been accused of?
Judges have had the arduous task of reevaluating cases where the legal system might have failed its citizens. There are thousands of people who were found guilty of horrific crimes only to be exonerated, and some of these individuals sat on death row for years believing that the justice system they once believed in would eventually execute them. We found 15 men who were once again able to taste freedom but not before losing hope that their lives would end for crimes they didn’t even commit.
15. Mistaken Identity And Coerced Confessions
In 1971, an off-duty police officer was murdered at a convenience store during a robbery. Authorities penned 18-year-old David Keaton for the crime, and for three days, they interrogated him while using verbal threats and physical violence. Keaton eventually confessed to the crime, and witnesses even placed him at the scene. That year, he was sentenced to death.
It was two years later when new evidence came to light pointing the guilty finger at another individual. After reversing the conviction, the State Supreme Court granted Keaton a new trial. When the true killer was both identified and convicted, all charges against Keaton were dropped, and he was released. Having been released in his early 20s, Keaton had a hard time adjusting to his new life, but he was vocal about being against the death penalty. He died at 63 years old in 2015.
14. The Youngest Person In The U.S. Sentenced To Death
Johnny Ross was just 16 years old when he faced execution for the rape of a white woman in 1975. He was told to sign a piece of paper, which he later said was blank, but authorities said it contained his confession. His trial lasted 90 minutes, and just like that, the teenager’s fate was sealed. Some were outraged, but others were satisfied, thinking a rapist had been put behind bars.
Later, the Southern Poverty Law Center began to take a look into Ross’s case, and they were convinced by what they saw. As a result, they petitioned for Ross to receive a new trial after they had discovered that his blood type didn’t match that of the semen found on the victim. Ross sat on death row in Louisiana for six years before the New Orleans District Attorney’s office released him from prison.
13. When The Chief Witness Is The Killer
When a white man named James Christian was murdered, another man named Kenneth Myers told police that he knew the face of the killer. A black man named Lawyer Johnson was accused of the crime, and during his trial, the judge limited how far the defense could cross-examine Myers. He’d even changed his story three times when asked about what happened on the night of the murder, but that didn’t matter. After Johnson had spent three years on death row, a new witness stepped forward to say that they saw a man running from the scene of the crime and that the man was Myers, not Johnson. In his new trial, Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder.
After that conviction, another witness who was 10 years old at the time also said that it was Myers who behind the murder. A third trial was ordered, and that one overturned the second conviction. Eleven years later, all charges were dropped.
12. The Two Black Men Who Couldn’t Use The White Restroom
Freddie Pitts, Wilbert Lee, and a few of their friends stopped by at a gas station in a small town in Florida. The two men wanted to use the restroom, but it was 1963, and the facilities were only reserved for white people. Pitts and Lee got into a fight with the white attendants, and three days later, the clerks were found dead from gunshot wounds. Police threatened witnesses and family members of Pitts and Lee, forcing the two men to confess. Their lawyer told them to plead guilty, so there was no trial, and they were sentenced to death while still maintaining they were innocent.
Later, another man stepped forward and confessed to the crime, and witnesses recanted their statements. Suppressed evidence showed that Pitts and Lee weren’t linked to the crime, but even in a new trial they were sentenced to death. In 1975, the governor granted them a full pardon saying he was “sufficiently convinced that they were innocent.”
11. Ignoring DNA Evidence & Believing Lying Detectives
A 10-year-old girl named Jeanine Nicarico was home alone, sick, when she disappeared in 1983. Two days later, her badly beaten body was found. An autopsy revealed she had also been sexually assaulted. When a gang member saw the $10,000 reward connected to the case, he made up a story that involved himself and two other men, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley. A detective on the case didn’t believe that any of these men were responsible, but Cruz and Hernandez were sentenced to death while Buckley was out on bond for a retrial.
During that time, Brian Dugan (pictured above) confessed that he committed the crime alone, but prosecutors didn’t want to release Hernandez and Cruz. It was 1992 when the DNA evidence ended up eliminating the two men from possibly being the perpetrators and showing that Dugan was responsible, but detectives lied and said Cruz had confessed. It wasn’t until 1995 that the two men were set free.
