Wrongful execution is a miscarriage of justice occurring when an innocent person is put to death by capital punishment. Cases of wrongful execution are cited as an argument by opponents of capital punishment, while proponents suggest that the argument of innocence concerns the credibility of the justice system as a whole and does not solely undermine the use of death penalty.
A variety of individuals are claimed to have been innocent victims of the death penalty. Newly available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 20 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States, but DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of capital cases. Others have been released on the basis of weak cases against them, sometimes involving prosecutorial misconduct; resulting in acquittal at retrial, charges dropped, or innocence-based pardons. The Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.) has published a list of 10 inmates “executed but possibly innocent”.
In the UK, reviews prompted by the Criminal Cases Review Commission have resulted in one pardon and three exonerations for people executed between 1950 and 1953 (when the execution rate in England and Wales averaged 17 per year), with compensation being paid.
Colin Campbell Ross was hanged in Melbourne in 1922 for the murder of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke the previous year in what became known as the Gun Alley Murder. The case was re-examined in the 1990s using modern techniques and Ross was eventually pardoned in 2008, by which time capital punishment in Australia had been abolished in all jurisdictions. The last execution took place in 1967.
People’s Republic of China
Wei Qing’an (1961–1984, 23 years old) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape of Kun Liu, a woman who had disappeared. The execution was carried out on 3 May 1984 by the Intermediate People’s Court. In the next month, Tian Yuxiu was arrested and admitted that he had committed the rape. Three years later, Wei was officially declared innocent.
Teng Xingshan (?–1989) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for supposedly having raped, robbed and murdered Shi Xiaorong, a woman who had disappeared. An old man found a dismembered body, and incompetent police forensics claimed to have matched the body to the photo of the missing Shi Xiaorong. The execution was carried out on 28 January 1989 by the Huaihua Intermediate People’s Court. In 1993, the previously missing woman returned to the village, saying she had been kidnapped and taken to Shandong. The absolute innocence of the wrongfully executed Teng was not admitted until 2005.
Nie Shubin (1974–1995) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape and murder of Kang Juhua, a woman in her thirties. The execution was carried out on April 27, 1995 by the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People’s Court. In 2005, ten years after the execution, Wang Shujin admitted to the police that he had committed the murder.
Qoγsiletu or Huugjilt (1977–1996) was an Inner Mongolian who was executed for the rape and murder of a young girl on June 10, 1996. On December 5, 2006, ten years after the execution, Zhao Zhihong wrote the Petition of my Death Penalty admitting he had committed the crime. Huugjilt was posthumously exonerated and Zhao Zhihong was sentenced to death in 2015.
Harry Gleeson was executed in Ireland in April 1941 for the murder of Moll McCarthy in County Tipperary in November 1940. The Gardai withheld crucial evidence and fabricated other evidence against Gleeson. In 2015, he was posthumously pardoned.
Chiang Kuo-ching (Chiang is the family name, 1975–1997) was a Taiwan Air Force soldier who was executed by a military tribunal on August 13, 1997 for the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl. On January 28, 2011, over 13 years after the execution, Hsu Jung-chou, who had a history of sexual abuse, admitted to the prosecutor that he had been responsible for the crime. In September 2011 Chiang was posthumously acquitted by a military court who found Chiang’s original confession had been obtained by torture. Ma Ying-jeou, the Republic of China’s president, apologised to Chiang’s family.
In 1660, in a variety of events known as the Campden Wonder, an Englishman named William Harrison disappeared after going on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. Some of his clothing was found slashed and bloody on the side of a local road. Investigators interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, who eventually confessed that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged. Two years later, Harrison reappeared, telling the incredibly unlikely tale that he had been abducted by three horsemen and sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Though his tale was implausible, he indubitably had not been murdered by the Perry family.
Timothy Evans was tried and executed in March 1950 for the murder of his wife and infant daughter. An official inquiry conducted 16 years later determined that it was Evans’s fellow tenant, serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie, who was responsible for the murder. Christie also admitted to the murder of Evans’s wife, as well as five other women and his own wife. Christie, who was executed in 1953, may have murdered other women, judging by evidence found in his possession at the time of his arrest, but it was never pursued by the police. Evans was posthumously pardoned in 1966 after the inquiry concluded that Christie had also murdered Evans’s daughter. The case had prompted the abolition of capital punishment in the UK in 1965.
George Kelly was executed in March 1950 for the 1949 murder of the manager of the Cameo Cinema in Liverpool, UK and his assistant during a robbery that went wrong. This case became known as the Cameo Murder. Kelly’s conviction was overturned in 2003. Another man, Donald Johnson, had confessed to the crime but the police bungled Johnson’s case and had not divulged his confession at Kelly’s trial.
