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One of the biggest arguments against the death penalty is how difficult it can be to prove someone's guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt. Even with modern forensic science, the justice system makes mistakes from time to time, even recently revealing that a man was wrongfully convicted of murder after 30 years in prison. Countless people have been sentenced to death over the course of history, and modern perspective has called into question the guilt of some of these victims. Naturally, the advent of modern DNA tests have allowed investigators to use DNA evidence to accuse or exonerate murder suspects, but even that methodology has shown to not be completely fool-proof. Regardless of your thoughts on capital punishment or your knowledge of other innocent people convicted of horrible crimes, it's heart-wrenching to learn these stories of innocent people who were put to death.
When you read stories of innocent people who were put to death, it often involves them tragically isolated, with nobody to believe their innocence. In the case of Troy Davis, waves of people, including celebrities and human rights groups, protested against Davis's conviction. Davis was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of a security guard in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia. There was a distinct lack of evidence against Davis, and seven of the nine witnesses testifying against him later recanted their statements. In light of these circumstances, activists like former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke out against the sentencing. Protesters managed to stay Davis's execution a number of times, but ultimately Davis was executed via lethal execution in 2011 after twenty years on death row.
Cameron Todd Willingham
One of the more recent events on this list, Cameron Todd Willingham's story is an extremely unhappy one. Willingham was at home with his three daughters in a small town in eastern Texas two nights before Christmas in 1991. While Willingham's wife was out shopping for Christmas gifts, their house burned down, killing the three young girls. The subsequent investigation led prosecutors to believe that Willingham had abused his children and either set the house on fire to kill them or beat them to death and set the house on fire to cover it up. Despite his wife's insistence that she and her husband loved their children, Cameron Todd Willingham could not convince investigators of his innocence.
Willingham maintained his innocence for the thirteen years he was on death row, with all his appeals being denied until he was put to death by lethal injection in 2004. Investigators have since determined that there was no sign of arson in the house, and that the fire was likely accidental. The case has been plagued by controversy, including then-governor of Texas Rick Perry, who has been accused of meddling in the investigation. Furthermore, Willingham's widow has given multiple conflicting statements regarding her relationship with Willingham and their children. Ultimately, we'll likely never know for sure what happened that night, but it is most likely that Willingham didn't murder his daughters.
Roy Michael Roberts
Roy Michael Roberts was possibly one of the least lucky men in Missouri when he was alive. He was first wrongly imprisoned for committing robbery until the true perpetrator confessed to acting alone. With only months left before his release, Roberts became tied up in the murder investigation of a correctional officer. The officer was murdered by two inmates during a prison riot in 1983. Roberts was accused of holding down the officer while the other inmates stabbed him to death. While the other two inmates had the officer's blood on their clothes, the only evidence against Roberts were eyewitness accounts that he was there. Seven inmates and officers claimed to have seen Roberts holding down the murdered officer, while nine other witnesses claimed Roberts was not at the scene of the murder. Ultimately, the governor refused to exonerate Roberts, and he was executed in 1999.
Claude Jones was arrested in connection with the murder of a liquor store owner in Texas in 1989. A hair was found at the scene of the crime that investigators believed to belong to the perpetrator. Without access to proper DNA tests, investigators simply compared the hair to hairs taken from fifteen suspects seen entering the liquor store on the day of the shooting. Claude Jones was found to be the closest visual match and was ultimately sentenced to death. In 2000, he requested a DNA test be made of his hair against the hair that was originally used to convict him, as DNA tests had become much more widespread. Then-governor of Texas George W. Bush did not respond to the request (later claiming to never have received it), and Jones was executed by lethal injection at the end of that year.
Josefa Rodriguez, better known as Chipita, was a Mexican-American woman living in Texas in the 19th century. She had a reputation as a kind woman who would provide food and lodging for travelers at her home. However, one traveler in 1863 was found murdered after spending the night at Chipita's house. Texas courts convicted Chipita of murder based on the circumstantial evidence that the traveler had gold on his person, arguing that the 63-year-old woman murdered him to steal his riches. The other suspect was a young man and Chipita's hired hand, who is believed by many historians to have been Chipita's illegitimate child. Chipita refused to testify against her son, and was hanged in 1863. It is widely believed that Chipita allowed herself to be executed in order to protect her son. In 1985, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution acknowledging that Chipita did not receive a fair trial.
