Have Innocent Men Been Put to Death in Death Penalty Cases?
With a Look at Troy Davis, Let Us Open Our Eyes
The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia is bringing the death penalty into the spotlight of our nation's consciousness. Many people feel a horrendous miscarriage of justice has occurred and an innocent man put to death. Others feel there is no doubt that the guilty party was executed on September 21, 2011. The question I will address here is not which side is right or wrong, but whether there was enough certainty in this case to condemn a man to death. More importantly, was this case unique?
My Personal Views
Before you start thinking I am someone wanting to convince you to condemn the death penalty, I should point out that is not the case. In fact, I support the death penalty in appropriate cases when there is no reasonable doubt about the guilt of the person condemned to die. I do not support killing people when there is serious doubt that the person is guilty and certainly not when there is even evidence that the person is in fact innocent. I do not agree with simply letting someone go if there are questions about the validity of the original trial, but I also cannot understand how something as permanent as a death sentence can be carried out in good conscience when there is any legitimate question about the case.
I also believe the public has a right to know all the facts when a person is put to death by the state. If there is anything proving a man's guilt that is not public knowledge, it should be made public before the man is executed so that the public can feel justified in the actions taken in their name. When the state kills a man, we as American citizens are killing that man and we have a right to know why this is being done in our name. The state should be able to provide sufficient reason so that we can live with a clear conscience.
Was Troy Davis a Guilty Man?
Deciding the guilt or innocence of a person is rarely an easy task and one that should never be taken lightly. With a death penalty case, that responsibility is multiplied a thousandfold as a life is on the line and the wrong decision could condemn an innocent man to death or set a guilty man free. When Troy Anthony Davis was originally tried for the murder of a police officer Mark MacPhail, seven people testified they saw Davis shoot and kill the young officer. Two other individuals testified Davis confessed to the killings to them.
Many news stories gave confusing and conflicting information regarding the number of witnesses with some saying only these nine testified and others saying more than thirty took the stand. The truth is that in addition to the nine, approximately two dozen other witnesses were called in the case to testify about various aspects, but only the eye witnesses and the two witnesses claiming Davis confessed were able to actually tie Davis to the murder.
Of the original nine witnesses critical to tying Troy Davis to the murder, seven have now recanted their testimony claiming they were coerced into giving false testimony by the police. Of the two remaining witnesses, one is the man many suspect to be the actual killer who also happens to be the one that originally pointed police in Davis' direction.
There has also been conflicting reports in media stories as to whether or not there was any physical evidence presented at the trial. The truth here is similar to the situation regarding witnesses. There was physical evidence at the trial but it did not tie Davis to the murder. For instance, shell casings from an earlier shooting the same evening were found to be a potential (though not certain) match to the shell casings from the MacPhail killing. Davis was also accused of that crime, but has always insisted he was innocent of that offense as well.
Ultimately, it is hard to believe Davis would have been convicted had those eye witnesses not identified him as the shooter. And one has to wonder what would be in it for all these witnesses to change their stories at this time if it were not true. While this certainly does not prove Troy Davis' innocence, it is hard to understand how this could not cast sufficient doubt on the original verdict to at least stop Davis from being executed. Sadly, the courts did not see it the same way and many are left with the feeling that an innocent man has been put to death.
Justly Executed or Wrongfully Killed?
Perhaps it is a sad reality that so long as the death penalty stands, there is always a possibility that an innocent person will be put to death. Even the staunchest supporters of the death penalty must admit this is the case. Many may feel this possibility should cause us to banish capital punishment forever, but to many others, that is not an acceptable solution. But the possibility that a wrongfully convected person could be put to death should make us all the more vigilant that we do not make errors. Listed below are a number of men who some believe were innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.
One of the best known cases of a possibly erroneous conviction, Willingham was convicted of killing his three young children in a house fire he was alleged to have set in 1992. He was executed February 17, 2004 by the state of Texas. But an investigation by an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2009 found that it was much more likely that the fire was an accident and not intentionally set. Furthermore, the expert stated the evidence presented at trial by the prosecution's arson experts was more in line with what would be expected from "mystics or psychics" than scientific investigators.
Convicted in the murders of two police officers, Jesse Tafero was executed May 4, 1990 by the state of Florida. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of Walter Rhodes. Tafero, his girlfriend and Rhodes had been sleeping in a car at a rest area when Florida Highway Patrol Officer Phillip Black and off-duty Canadian constable Donald Irwin approached the vehicle. What is certain is that the two law enforcement officers were shot and killed. What is almost certain is that only one person was the shooter. What is in question is whether or not the shooter was Tafero or Rhodes.
