Throughout pretty much all of American history, the death penalty has been one of the most hotly debated subjects in the country. Some feel there is no better deterrent to crime than the threat criminals can be executed for it, while others argue no offense is horrible enough that it justifies taking the life of the offender. One thing most people can agree on is that not all crimes and criminals deserve to be punished the same way, and some crimes certainly require harsher punishments than others. That said, executing the death penalty is crossing the Rubicon—there’s no going back from taking away a person’s life.
To put it bluntly, should the state and/or federal government decide justice can only be achieved through execution, they better be damn sure they caught the right criminal before getting that far. The process isn’t over simply because they proved the right perp was caught, either, as plenty of criminals have deep-seeded psychological issues that need attention a jail cell can’t provide. Others have outright mental disabilities and genuinely didn’t know what they were doing, a key issue in the ongoing debate about capital punishment.
Far be it from this website to try and find a solution to a national discussion, we can at least provide a little information that could help people make up their minds. Plenty of criminals who were caught, convicted, and sentenced to die years ago are still alive today, usually because of some complicated legal matter saving their day. Did these criminals deserve saving, or was it a perversion of justice when their executions were commuted? Keep reading and decide for yourself by learning about 15 vicious criminals who barely escaped death row on a technicality.
Imagine hearing about a regular everyday woman, reasonably well-off, getting abducted while filling her car with gas. As the story continues, it's also revealed the man who kidnapped her went on to rape and murder his poor victim. This is what Robert James Campbell did to Alejandra Rendon at a Houston gas station in 1991. Being one of the most trigger-happy states around, Texas was quick to sentence Campbell to death for his crimes once he was caught. Roughly 25 years later, Campbell is still on death row, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anyone suffering intellectual disabilities was ineligible for capital punishment. The proper studies were conducted revealing Campbell had an IQ of 69, and while this is only 1 below what is considered impaired, this was enough to save his life.
For all the evils associated with murder, most people can probably imagine a tense scenario in which things get out of hand and someone accidentally perishes either through self-defense or extreme recklessness. Were that what happened to Calvin Coleman, Jr., perhaps there would have been less controversy when California courts spared him from the death penalty. In contrast to this fictional scenario, however, Coleman intentionally stabbed three women before raping one and murdering another, all in 1980. Two and a half decades later, California law changed from using IQ as a basis of mental impairment to a more general concept of “sub-average functioning.” Experts agreed Coleman fit this description, and it was decided he couldn’t legally be executed, his sentence reduced to a life sentence. Courts cited Coleman’s long medical history as a big factor in the decision, as he had suffered brain damage in a car accident prior to committing his crimes.
While most states are coming around to agreeing the mentally impaired shouldn’t be executed, a select few are trying to get around it by using weasel words in their definition of “intellectual disability.” For example, up until recently, Texas legislature used a reference to Lennie from Of Mice and Men in their definition, an abstract idea that required a deep understanding of an old novel for anyone to even begin defining. This came into play when Bobby Moore was convicted of murdering grocery store clerk James McCarble along with two other men. With an IQ of 74, Moore was just above the requirement for traditional disability, so the confusing John Steinbeck-influenced law caused much debate throughout Texas courts. Eventually, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Texas indeed needed a new method to judge disabilities, and also that Moore probably had some, meaning he couldn’t be executed.
One area even those staunchly opposed to the death penalty sometimes have to stop and think about is what should happen when a major public or political figure is assassinated, let alone when any terrorist act is carried out for that matter. Most of the time, these situations have a way of working themselves out, and everyone ends up dead one way or another, yet at least one national threat to America still lives on within its very jails: Sirhan Sirhan. In 1968, Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel, allegedly due to RFK’s support of Israel. Immediately, a half dozen onlookers tackled Sirhan and ensured his arrest, after which he quickly confessed. It didn’t take long for courts to sentence Sirhan to death, but a snag was found in 1972 when California temporarily abolished the death penalty. Despite the fact the state reversed the decision in mere months, Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
To anyone reading this list and getting mad so many criminals had their sentences commuted, keep in mind the legal system never sleeps and that you're hardly alone in your feelings. Plenty of lawyers and lobbyists are hard at work getting the death penalty reinstated in all these cases (when still applicable), and for four criminals who thought they were safe, this meant a return to death row. Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters all learned this lesson first hand between 2009 and 2013, thanks to a new law called the Racial Justice Act. Said law allowed reviews for any criminal case where race was a motivating factor, leading to all four getting retrials and reduced sentences. Then, four years later, the law was repealed, potentially sending them all back to death row.
In the United States, no matter what crime suspects are accused of committing, the law dictates they must be given legal counsel in some way, shape, or form. The Miranda rights mention this fact with the bit about how “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” Despite this decree, an alarming number of people suspected of crimes have gone through the court system with absolutely incompetent legal assistance, and in rare occasions, it cost them their lives. Take for instance Shonda Walter, who was convicted of murdering her 83-year-old neighbor James Sementelli with a hatchet. It was a terrifying crime for sure, yet some lawyer had to at least describe her options to her, which apparently never happened. Instead, Walter’s attorney flat out admitted her guilt to the jury, and it only got worse from there. When all of this came to light, a second judge decided Walter’s poor advice shouldn’t send her to death, commuting the sentence to life in prison.
At what age does a childish prank turn into a criminal offense? Does it even matter if that prank takes the life of another? These were the questions America was asking when they heard about Indiana’s Paula Cooper, the youngest person ever sentenced to death row. Cooper, who acted with three accomplices of similarly youthful ages, was only 15 years old when she murdered her 78-year-old neighbor, Ruth Pelke, over a matter of $10. The ringleader of the outfit, Cooper was given the harshest sentence, and it caused outcry throughout the entire world. Despite the viciousness of her actions, Cooper was still only a teenager, and it was also known she had suffered repeat abuse from both of her parents. In the years after her conviction, Indiana changed the laws to increase the minimum age for capital punishment, and though it wasn’t retroactive, courts soon agreed to reduce Cooper’s sentence accordingly.
