Since 1976, we have executed over 1,300 individuals in this country.1 As of today, 150 individuals have been exonerated from death row — that is, there has been one person exonerated for every 10 people who have been executed in the last 36 years. Seventy-eight of these innocent people were African American.2
The high number of exonerations demonstrates that our criminal justice system has many errors. And, a flawed system will not catch all wrongful convictions prior to an execution. Many of these death row exonerees remain powerful voices against the death penalty:
Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown
Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated in 2014. Under coercion, the mentally disabled half-brothers confessed to the 1983 rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in North Carolina and were sentenced to death. While Brown’s sentence had later been commuted to life imprisonment, McCollum spent three decades on death row and was invoked by US Supreme Court Justice Henry Scalia Antonin Scalia as an example of the worst of the worst--the reason the death penalty remained necessary. However in 2014 they were proved innocent by DNA evidence tying the crime to a man imprisoned for a similar crime, and McCollum and Brown were released.3
Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sent to death row in Maryland in 1984, was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl based on false eye witness identification. He was released in 1993, after DNA testing confirmed his innocence.4 He was the first person to be exonerated from death row based on DNA testing. He currently serves as the Advocacy Director for Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones. Kirk also served as a Commissioner with the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The only death row exoneree from Maryland, Kirk has been a lead voice in calling for death penalty repeal in that state.
Anthony Graves was sent to death row in 1994 for allegedly assisting Robert Carter in the heinous killing of Bobbie Davis; her daughter, Nicole; and Davis’s four grandchildren. His conviction was largely based on Carter’s testimony, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. Carter later admitted that he had lied about Graves’s involvement before his own execution in 2000. In a 2006 retrial, it was found that prosecutors had withheld evidence favorable to the defense and had elicited false testimony from witnesses.5 Graves was released after 18 years in prison, 16 of which he spent in solitary confinement. Today, Graves serves on the Advisory Board of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and frequently shares his story with audiences around the world.6
Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón
Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón spent nearly 18 years on death row in Florida for a crime to which another man confessed to 16 people. The prosecutor in the case withheld exculpatory evidence, and Meléndez, who could not afford an attorney, was convicted of the murder of Delbert Baker based on the testimony of two suspicious witnesses and no physical evidence. It was only after a transcript of the confession of the killer came to light that Meléndez was freed from death row in 2002. He has since been an unwavering spokesperson against the death penalty, speaking to thousands of people around the world and testifying before legislative bodies. Due in part to Meléndez’s intensive efforts, New Mexico, the state where he currently resides, repealed the death penalty in 2009.
Randy Steidl was convicted in 1986 for the murder of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads. He spent 17 years in prison, 12 of those on death row. In 2004, he was finally freed after the Illinois State police found that Steidl had been wrongfully imprisoned — framed through fabricated testimony and prosecutorial and police misconduct in order to protect the real killer. After a federal judge ordered a retrial, the state found no evidence against Steidl. Steidl was an important voice in the effort to repeal the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.7
Delbert Tibbs was traveling through Florida when police stopped him to question him about the rape of 16-year old Cynthia Nadeau and the murder of her friend Terry Milroy. Tibbs cooperated with police and allowed them to take Polaroid pictures of him. Although he physically did not match the description of the suspect whom Nadeau had originally described, she changed her mind after seeing his photo and identified him as the perpetrator. After a two-day trial, an all-white jury returned a guilty verdict, and Tibbs spent three years on Florida’s death row. The Florida state Supreme Court overturned the verdict, and Tibbs was eventually exonerated. Tibbs is the Assistant Director of Membership and Training with Witness to Innocence, and remains active in the movement to abolish the death penalty. His story has been an inspiration to many.8