Somali-born Mahmood Hussein Mattan was executed in 1952 for the murder of Lily Volpert. In 1998 the Court of Appeal decided that the original case was, in the words of Lord Justice Rose, “demonstrably flawed”. The family were awarded £725,000 compensation, to be shared equally among Mattan’s wife and three children. The compensation was the first award to a family for a person wrongfully hanged.
Derek Bentley was a learning disabled young man who was executed in 1953. He was convicted of the murder of a police officer during an attempted robbery, despite the facts that it was his accomplice who fired the gun and that Bentley was already under arrest at the time of the shooting. Christopher Craig, the 16-year-old who actually fired the fatal shot, could not be executed as he was under 18. Craig served only ten years in prison before he was released.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross led a team of experts in the law and in statistics that estimated the likely number of unjust convictions. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences determined that at least 4% of people on death row were and are likely innocent. Gross has no doubt that some innocent people have been executed.
Statistics likely understate the actual problem of wrongful convictions because once an execution has occurred there is often insufficient motivation and finance to keep a case open, and it becomes unlikely at that point that the miscarriage of justice will ever be exposed. For example, in the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder, a prosecuting attorney argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O’Dell, “it would be shouted from the rooftops that … Virginia executed an innocent man.” The state prevailed, and the evidence was destroyed.
We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, or Chaska (died December 26, 1862) was a Native American of the Dakota who was executed in a mass hanging near Mankato, Minnesota in the wake of the Dakota War of 1862, despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had commuted his death sentence days earlier.
Chipita Rodriguez was hanged in San Patricio County, Texas in 1863 for murdering a horse trader, and 122 years later, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution exonerating her.
Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed in South Carolina in 1915 for the murder of a man involved in an interracial affair two years previously but were pardoned 94 years after execution. It is thought that they were arrested and charged because they were viewed as wealthy enough to hire competent legal counsel and get an acquittal.
Joe Arridy (1915–1939) was a mentally disabled American man executed for rape and murder and posthumously granted a pardon. Arridy was sentenced to death for the murder and rape of a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Pueblo, Colorado. He confessed to murdering the girl and assaulting her sister. Due to the sensational nature of the crime precautions were taken to keep him from being hanged by vigilante justice. His sentence was executed after multiple stays on January 6, 1939, in the Colorado gas chamber in the state penitentiary in Canon City, Colorado. Arridy was the first Colorado prisoner posthumously pardoned in January 2011 by Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a former district attorney, after research had shown that Arridy was very likely not in Pueblo when the crime happened and had been coerced into confessing. Among other things, Arridy had an IQ of 46, which was equal to the mental age of a 6-year-old. He did not even understand that he was going to be executed, and played with a toy train that the warden, Roy Best, had given to him as a present. A man named Frank Aguilar had been executed in 1937 in the Colorado gas chamber for the same crime for which Arridy ended up also being executed. Arridy’s posthumous pardon in 2011 was the first such pardon in Colorado history. A press release from the governor’s office stated, “[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.” The governor also pointed to Arridy’s intellectual disabilities. The governor said, “Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution.”
George Stinney, a 14-year old black boy, was electrocuted in South Carolina in 1944 for the murder of Betty June Binnicker, age 11, as well as Mary Emma Thames, age 8. The arrest occurred on March 23, 1944 in Alcolu, inside of Clarendon County, South Carolina. Apparently, the two girls rode their bikes past Stinney’s house where they asked him and his sister about a certain type of flower; after this encounter, the girls went missing and were found dead in a ditch the following morning. After an hour of interrogation by the officers, a deputy stated that Stinney confessed to the murder. The confession explained that Stinney wanted to have intercourse with Betty, so he wanted to kill Mary to get Betty alone; however, both girls fought back and that is when he killed both of them. This case still remains a very controversial one due to the fact that the judicial process showed severe shortcomings. An example can be made out of this case by showing how the judicial system does not always properly orchestrate. He was the youngest person executed in the United States. More than 70 years later, a judge threw out the conviction, calling it a “great injustice.”
Carlos DeLuna was executed in Texas in December 1989 for stabbing a gas station clerk to death. Subsequent investigations cast strong doubt upon DeLuna’s guilt for the murder of which he had been convicted. His execution came about six years after the crime was committed. The trial ended up attracting local attention, but it was never suggested that an innocent man was about to be punished while the actual killer went free. DeLuna was found blocks away from the crime scene with $149 in his pocket. From that point on, it went downhill for the young Carlos DeLuna. A wrongful eyewitness testimony is what formed the case against him. Unfortunately, DeLuna’s previous criminal record was very much used against him. The real killer, Carlos Hernandez, was a repeat violent offender who actually had a history of slashing women with his unique buck knife, not to mention he looked very similar to Carlos DeLuna. Hernandez did not keep quiet about his murder; apparently, he went around bragging about the killing of Lopez. In 1999, Hernandez was imprisoned for attacking his neighbor with a knife.