Most people will never understand how a man could invite himself into the home of two elderly women, stab them repeatedly, tie them to their beds, and then kill one of them. Merely typing that out seemed inhuman, and to think of someone actually doing that is downright evil. However, not everyone in Georgia is using that word to describe Jonathan Jarrells, a man who committed those horrible acts in 1987. The issue comes down to his intellectual disabilities, which he had shown signs of since a 1991 prison evaluation ruled Jarrells was functioning at the level of a 9-year-old. Of course, a 9-year-old could never commit the crimes he did, yet this was enough to kickstart a long appeals process that finally saw his punishment commuted to a life sentence in 2016.
With the way things are going in some states, 10 years from now, confining a list like this down to 15 notable cases may be impossible. Only 31 out of 50 U.S. states still allow the death penalty in any form, and that number is radically dropping. One of the latest to join the trend was Connecticut, which entirely banned the practice of capital punishment in 2012. Initially, this law was not retroactively applied to criminals already on death row, until Russell Peeler, Jr. took the issue to court and had a conviction for ordering the murders of a woman and her son in 1999 commuted from a death sentence to life in prison. Since then, a slew of other Connecticut criminals en route to execution followed suit, either getting their own sentences reduced or are currently in the process of doing so.
Just about everybody in America understands how race can play a tricky role in this country’s legal proceedings. No matter how evolved America becomes as a nation, racism still exists and can play a huge role in how criminals get punished, often in seriously unfair ways. Granted, it’s a little hard to understand how race had anything to do with Steven Hall and an accomplice murdering Clarene Haskew in 1993, the two beating and strangling her before shooting a fatal blow. For reasons that remain unclear, a black juror was stricken from Hall’s trial, allowing for the case to be reopened 20+ years later when his attorneys successfully argued the move was racially motivated. This small fact alone allowed Hall a retrial, where he plead guilty and received a reduced sentence of life in prison.
According to American law, the murder of a military official is an especially serious crime, far more serious than the murder of an everyday citizen. Of course, it often seems the only people who can kill a Marine without some serious planning would be another Marine, so the situation doesn’t come up often. At least once, however, the nightmare scenario arose when supply sergeant Jessie Quintanilla murdered Lt. Col. Daniel Kidd and attempted to do the same to Lt. Col. Thomas Heffner on March 5, 1996. Initial reports claimed Quintanilla’s drunkenness inspired his crime, leading to a fast conviction and punishment to death. Some 10 years later, further investigation made it clear Quintanilla was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, making him entirely unable to assist in his own defense. This also precluded him from the death penalty he had previously been given, this being commuted to a sentence of life in prison.
Whenever a state or prosecutor wants to make a message about a new law, having a high-profile case related to the message can be a helpful tool when it comes to, well, proving a point. When Connecticut decided they were doing away with the death penalty entirely, judges in the state knew they had to show there was no legal gray area in this decision, and commuting Steven Hayes from death to a series of consecutive life sentences definitely did the trick. Hayes was an especially vicious criminal, having raped and murdered at least three women and trying to kill others. This sort of crime is completely inexcusable, and while the death penalty was out of the question, the presiding judge still made it clear Hayes wasn’t getting off easy. For his cumulative crimes, Hall’s sentence was changed to six consecutive life sentences plus another 106 years in prison, pretty much making the idea of parole impossible.
When two men kidnap, rape, and murder a pregnant woman they meet in a parking lot, most people would be fast to say there’s no redemption possible for these criminals. Throw in the second murder of a Hernando County sheriff’s deputy, and Florida lawmakers felt this was enough for Freddie Lee Hall to be executed and his accomplice, Mack Ruffin, to be sentenced to life in prison. While initial tests showed Hall’s IQ was above the minimum requirement for execution in Florida, his lawyers spent years arguing there was far more to “intellectual ability” than written tests can reveal. Surprisingly, judges ultimately agreed, referring to the evidence Lee had some disability as “voluminous.” While arguably as vague as the law itself, this statement was all it took for Hall to have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
They say intent is nine-tenths of the law, and while that may merely be an aphorism, it may have saved Gene Francis Stuart’s life. Any parents reading this list might question whether or not he deserved it, though, considering he was sent to an Idaho prison for the 1981 torture and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son. Reports indicate that the final blow was a punch delivered by Stuart to the child’s abdomen, which then caused internal bleeding. Even if Stuart did intend to kill the child, his lawyers were able to prove it wasn’t a premeditated act, but rather, a moment of severely poor judgment gone horribly wrong. Due in part to the fact Stuart had also allegedly retained horrible legal council in his first trials, his conviction was reduced from first- to second-degree murder, and along with it, his sentence commuted from death row to life in prison.
Arguably one of the most infamous criminals in modern history, Charles Manson has been a public face of evil since the late 1960s. Once dreaming of becoming a folk musician, Manson soon turned his life to leading cults and spreading his brand of anarchy, an insane apocalyptic scenario inspired by a Beatles song. For all his madness, Manson was charismatic enough to convince his followers to commit a series of horrible crimes, including several high-profile murders. Given his notoriety and the extent of his crimes, it was easy for California courts to initially sentence Manson to death after he was caught in 1969. However, it was three years later that the state briefly decided the death penalty was unconstitutional, commuting Manson's sentences and those of all offenders like him to life sentences. California has executed 13 people since changing the law again, yet Manson remains alive and in prison to this day.
Sources: Texas Tribune, Press Democrat, Express News