10. 10 Years On Death Row Until DNA Was Retested
A woman was walking along one morning in 1985 when a man known as “Bumpy” approached her on the street and asked her for change. Just hours later, the woman’s body was found, and an investigation revealed that she had been sexually assaulted. At the trial, the victim’s friend claimed that “Bumpy” was a man named Ronald Jones, and another woman who had been raped identified Jones as the man who had attacked her. Jones would later confess, something he did because he said the police had beaten him savagely.
Initial DNA testing was inconclusive and couldn’t rule out Jones as the killer. A jury found him guilty, and a judge sent him off to death row in 1989. Ten years later, Jones filed a motion to have the DNA retested, and while the State opposed, they finally relented. Jones was excluded as a suspect due to the semen found on the victim’s body. In 1999, Jones walked away from death row, a free man.
9. Lying Informants And Million-Dollar Payouts
Jailhouse informants are more than willing to give up information in exchange for perks or lighter sentences. Such was what happened in the case of Neil Ferber who, in 1982, was convicted of first degree murder. Ferber was sentenced to death, but a newspaper columnist wrote four articles about the trial, pointing out everything about the case that showed Ferber was innocent. The district attorney pressured the judge into having a new trial where it was shown that the jailhouse informant had lied and that other evidence had never been given to the defense. There were even prosecutors and homicide detectives who spoke out on behalf of Ferber, saying they didn’t believe that he was guilty. An eyewitness stepped forward and said the person she saw commit the crime was definitely not Ferber. As a result, four years after his conviction, he was set free. Ferber filed a civil rights lawsuit and settled with the City of Philadelphia for $1.9 million.
8. Journalism Students’ Investigation Leads To New Trial
In 1978, a young couple were kidnapped and murdered in an abandoned house. To make things worse, the woman was sexually assaulted. Dennis Williams and three other men were spotted on the street where the couple were last seen. The four men were arrested, and during their trial, a woman said she was there at the scene of the crime with them when everything went down. She would later recant her story.
Unfortunately for Williams, he was sentenced to death plus 60 years. Three journalism students started a new investigation into this case, and they were sure that the men were innocent. New DNA tests showed that none of the men matched any samples from the crime scene, and then later, another man confessed. All charges against Williams and the other three men were dropped.
7. Prosecutors Pushed When They Knew They Were Wrong
Two elderly women were brutally sexually assaulted and murdered in 1986 and 1987. Autopsies showed that the perpetrator had sat on the women’s chests, breaking their ribs, and strangling them. Robert Lee Miller, Jr. confessed to the crime, but DNA evidence collected from bedclothes didn’t match Miller’s, leaving investigators to believe he wasn’t even in the home when the attack happened. However, prosecutors were determined to make the confession stick, so they argued that the DNA was Miller’s because the blood type was a match. Somehow their argument won the jury over, and Miller was sentenced to death.
In 1997, an Oklahoma judge reviewed Miller’s case and ruled that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to link him to the crime. He was released, and later, the real killer, Ronald Clinton Lott, was arrested. It didn’t take long for Lott’s DNA to match the semen found at both crime scenes, and in 2013, he was executed by lethal injection.
6. Death Penalty Because They “Made Her Nervous”
Debra Sue Carter lost her life in a way that had to be torture up until the last minute. She was murdered and sexually assaulted in her apartment in 1982, and because she worked at a restaurant, police zeroed in on questioning people who were regular customers. That’s how investigators came across the names Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz. Debra had once told a friend that the two men “made her nervous,” and Williamson was seen at the restaurant the night Debra was killed.
Five years later, the two men were charged after Williamson said that he had dreamed he had killed Debra, and seventeen hairs recovered from the scene were allegedly matched to him. Both men were found guilty, and while Williamson was sentenced to death, Fritz was given life in prison. Eleven years later, DNA tests on the semen and “matched” hair from the crime scene was proven not to belong to Williamson or Fritz. They were released in 1999.