Jesse Tafero was convicted of murder and executed via electric chair in May 1990 in the state of Florida for the murders of a Florida Highway Patrol officer and a Canadian constable. The conviction of a co-defendant was overturned in 1992 after a recreation of the crime scene indicated a third person had committed the murders. Not only was Tafero wrongly accused, his electric chair malfunctioned as well – three times. As a result, Tafero’s head caught on fire. After this encounter, a debate was focused around humane methods of execution. Lethal injections became more common in the states rather than the electric chair.
Johnny Garrett of Texas was executed in February 1992 for allegedly raping and murdering a nun. In March 2004 cold-case DNA testing identified Leoncio Rueda as the rapist and murderer of another elderly victim killed four months earlier. Immediately following the nun’s murder, prosecutors and police were certain the two cases were committed by the same assailant. The flawed case is explored in a 2008 documentary entitled The Last Word.
Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas was convicted and executed for the death of his three children who died in a house fire. The prosecution charged that the fire was caused by arson. He has not been posthumously exonerated, but the case has gained widespread attention as a possible case of wrongful execution. A number of arson experts have decried the results of the original investigation as faulty. In June 2009, five years after Willingham’s execution, the State of Texas ordered a re-examination of the case. Dr. Craig Beyler found “a finding of arson could not be sustained”. Beyler said that key testimony from a fire marshal at Willingham’s trial was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics”. The Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to discuss the report by Beyler at a meeting on October 2, 2009, but two days before the meeting Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chair of the commission and two other members. The new chair canceled the meeting, sparking accusations that Perry was interfering with the investigation and using it for his own political advantage. In 2010, a four-person panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission acknowledged that state and local arson investigators used “flawed science” in determining the blaze had been deliberately set.
In 2015, the Justice Department and the FBI formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an FBI forensic squad overstated forensic hair matches for two decades before the year 2000. Of the 28 forensic examiners testifying to hair matches in a total of 268 trials reviewed, 26 overstated the evidence of forensic hair matches and 95% of the overstatements favored the prosecution. Defendants were sentenced to death in 32 of those 268 cases.
Aleksandr Kravchenko was executed in 1983 for the 1978 murder of nine year old Yelena Zakotnova in Shakhty, a coal mining town near Rostov-on-Don. Kravchenko as a teenager, had served a prison sentence for the rape and murder of a teenage girl but witnesses said he was not at the scene of Zakotnova’s murder at the time. Under police pressure the witnesses altered their statements and Kravchenko was executed. Later it was found that the girl had been murdered by Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killer nicknamed “the Red Ripper” and “the Butcher of Rostov”, who was executed in 1994.
Exonerations and pardons
Kirk Bloodsworth was the first American to be freed from death row as a result of exoneration by DNA evidence. Kirk Bloodsworth was a Marine before he became a waterman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At the age of 22, he was wrongly convicted of the murder of a nine-year-old girl; she had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and beaten with a rock. An anonymous call to the police claiming that the witness had seen Bloodsworth with the girl that day, and he matched up with the description from the police sketch. Five witnesses claiming that they saw Bloodsworth with the victim, as well as a statement in his testimony where he claimed that he “had done something terrible that day that would affect his relationship with his wife”, did not help his case. No physical evidence connected Bloodsworth to the crime, but he was still convicted of rape and murder which led to him receiving a death sentence.
Ray Krone is the 100th American to have been sentenced to death and then later exonerated. Ray Krone was convicted of the murder of Kim Ancona, thirty-six-year-old victim in Phoenix, Arizona. Ancona had been found nude, fatally stabbed. The physical evidence that the police had to rely on was bite marks on Ancona’s breasts and neck. After Ancona had told a friend that Ray Krone, a regular customer, was going to help her close the bar the previous night, the police brought him in to make a Styrofoam impression of his teeth. After comparing the teeth marks, Krone was arrested for the murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault of Kim Ancona on December 31, 1991. At the trial in 1992, Krone pled innocence, but the teeth mark comparison lead the jury to find him guilty and he was sentenced to death as well as a consecutive twenty-one-year term of imprisonment. Krone’s family also believed that he was innocent, which led them to spend over $300,000 in order to fight for his freedom.
