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Executing innocent people:

The executions of five
probably innocent inmates

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The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas, 2004:

Willingham was charged, tried, convicted and executed for setting a fire that resulted in the death of his three daughters in 1991.

The two factors that appear to have contributed most to his conviction was the testimony by investgators that the fire was set by an arsonist, and the testimony by a jailhouse informer that Willingham had confessed to arson in order to cover up his wife's physical abuse of one of the girls. However, the girls had no injuries except those caused by the fire.

His last words on 2004-FEB-17 as he was being prepared for execution were: "I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do." Shortly before his execution, Texas judges and Governor Rick Perry rejected a report from Gerald Hurst, an expert fire scientist, that threw doubt on the conviction.

The Chicago Tribune organized a group of fire investigators, Gerald Hurst, private consultants John Lentini and John DeHaan, and Effie LA fire chief Kendall Ryland. They studied various documents, trial testimony, and videotape of the house remains after the fire.

Hurst said: "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire."

John Lentini said: ""The fire investigators ruled the fire to be incendiary because it failed to live up to their expectations of what an accidental fire should look like. They used rules of thumb that have since been shown to be false. There was no evidence to support a conclusion that the fire was intentionally set. Just an unsupported opinion."

John Ryland was unable to re-create the conditions the original fire investigators described. He said it "... made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation. ... They executed this guy and they've just got no idea -- at least not scientifically -- if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set."

Part of the evidence against Willingham was that he did not try hard enough to save this children. John DeHaan said: "When you are building a case of arson on the attitude of the survivor, that's when things can go really wrong, particularly if the victims are children."

Edward Cheever, a state deputy fire marshals who was involved in the original investigation of the 1991 fire, said: "At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today. They were [believed to be] true then, but they aren't now. ... Hurst was pretty much right on. ... We know now not to make those same assumptions." 1,2

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The case of Claude Jones, executed in Texas, 2000:

Somebody entered a liquour store in East Texas during 1989-NOV-14, and shot the owner. Claude Jones was arrested, tried, and found guilty of the murder. The only piece of forensic evidence linking him to the crime scene was a single piece of hair, that the prosecution claimed came from Jones. He maintained his innocence until he was executed. He asked for a stay of execution so that the strand of hair could be subjected to DNA analysis. Two courts rejected his plea. George W Bush, the governor of California at the time, denied his final request, and he was executed the next day -- still proclaiming his innocence.

The then-governor Bush was a supporter for DNA testing in death penalty cases and had previously halted an execution so that evidence could be subjected to DNA testing. Unfortunately, attorneys in the governor's office failed to inform Bush that DNA evidence might exonerate Jones. So, Bush turned down the appeal.

In the fall of 2007, the Observer, the national Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network filed a lawsuit to obtain the hair for DNA testing. Three years later, in 2010 JUN, Judge Paul Murphy ordered that the hair be turned over to the plaintiffs. Mitochondrial DNA testing was performed by Mitotyping Technologies of State College, PA. They found that the hair did not belong to Jones; it was from Allen Hilzendager, 44, the owner of the liquor store and victim.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said:

"The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life. ... Iím convinced that [Bush] would have granted this reprieve had he known about it. I find it just astonishing that he wasnít told. Thatís a pretty serious breakdown in the criminal justice system."

Duane Jones, the son of the accused murderer said:

ďMy father never claimed to be a saint, but he always maintained that he didnít commit this murder. Knowing that these DNA results support his innocence means so much to me, my son in the military and the rest of my family. I hope these results will serve as a wakeup call to everyone that serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty." 3

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The case of Roy Roberts, executed in Missouri, 1999:

Roy "Hog" Roberts was probably falsely convicted of murdering Tom Jackson, a guard, during a prison riot. Shortly before his execution in 1999 at the Potosi Correctional Center, he successfully asked for a polygraph test. The test indicated that Roberts was telling the truth when he said that he did not hold down the guard for other inmates to stab. When Robert's attorney, Bruce Livingston, told his client the test results, tears rolled down Roberts' cheeks. He asked "When do I get out of here."  Unfortunately, the polygraph test did not prove that Roberts was telling the truth. They are not precise. There is approximately one chance in seven that the test was wrong.