It was 1952 in the town of Croydon, England. 19-year-old Derek Bentley was committing burglary with his friend, 16-year-old Christopher Craig, when two police officers discovered and pursued the duo. While Bentley was unarmed, Craig had a pistol, and the pair found themselves in a standoff with the two officers. When one officer ordered Craig to surrender his weapon, Bentley gave the ambiguous command to, "Let him have it." Craig shot and killed the officer, and the duo was subsequently arrested. Craig testified against Bentley, having interpreted, "Let him have it," as an order to shoot the police officer. Both young men were ultimately convicted for the murder, but as a minor, Craig received a ten year sentence while Bentley, a legal adult, was sentenced to death. Bentley was executed by hanging in 1953, but a public campaign of his innocence soon followed, arguing that his confession had been coerced and that even if Bentley intended, "Let him have it," as an order to shoot, this should not have been enough to earn a death sentence. Ultimately, Bentley was pardoned and his conviction overturned in the 1990s.
In 1949, a Welsh mother and daughter were found strangled to death in their home in London. The prime suspect in the subsequent investigation was Timothy Evans, the patriarch of the family. According to the testimony of his half sister, Evans reverted to a childlike state upon learning of the death of his wife and child. He accused another man named John Christie of being the true murderer, but courts deemed Evans too mad and unstable to be taken seriously. Evans was coerced into a confession and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1950. Years later, it came to light that John Christie was in fact a serial killer, and he was convicted of murdering eight woman, including Evans's wife and infant daughter. Christie was hung for his crimes in 1953, and Evans was subsequently granted a posthumous royal pardon.
The Perry Family
The case of the Perry family, often called the Campden Wonder, is one of the most confusing and morbidly intriguing stories of innocent people who were put to death. The details of this case are particularly cloudy, as it occurred around 1660 in rural England. John Perry was a servant to an elderly businessman named William Harrison. One night, Harrison went missing, and Perry was sent to search for him. When Perry didn't return, Harrison's son was sent to search for him. The two met up but were still unable to find William Harrison. Eventually, the duo came upon Harrison's bloodied and tattered hat and other belongings, and they assumed the worst.
When placed on trial, Perry confessed that he had murdered Harrison along with his mother and brother. Ultimately, the three members of the Perry family were hanged. In 1662, however, Harrison suddenly returned, stating that he had been abducted and taken to Turkey before slowly making his way back home. The question of why Perry falsely incriminated himself and his family remains a mystery.
Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labor activist living in Salt Lake City around the turn of the 20th century. He was accused of the murder of two men in 1914, the only evidence being that Hill had gone to the doctor with a gunshot wound on the same night as the murders. "Investigators" at the time believed that one of the murder victims had shot Hill in self defense, and thus used this reasoning as a means to sentence him to death. Several politicians and workers' unions defended Hill, but he was ultimately executed by firing squad in 1915. Nearly a century later, in 2011, new evidence surfaced suggesting that Hill was shot by another man out of jealousy, as they both were romantically interested in the same young woman.
One of the most tragic stories of innocent people who were put to death is that of Joe Arridy, a mentally disabled man from Pueblo, Colorado who was a suspect in the rape and murder of a young girl in 1936. It's baffling to think how many chances the justice system had to let this innocent man go free. He was arrested along with a man named Frank Aguilar—the real murderer, who attempted to convince police into believing Arridy was the culprit.
Arridy was sentenced to death after a forced confession, despite the acknowledgement of numerous psychologists that Arridy was not of sound enough mind to even understand what he was being accused of. Even after Aquilar was put to death for this exact crime, Arridy remained a death row inmate for two more years before being executed via gas chamber. Arridy requested ice cream for his last meal, and it was clear that he did not understand he was about to die. Arridy was officially pardoned in 2011, 72 years after his wrongful execution.