In the UK, reviews prompted by the Criminal Cases Review Commission have resulted in one pardon and three exonerations for people that were executed between 1950 and 1953 (when the execution rate in England and Wales averaged 17 per year), with compensation being paid. Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous free pardon in 1966. Mahmood Hussein Mattan was convicted in 1952 and was the last person to be hanged in Cardiff, Wales, but had his conviction quashed in 1998. George Kelly was hanged at Liverpool in 1950, but had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal in June 2003. Derek Bentley had his conviction quashed in 1998 with the appeal trial judge, Lord Bingham, noting that the original trial judge, Lord Goddard, had denied the defendant “the fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen.”
Colin Campbell Ross (1892–1922) was an Australian wine-bar owner executed for the murder of a child which became known as The Gun Alley Murder, despite there being evidence that he was innocent. Following his execution, efforts were made to clear his name, and in the 1990s old evidence was re-examined with modern forensic techniques which supported the view that Ross was innocent. In 2006 an appeal for mercy was made to Victoria’s Chief Justice and on 27 May 2008 the Victorian government pardoned Ross in what is believed to be an Australian legal first.
U.S. mental health controversy
There has been much debate about the justification of imposing capital punishment on individuals who have been diagnosed with mental retardation. Some have argued that the execution of people with mental retardation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as it pertains to the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted cruel and unusual punishment to include those that fail to take into account the defendant’s degree of criminal culpability, it did not determine that executing the mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment until 2002.
In 1986, a US Supreme Court decision ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason for or the reality of his or her punishment, this decision was upheld in a 2002 decision. Despite the supreme court decision, Texas did not implement legislation for this until 1999. There have been at least 25 individuals with documented diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other severe persistent mental illnesses executed in the state of Texas, despite them seeking treatment before the commission of their crimes, but were denied care. The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution, however, in 2007, the US Supreme court decision Panetti vs Quarterman, the justices ruled that “the Fifth Circuit’s incompetency standard is too restrictive to afford a prisoner eighth amendment protection.
This issue was first addressed in the case of Penry v. Lynaugh, in which Johnny Paul Penry had filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court that claimed his death sentence should be vacated because it violated his Eighth Amendment rights. His reasoning was that he suffered from mental retardation, and numerous psychologists had confirmed this to be factual, indicating that his IQ ranged from 50 to 63 and that he possessed the mental abilities of a six-and-a-half-year-old. Penry’s petition was denied by the district court, whose decision was subsequently affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Penry would later appeal to the Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled in a five-to-four decision that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not categorically prohibit the execution of persons with mental retardation. Following the 1989 Penry ruling, sixteen states as well as the federal government passed legislation that banned the execution of offenders with mental retardation.
Penry was overruled in 2002 by Atkins v. Virginia, which held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment precluded the execution of the mentally handicapped, but the Supreme Court left the definition of mentally handicapped as something to be determined by the states.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that states cannot rely solely on an IQ test in determining whether a borderline mentally handicapped person can be executed.
Judicial murder is the unjustified use of capital punishment. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “death inflicted by process of law, capital punishment, esp. considered to be unjust or cruel”.
An early case in which charges of judicial murder were raised was the Amboyna massacre in 1623, which caused a legal dispute between the English and Dutch governments over the conduct of a court in the Dutch East Indies that had ordered the execution of ten English men accused of treason. The dispute centered around differing interpretations of the legal jurisdiction of the court in question. The English believed that this court had not been competent to try and execute these EIC members, and so believed the executions to have been fundamentally illegal, thus constituting “judicial murder”. The Dutch, on the other hand, believed the court to have been fundamentally competent, and wished to focus instead on misconduct of the particular judges in the court.
Another early use of the term occurs in Northleigh’s Natural Allegiance of 1688; “He would willingly make this Proceeding against the Knight but a sort of Judicial Murder”.
In 1777 Voltaire used the comparable term of assassins juridiques (“judicial murderers”).
The term was used in German (Justizmord) in 1782 by August Ludwig von Schlözer in reference to the execution of Anna Göldi. In a footnote, he explains the term as
“the murder of an innocent, deliberately, and with all the pomp of holy Justice, perpetrated by people installed to prevent murder, or, if a murder has occurred, to see to it that it is punished appropriately.”
In 1932, the term is also used by Justice Sutherland in Powell v. Alabama when establishing the right to a court-appointed attorney in all capital cases:
Let us suppose the extreme case of a prisoner charged with a capital offense who is deaf and dumb, illiterate and feeble minded, unable to employ counsel, with the whole power of the state arrayed against him, prosecuted by counsel for the state without assignment of counsel for his defense, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Such a result … if carried into execution, would be little short of judicial murder.
Hermann Mostar (1956) defends the extension of the term to un-premeditated miscarriages of justice where an innocent suffers the death penalty.