death row for a crime he did not commit 1
Exonerations of Innocent Men and Women
As of October 2015, we have executed over 1,414 individuals in this country since 1976.2 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row--that is, found to be innocent and released - since 1973. 3 In other words, for every 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free.
These 156 exonerees bear witness to the fact that we have made grave mistakes in the application of the death penalty. Many of them are powerful advocates against the death penalty:
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 before DNA evidence proved their innocence.
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
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.
Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón spent nearly 18 years on death row in Florida for a crime to which another man confessed to 16 people.
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.
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. 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 erroneously identified him as the perpetrator.
Today, due to the work of advocacy organizations, investigative journalists, attorneys, and academics, we know that people have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt. Here are a few of their stories:
Troy Anthony Davis was convicted of the shooting-death of off-duty police officer Mark McPhail. His conviction was based on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom later recanted their testimony or admitted it was false.5
Carlos DeLuna was executed in Texas in 1989 for the stabbing death of Wanda Lopez.6 DeLuna maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment and insisted another individual by the name of Carlos Hernandez was really the killer.
Gary Graham (A.K.A. Shaka Sankofa) was sentenced to death at the age of 18 in 1981 in Texas for the robbery and murder of Bobby Lambert. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of one witness who said she saw him through a windshield from over 30 feet away.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for the death of his three young daughters in a house fire. Willingham’s conviction was based on faulty forensic science which erroneously concluded that the fire was arson.
Shouting from the Rooftops
Wrongful convictions and executions happen because of factors such as:7
- Mistaken eye witness testimony
- Faulty forensic science
- Fabricated testimony or testimony from jailhouse informants
- Grossly incompetent lawyers
- False confessions
- Police or prosecutorial misconduct
- Racial bias
In 2006, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously said that if any person was executed in the U.S. for a crime that he did not commit, “the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”
Now is the time to gather our voices and let it be “shouted from the rooftops” that innocent people have been put to death.
Visit TAKE ACTION to learn about how you can get involved.