5. Taking Advantage Of A Man With A Disability
In 1982, Rebecca Lynn Williams was raped and murdered in her Virginia apartment. The mother of three was stabbed over 30 times, and a year later, police believed they had the killer in custody. Earl Washington was arrested for burglary in a nearby county, and after two days of questioning, investigators claimed he had confessed to Rebecca’s vicious murder. When Washington was questioned again, he didn’t know any details about Rebecca or about where her apartment was. He also has an intellectual disability, so when a person of authority told him something had happened or that he had done something, he was easily swayed to believe them.
In 1993, DNA tests were run once again and excluded Washington as a suspect, but instead of being exonerated, he was given life in prison. Washington wasn’t released until another seven years, forcing him to spend 16 years in total on death row. In 2007, a man named Kenneth Tinsley confessed to Rebecca’s murder.
4. From Never Being In Trouble With The Law To Sitting On Death Row
In a Phoenix, Arizona bar’s bathroom, a 36-year-old woman was found dead. She was nude, there were bite marks on her body, and she had been stabbed to death, but there wasn’t much other physical evidence. Someone told police that the victim had said that one of her regulars named Ray Krone had helped her close up the night before, so immediately, investigators had a suspect. Krone said he was innocent and had been at home asleep when the crime was occurring, but he was still arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping. At the trial, experts said that the bite marks matched Krone’s impression, and he was sentenced to death plus 21 years.
After ten years on death row, Krone believed he would die in prison. However, after the DNA from the victim’s body was retested, it was found that Krone wasn’t a match. Instead, a man named Kenneth Phillips — who was already in jail for another sex crime — matched the samples and also lived near the bar at the time of the murder. Krone was released from prison in 2002.
3. 21 Years Behind Bars Because Of A Corrupt Forensic Analyst
Pamela Kaye Willis’s life was taken from her at just 18 years old. She was found strangled, stabbed, and naked in her home, and almost immediately, Curtis McCarty became a suspect because he knew her. Hairs from the crime scene didn’t match McCarty’s, but police pressed on, and three years later, in 1985, they arrested him.
DNA evidence shows that blood in the crime scene was of the same blood type as McCarty, so it was assumed he was the killer. He was sentenced to death; however, two years later, the conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Those hairs that once didn’t match could belong to McCarty, experts said. He was once again sent to death row.
Forensic analyst Joyce Gilchrist handled the McCarty case, but by the year 2000, she was being investigated for submitting false forensic reports. It would take another two years for DNA from McCarty’s case to be retested, and after 21 years in prison, 19 of those being on death row, he was released from prison in 2007.
2. A Child’s Murder Leads To An Innocent Man Spending 13 Years On Death Row
When there’s a brutal crime against a child, police scramble to find the killer as quickly as possible. So when Kennedy Brewer’s girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped, and murdered, the investigators turned their attention to the mother’s boyfriend. The night of the kidnapping, Brewer was home with his other children, and because the little girl was found just 500 yards from the house, police believed Brewer was the killer.
Three years later, Brewer’s trial began. The semen recovered from the scene was too damaged to be tested. However, experts concluded that bite marks found on her body definitely came from Brewer even though he claimed he was innocent. Another expert said the bite marks weren’t human and actually came from insects as the girl’s body had been left in the water for days. However, a jury sided with the prosecution and, in 1995, sentenced Brewer to death. Six years later, the DNA was tested and didn’t match Brewer. It was instead linked to Justin Albert Johnson, another initial suspect. He confessed to murdering the three-year-old, but it would take another seven years before Brewer was released from death row.
1. Kirk Bloodsworth
There was a terrible scene found in a wooded area. A nine-year-old girl was found dead; she had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death with a rock. An anonymous tip reached the police that a man named Kirk Bloodsworth was seen with the victim. He was arrested, and soon, five more witnesses came forward also claiming that they, too, had seen Bloodworth with the little girl, even though two of them couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. No evidence tied Bloodsworth to murder, but a jury still found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death.
In 1992, the prosecution agreed to retest the DNA samples taken from the girl’s body, and the results were conclusive: nothing matched Bloodsworth. It was also revealed that the state held onto evidence they knew would show that Bloodsworth wasn’t the killer. After nine years on death row, he was released from prison in 1993 and pardoned just a few months later.