Other discomforting aspects of Roberts' case:

bullet Initial reports of the prison riot did not mention that anyone held the guard while he was stabbed. Roberts, weighing 300 pounds, would have been difficult to overlook by observers at the scene.

bullet Another guard told investigators that he was struggling with Roberts at the time of the stabbing, far away from the murder scene.

bullet Roberts had no blood stains on his clothes. Margaret Phillips of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty said that the attack "...was bloody, just awful, and Roy Robertsí shirt did not have a drop of blood on it."

bullet In 1999, Pope John Paul II asked Governor Mel Carnahan to commute the unrelated sentence of Darrell Mease who had been scheduled to be executed in a few days. The governor agreed and was still receiving considerable flack for that decision when Roberts' case came up for his consideration. The pressure that he felt due to the Mease decision may have swayed his response to Roberts' case.

Polygraph tests are generally inadmissible in courts. However, Livingston and Roberts hoped that the data would persuade the governor to commute the death sentence. It did not. Roberts was executed a few days later. His final words were: "Youíre killing an innocent man and you can all kiss my..." 4

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The case of Larry Griffin, also executed in Missouri, 1995:

Larry Griffin was convicted in an case involving a drive-by killing of Quintin Moss, a 19-year-old drug dealer. The only witness testifying at Griffin's trial was Robert Fitzgerald, a criminal from Boston MA who was in St. Louis as part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Sam Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor studied the case. He wrote that Fitzgerald had: "...developed a reputation as a snitch who couldnít produce convictions because Boston juries wouldnít believe him."

The first police officer who arrived at the murder scene now says that Fitzgerald's story is false. A second shooting victim now says that Fitzgerald was not present at the shooting. Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce has reopened the case. She said: "I donít think there is a single prosecutor who wouldnít take a second look at it. Hopefully [the investigation] will help protect the integrity of the system."

Griffin was executed in 1995. 4

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Execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in Massachusetts, 1927:

Two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were found guilty of murder and were executed in 1927 in the face of worldwide protests. As the 50th anniversary of their execution approached, an investigation was conducted into the defendants' innocence. According to Amnesty International the study concluded that:

bullet The prosecutor in the case had "knowingly...[used] unfair and misleading evidence."

bullet The trial had taken place in an atmosphere of prejudice against foreigners.

bullet The judge had presided over the case in a prejudicial manner.

In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the executions, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis directed that Sacco and Vanzetti's names be cleared. However, he stopped short of conceding that their innocence of  had been established. 5

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Additional cases:

Equal Justice USA has prepared a report documenting sixteen probably innocent people who have been executed. 6 They are currently studying additional cases to add to their report.

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References used:

  1. Book cover imageJ Bennett Allen, "The Skeptical Juror and The Trial of Cameron Todd Willingham," Allen & Allen Semiotics, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Steve Mills & Maurice Possley, "Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental," Chicago Tribune, 2004-DEC-09, at:
  3. Dave Mann, "DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution," Texas Observer, 2010-NOV-11, at:
  4. "Missouri death sentence case gets another look. If innocence of executed man is proven, case would set a precedent," MSNBC, 2005-AUG-05, at:
  5. "Fatal Flaw: Innocence and the death penalty in the USA," Amnesty International, at:
  6. Claudia Whitman, et al., "Reasonable Doubts: Is the U.S. Executing Innocent People? A Preliminary Report of the Grassroots Investigation Project," Equal Justice USA, 2000-OCT-26, at: Equal Jutice is located at 20 Jay Street #808, Brooklyn NY 11201. Phone: (718) 801-8945.  

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Home > "Hot" religious topics and conflicts > Death Penalty > Executing the innocent > here

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Copyright © 2005 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-AUG-07
Latest update: 2010-NOV-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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