Today, due to the work of advocacy organizations, investigative journalists, attorneys, and academics working in different venues across the country, we know that people have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt. Here are a few of their stories:
Troy Anthony Davis and Sylvester “Redd” Coles were in a parking lot in Georgia in 1989, when Coles argued with and attacked a homeless man named Larry Young. Off-duty police officer Mark McPhail came to Young’s aid and was shot and killed by someone wielding a .38 caliber revolver. Coles admitted to carrying a .38 that night and several other witnesses implicated Coles as the shooter. Yet Coles was never treated as a suspect. Davis was convicted of murder based on scant physical evidence and the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom later recanted their testimony or admitted it was false.1 His case drew attention across the globe and sparked an international outcry to save his life. Public figures including President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean, Pope Benedict XVI, Harry Belafonte, 51 members of Congress, and former FBI director William S. Sessions spoke out against the execution.2 More than 250 rallies, teach-ins, silent vigils, and other events were held in cities all over the world to protest his execution. Amnesty International and other advocacy groups delivered a record number of petitions — more than 630,000 — to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole requesting a stay of execution.3 Troy Anthony Davis was put to death on September 21, 2011.4,5
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. In 2012, The Columbia Human Rights Law Review published Los Tocayos Carlos, one of the most exhaustive investigations of a criminal case in U.S. history.7 In the 430-page report, 8 Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and his students reveal that DeLuna was, in fact, innocent. The report cites that conflicting eye witness statements, police investigation mistakes, and missing information led to DeLuna being found guilty. Meanwhile, Carlos Hernandez, who the prosecution called a “phantom” and refused to pursue, remained free to commit more crimes and stab other women.9
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 30 to 40 feet away. His court-appointed lawyer failed to call two witnesses who said they had seen the killer that night, and it was not Graham. There was also no physical evidence linking Graham to the murder, and the gun he had in his possession was not the murder weapon.10 Graham had acknowledged crimes he had committed as a teenager, apologizing in writing and verbally to the victims. However, he unwaveringly maintained his innocence of the murder. He was executed in 2000.
Cameron Todd Willingham
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for murdering his three young daughters by setting his house on fire. Willingham’s conviction was based on faulty forensic science which concluded that the fire was caused by arson. Multiple fire science experts reviewed the case and objected to Willingham’s execution stating there was no evidence that the fire was intentionally set. In 2010 the Texas Forensic Science Commission released a report admitting that Willingham’s conviction was based on “flawed science.11,12 One of the witnesses during the trial, an inmate, who testified that Willingham confessed to the killing while in jail, later recanted. Willingham’s last words were: “Please clear my name. I did not kill my children.”13 Willingham’s family is currently seeking a posthumous pardon from the state of Texas.14