While we all like to place our trust in the judicial system, it’s certainly not perfect. Studies conducted by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, estimates that roughly four percent of all death row convicts aren’t guilty. Whether you support it or not, the death penalty is hard to justify when it’s taken the lives of so many innocents.
Advances in forensics, DNA mapping and psychological profiling have made it possible to reassess old cases and figure out exactly where they went wrong. Although compensation and a posthumous pardon can help the families pick up the pieces and move on, it’ll always be too little too late. Even with the great scientific strides over the past few decades, it’s shocking to see that life-threatening mistakes are still being made.
Since 1976, over 1,000 people have been executed in the United States alone. How many of these were innocent? We will never know. Whether or not capital punishment should be abolished is another issue altogether; however, these 10 cases will help you draw your own conclusion.
10 Timothy Evans
In 1949, Timothy Evans was sentenced to death for the murder of his own infant daughter. After giving the police conflicting statements during an interrogation, they assumed he was guilty and he was sent to the gallows. Throughout Evans’ incarceration he maintained his innocence, accusing his neighbor, John Christie, of committing the crime. Just weeks after the execution, Christie was found guilty of committing a string of other murders. This prompted a public outcry, which led to an official inquiry 16 years later. Eventually, it was confirmed that Christie was responsible; therefore, Evans was posthumously pardoned. This injustice had a major influence on the UK’s abolishment of capital punishment.
9 Leo Jones
In 1981, Leo Jones was convicted of firing shots at a police cruiser, which left Officer Thomas Szafranski dead. Just minutes after the attack, police raided Jones’ apartment and arrested him and his cousin. The police claimed that he confessed to the crime; however, in 1997 a retired officer came forward to report that the “enforcer” beat and tortured Jones, making him give a false confession. Jones even claimed that the police forced him to play a game of Russian roulette with live rounds. Even though more than a dozen people implicated another man in the murder, and new evidence was unveiled that cast doubt on Jones’ guilt, his retrial was unsuccessful and he was executed by electric chair in 1998.
8 Cameron Todd Willington
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the murder of his three young daughters. Willingham had allegedly set fire to the family home in Corsicana, Texas, in order to cover up abuse allegations, despite his wife’s testimony that he never harmed the children and “spoiled them rotten”. However, advances in fire sciences prompted a re-investigation, which determined that the initial investigation was flawed. Willingham maintained his innocence and appealed his conviction. Even though experts believed that the Corsicana Fire Department were negligent, Governor Rick Perry refused to grant a pardon and Willingham was executed in 2004.
7 Carlos DeLuna
Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for the murder of convenience store clerk, Wanda Lopez. He was convicted after two eyewitnesses described seeing a man standing outside the store holding a knife. Police searched the area and found DeLuna nearby. Being shirtless and shoeless, he looked suspicious, and when police pulled out their guns he dropped to his knees and shouted, “Don’t shoot, you’ve got me!” Both witnesses confirmed that DeLuna was their guy. Deluna claimed to have no recollection of the event or his arrest, but blamed another man called Carlos Hernandez – who prosecutors believed was a figment of his imagination. Years later, a man named Hernandez was charged for murdering another woman at knife-point, and while serving his prison sentence, admitted to the murder of Lopez. Despite his confession and no physical evidence linking DeLuna to the crime scene, he was executed.
6 Mahmood Hussein Mattan
Somali merchant seaman, Mahmood Hussein Mattan, was convicted of murdering a shop owner called Lily Volpert, in 1952 after a single witness – who was also a suspect – claimed to have seen him at the scene of the crime. After a very one-sided, racist trial, where his own barrister even referred to Matten as a “Half-child of nature; half, semi-civilized savage", he was sentenced to death by hanging. After the execution, his family campaigned to have his sentence quashed. After numerous rejections, this finally occurred in 1998 when the Court of Appeal decided that the investigation and trial was “demonstrably flawed”. Matten’s family received compensation of £725,000, which was split between his wife and three daughters.
5 George Kelly
In 1949, two people were killed in a botched robbery of a Liverpool cinema. The case made national headlines and prompted an investigation which led to the questioning of 65,000 people. Police had no leads and no real suspects, until they received an anonymous letter pointing the finger at two men; Charles Connolly and George Kelly. Due to lack of evidence, the trial led to a hung jury. Connolly subsequently snapped under the pressure and admitted to the crime. He served 10 years in prison, but upon his release, admitted that he was pressured into making a false confession for fear of the noose. Kelly, however, never proclaimed innocence and was sent to the gallows less than a year later. In 2003 the conviction was quashed by England’s Court of Criminal Appeal, after evidence came to light revealing that prosecutors concealed a confession that was made months before the trial by a man called Daniel Johnson.
4 Troy Davis
Troy Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer outside a Burger King restaurant on the basis of nine eyewitness testimonies. However, not only was one of these witnesses illiterate, but a number of others admitted that they were pressured into signing. Nothing else linked him to the murder. Throughout his 20 year incarceration, Davis gained support from many celebrities, religious figures and politicians, who campaigned for a retrial. He ended up enduring four scheduled executions, one of which was cancelled just 90 minutes before it was supposed to take place. His sentence was eventually carried out on September 21, 2011.
3 Derek Bentley
Derek Bentley and his 16-year-old friend, Christopher Craig, tried stealing from a confectionery warehouse in 1952. When they were spotted climbing up the drainpipe, the police were called and the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. Craig brandished a revolver and began taunting the police. Frightened, Bentley shouted “Let him have it, Craig!” Which prompted him to pull the trigger. Both Bentley and Craig were charged with murder; however, because Craig was under 18, he was not sentenced to death. Bentley’s instruction, “Let him have it!” was regarded as constructive malice; however, his words were taken out of context as he had intended them to mean “Give him the gun”. Derek Bentley had a number of health development problems that left him with a mental age of around 10 years old at the time of his crime; therefore, he should have never been charged as an adult. After a 45 year family campaign, Bentley finally received a posthumous pardon.
2 Thomas and Meeks Griffin
Thomas and Meeks Griffin were wealthy black farmers from South Carolina. In 1913 they were implicated in the murder of a 75-year-old white man named John Lewis. They were both convicted after an accusation was made by another suspect, John Stevenson, who pointed the finger purely because he believed that the Griffin brothers would have enough money to pay for a decent legal defense team. While many prominent residents petitioned to the local governor, Richard Manning, both of them were executed via the electric chair in 1913. In 2009 they were both pardoned after their great-nephew, Tom Joyner, appealed the conviction.
1 Claude Jones
In 1989, a liquor store owner named Allen Hilzendager, was shot dead. Claude Jones was one of three men implicated in the murder. Witnesses standing nearby said that they couldn’t see the killer, but saw a man enter the store while the others waited in the car. While Claude Jones maintained his innocence, the other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan, both stated that he was the shooter. It came down to one piece of forensic evidence – a strand of hair found at the scene of the crime. An expert determined that it came from Jones; however, since the technology was undeveloped during the time of examination, a retrial was sought before his execution date. George W. Bush denied the appeal and he was executed in 2000. In 2007, The Innocence Project obtained the strand of hair used in the initial DNA test; it was found to be the hair of the victim.