Almost three years ago, the state of Georgia likely executed an innocent man. Despite no physical evidence connecting Troy Davis to the August 19, 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia, despite the fact that numerous witnesses implicated Sylvester “Redd” Coles, who was the individual to accuse Davis of the murder, despite the fact that police never seriously investigated Coles as a suspect, and despite the fact that seven of nine state trial witnesses later recanted or changed their stories, the state of Georgia went ahead with the execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011…the International Day of Peace, no less. While there are so many issues with the death penalty, in light of the upcoming anniversary of Georgia’s murder of Troy Davis, I am focusing this piece on issues of innocence, which are, of course, generally coupled with police and prosecutorial failings.
Since then, two more states (Connecticut and Maryland) have abolished the death penalty. Yet 32 states continue to execute convicted offenders, many of whose guilt, like Troy Davis, is dubious. In July 2013, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice issued a scathing report in which it stated the Justice Department failed to review the lab work of an FBI examiner even when it was known that the work was flawed. Three of the 64 individuals whose lab work was reviewed by this examiner were already executed.
Several other cases of possible wrongful executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, occurred, not surprisingly, in Texas. In 1989, Texas executed Carlos DeLuna. Conflicting eyewitness statements, mistakes in the police investigation, and missing information resulted in the wrongful conviction, according to a study completed by Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and his students. In 1993, Texas executed Ruben Cantu for capital murder during an attempted robbery. Subsequent investigations have revealed that key witnesses changed their stories. Four years later, Texas executed David Spence, whose trial, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, “was pursued by a zealous narcotics cop who relied on testimony of prison inmates who were granted favors in return for testimony.”
Gary Graham, also known as Shaka Sankofa, was executed by the state of Texas in 2000, despite there being no physical evidence connecting him to the 1981 robbery and murder of Bobby Lambert for which he was convicted. The conviction was based largely on the word of one witness, who was said to have seen the incident through her windshield from 30-40 feet away. Graham’s court-appointed defense attorney failed to call two other witnesses who were at the scene and did not believe it was Graham who was the shooter. Four years later, Texas executed Cameron Todd Wilingham for intentionally setting the fire that killed his three daughters. As fire science advanced in the years that Willingham sat on death row, multiple experts testified before various courts that, in fact, there really was no arson but instead an accidental fire. Hence, no crime at all, and definitely not an intentional triple homicide.
Missouri executed Larry Griffin on June 21, 1995. An investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that a witness, who was injured in the drive-by shooting that Griffin allegedly perpetrated, claimed that Griffin was not the shooter, and a police officer who responded to the scene later provided an account that discredited previous witness statements. The NAACP supplied the prosecution with the names of three likely suspects, all of whom are in jail for other offenses. University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross stated in 2005, “There is no real doubt that we have an innocent person. If we could go to trial on this case, if there was a forum where we could take this to trial, we would win hands down.” But there is no such forum, because Griffin is dead. Joseph O’Dell was executed in 1997 by the state of Oklahoma. DNA evidence cast much doubt on his 1986 conviction for rape and murder, and three state Supreme Court judges expressed concern that O’Dell was allowed to defend himself, yet the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
My current state of Florida may also have executed an innocent man. Leo Jones was executed in 1998 for the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville. In all likelihood, Jones was tortured by the police officer who interrogated him and after multiple hours of abuse, coerced Jones into signing a confession. Of course, nothing seems to have been learned, as Florida leads the way in exonerations with 24. According to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the usual compensation from the state upon release is a t-shirt, a pair of jeans, and a bus ticket or the equivalent.
Yet, despite what is obviously a deeply flawed system if this many people can be sentenced to death row or even executed in error, 29 individuals have been executed to date in 2014, mostly from Florida, Texas and Missouri. The state of Florida has executed ten people in the past ten months.
As we approach the 2014 International Day of Peace, it is imperative that the nation re-visit the case of Troy Davis and the others listed here. To have a system of justice that is so unjust as to kill those who may have been innocent is a tremendous blight on the freedoms and liberties we allegedly stand for.
For additional information about the cases described here, please see http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executed-possibly-innocent
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.