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Wrongful execution is a miscarriage of justice occurring when an innocent person is put to death by capital punishment, the "death penalty." Cases of wrongful execution are cited as an argument by the opponents of capital punishment.[1]

A number of people are claimed to have been innocent victims of the death penalty.[2][3]

Newly-available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 15 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States,[4] but DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of capital cases. Others have been released due to 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 8 inmates "executed but possibly innocent",[5] although none of them has yet had his innocence recognized by any court. At least 39 executions are claimed to have been carried out in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.[6]

In the U.K., 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.


Specific examples

Of the American cases, one often quoted is the execution of Jesse Tafero in Florida. Tafero was convicted along with an accomplice, Sonia Jacobs, of murdering two police officers in 1976 while the two were fleeing drug charges; each was sentenced to death based partially on the testimony of a third person, Walter Rhodes, a prison acquaintance of Tafero's who was an accessory to the crime and who testified against the pair in exchange for a lighter sentence. Jacobs's death sentence was commuted in 1981. In 1982, Rhodes recanted his testimony and claimed full responsibility for the crime. Despite Rhodes's admission, Tafero was executed in 1990. In 1992 the conviction against Jacobs was quashed and the state subsequently did not have enough evidence to retry her. She then entered an Alford plea and was sentenced to time served. It has been presumed that, as the same evidence was used against Tafero as against Jacobs, Tafero would have been released as well had he still been alive.[7]

Wayne Felker, a convicted rapist, is also claimed by some observers to have been an innocent victim of execution. Felker was a suspect in the disappearance of a Georgia (US) woman in 1981 and was under police surveillance for two weeks prior to the woman's body being found. The autopsy was conducted by an unqualified technician, and the results were changed to show the death occurring before the surveillance had begun. After Felker's conviction, his lawyers presented testimony by forensics experts that the body could not have been dead more than three days when found; a stack of evidence was found hidden by the prosecution that hadn't been presented in court, including DNA evidence that might have exonerated Felker or cast doubt on his guilt. There was also a signed confession by another suspect in the paperwork, but despite all this, Felker was executed in 1996. In 2000, his case was reopened in an attempt to make him the first executed person in the US to have DNA testing used to prove his innocence after his execution. This attempt failed, as the DNA tests were ruled inconclusive as to innocence or guilt.[8]

Cameron Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for an arson fire in 1991 which took the lives of his three small daughters. Subsequently, doubt has been cast on the forensic evidence which underlay the conviction, particularly whether evidence existed of an accelerant having been used to start the blaze.

Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffen were executed in 1915 for the murder of a man involved in an interracial affair two years before but were pardoned 94 years after execution. It is thought that they were arrested and charged because they were wealthy enough to hire competant legal counsel and get an acquittal.[9]

In the United Kingdom, Timothy Evans was tried and executed in 1950 for the murder of his baby daughter Geraldine. 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. Evans was pardoned posthumously following this, in 1966.

Derek Bentley was a mentally retarded young man who was executed in 1953, also in the United Kingdom. He was convicted of the murder of a police officer during an attempted robbery despite the fact that it was his accomplice who fired the gun, and Bentley was under arrest at the time of the shooting.[10]

Exonerations and pardons

Kirk Bloodsworth was the first American to be freed from death row as a result of exoneration by DNA fingerprinting. Ray Krone is the 100th American to have been sentenced to death and later exonerated.

In the U.K., 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. 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.[11] 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."

In popular culture

Wrongful execution is the main plot of the 2003 film The Life of David Gale, directed by Alan Parker and starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney. This theme is also the backbone of the Oscar-nominated film The Green Mile.

The character Hunyak (who cannot afford a good lawyer) is the only innocent (according to her) person of the six female murderesses in the Cook County Jail, and the first executed in the state of Illinois, in the fictional Kander/Ebb/Fosse musical Chicago set in the 1920s. The character pleads her case as "not guilty," but is hanged for the crime. In real life, there were three women executed in Illinois: one in the 1860s and two in the 1960s.

The motivation for the escape of the main characters of Prison Break is to prevent a wrongful execution.

The 1970 movie 10 Rillington Place tells the story of Timothy Evans, who was executed for the murder of his daughter, which had in fact been committed by John Christie. This case contributed to the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom.

Wrongful execution is a central theme in the 1955 play, Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, also turned into a classic movie. A single juror must turn the opinion of eleven others, so as to stop the execution of a young man, accused of the murder of his father.

Award-winning musical film drama, Dancer In The Dark, starring a Palme d'Or winning performance by Björk Guðmundsdóttir, was a controversial and harsh look at the death penalty. The film made its stance against the death penalty mainly through appeal to emotion by showing how lack of solid legal defense can lead to wrongful execution and featuring a highly dramatic and brutal execution scene.

In the "Blackmailer Saga" of the soap opera Passions, Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald is wrongfully convicted and executed for a murder he did not commit, due to the blackmailer's repeated persuasions of the courts and manipulation of the crowd. Fortunately, Endora Lenox uses her magic to send everyone back to an earlier point in time so that they can save Luis from a wrongful execution and expose Vincent Clarkson as blackmailer, rapist, manipulator and murderer.

The Season 6 episode of Nip/Tuck, "Wesley Clovis", shows a brilliant example of wrongful conviction and execution.[12]

See also


  1. ^ "Innocence and the Death Penalty" at Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.).
  2. ^ William Kreuter, "The Innocent Executed" at Justice Denied, the Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted.
  3. ^ Karl Keys, "Thirty Years of Executions with Reasonable Doubts: A Brief Analysis of Some Modern Executions", Capital Defense Weekly, 2001.
  4. ^ E.g."After 21 Years in Prison - including 16 on Death Row - Curtis McCarty is Exonerated Based on DNA Evidence", The Innocence Project press release, May 11, 2007.
  5. ^ "Executed But Possibly Innocent" at Death Penalty Information Center.
  6. ^ "Executing the Innocent", Northwestern Univ. School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions.
  7. ^ "Sonia Jacobs", Northwestern Univ. School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions.
  8. ^ "The death penalty wordwide: Developments in 2000", Amnesty International.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Yallop, David (1991). To Encourage The Others. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780552134514
  11. ^ George Kelly Exonerated 53 Years After Being Executed
  12. ^ Toomey, Jonathan (2009-12-17). "Review: Nip/Tuck - Wesley Clovis (season finale)". TV Squad. Retrieved 22 December 2009.  

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