Shaka Sankofa (aka Gary Graham)
Shaka Sankofa, born Gary Graham, was executed June 22, 2000 in Texas for the murder of Bobby Grant Lambert, a husband and father who was killed in Houston in 1981. Sankofa denied killing Lambert but did admit to a crime spree which included 20 armed robberies, three kidnappings, a rape and three attempted murders. I mention this case only because it garnered a good bit of publicity at the time and had some attention from some well-known personalities such Rev. Al Sharpton, Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. It saddens me that if Sankofa was not the killer then the real killer has gotten away with murder, but I do not lose any sleep over this man being put to death.
Despite mounting evidence that he might be innocent, Ellis Wayne Felker was executed on November 15, 1996, for the disappearance, rape and murder of Evelyn Joy Ludlum. In September 1996, attorneys for Felker received several boxes of evidence that had been unlawfully withheld from the defense. This material included a confession from another individual as well as possible DNA evidence. The District Attorney prosecuting the case had denied under oath that the evidence existed at a previous hearing for Felker.
On March 24, 1998, Leo Jones was executed for the 1981 killing of Jacksonville, Florida police officer Thomas Szafranski who was gunned down while sitting at an intersection. Jones confessed but later claimed the confession was coerced. The arresting officer and the officer who took his statement were both later terminated for ethical violations and other officers identified the arresting officer as an "enforcer" who used torture and specifically admitted to beating Jones. There were multiple witnesses who identified another man seen carrying a rifle, and though police entered the Jones' apartment within minutes, they never found the murder weapon.
Many feel the case of Johnny Garrett is the clearest case of an innocent man being executed. Garrett was put to death on February 11, 1992, for the 1981 rape and murder of Sister Tadea Benz, a 76-year-old nun -- a crime committed when he was 17 years old. The state of Texas went forward with the execution dispite some rather disturbing questions. A psychiatrist originally hired by the defense testified that Garrett had multiple personalities and one of those personalities had admitted to the rape while denying the murder. Garret denied ever making a confession and no recording was made of the confession.
In March 2004, DNA evidence linked a man named Leoncio Rueda to the rape and murder of another elderly victim four months before Sister Benz had been killed. At the time of the crimes, law enforcement had been convinced the crimes had been perpetrated by the same man. The similarities between the two would seem to validate claims of Garrett's inncoence.
- A white shirt was left at both crime scenes.
- Black curly hairs were found on both victims that were later linked to Rueda.
- Both victims suffered matching cuts and stab wounds.
- Dark-skinned men wearing white shirts were identified at both scenes.
Not convinced yet? It turned out that previously unidentified fingerprints in the nun's room belonged to Rueda. And Rueda had served time in his native Cuba for rape and murder. In a taped interview, Rueda admitted not only to raping and killing Sister Benz but also to having raped another in a later attack.
For more information on this case, watch the Jesse Quackenbush documentary from 2005, The Last Word.
On December 9, 1999, Texas executed James Beathard for the 1984 murder of Gene Hathorn Sr., his wife, Linda Sue and their 14-year-old son, Marcus. He was convicted on the testimony of the couple's other son, Gene, Jr., who was hoping for a reduced sentence for his part in the crime and claimed Beathard had done most of the actual killing. Beathard, who had no criminal past and had never handled a gun, claimed he was there but was only looking to buy marijuana and when Gene Jr. starting killing his family, he ran and hid in the woods. He was convicted anyway but one year later, Hathorn recanted his testimony stating he had acted alone and Beathard had indeed ran to the woods. Still, Beathard was refused a new trial and in 1999 his execution was carried out.
Other Possibly Innocent Inmates Who Have Been Executed
- Odell Barnes (executed March 1, 2000 by Texas)
- Derek Bentley (executed January 28, 1953 in the United Kingdom)
- Ruben Cantu (executed August 24, 1993 by Texas)
- Carlos De Luns (executed December 7, 1989 by Texas)
- Troy Farris (executed January 13, 1999 by Texas)
- Larry Griffin (executed June 21, 1995 by Missouri)
- Claude Jones (executed December 7, 2000 by Texas)
- Joseph O'Dell (executed July 23, 1997 by Virginia)
- David Spence (executed April 3, 1997 by Texas)
Posthumously Pardoned or Exonerated After Execution
- Joe Arridy (executed January 6, 1939; pardoned January 2011)
- Timothy Evans (executed March 9, 1950; pardoned October 1966)
- Meeks Griffin (executed September 29, 1915; pardoned October 2009)
- Thomas Griffin (executed September 29, 1915; pardoned October 2009)
- Josefa Rodriguez (executed November 13, 1863; exonerated June 1985)
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