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 opponents of capital punishment.
A number of people are claimed to have been innocent victims of the death penalty. Newly available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 15 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". 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.
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.
People's Republic of China
Weiqing An (Chinese: 魏清安, ?–1984, 23 years old) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape of 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 (田玉修) was arrested and admitted that he had committed the rape. Three years later, Wei was officially declared innocent.
Teng Xingshan (Chinese: 滕兴善, ?–1989) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for supposedly having raped, robbed and murdered Shi Xiaorong (石小荣), 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 to Shandong. The absolute innocence of the wrongfully executed Teng was not admitted until 2005.
Nie Shubin (Chinese: 聂树斌, 1974–1995) was a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape and murder of Kang Juhua (康菊花), 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 (Chinese: 王书金) admitted to the police that, in fact, he had committed the murder.
Qoγsiletu (Mongolian:qoγsiletu, Chinese:呼格吉勒图, 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 (Chinese: 赵志红) wrote the Petition of my Death Penalty admitting that, in fact, he had committed the crime.
Republic of China (Taiwan)
Jiang Guoqing (Chinese: 江國慶, 1975-1997) was a Taiwanese 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, Xu Rongzhou (Chinese: 許榮洲) admitted to the prosecutor that he had been responsible for the crime.
- In 1660, in a series 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. Police 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 Ottoman Empire. Though his tale was implausible, he indubitably had not been murdered by the Perry family.
- 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. Christie also admitted to the murder of Evans's wife, as well as five other women and his own wife. Christie 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. The case had prompted the abolition of capital punishment in the UK in 1965.
- 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 mentally challenged 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. The accomplice who actually fired the fatal shot could not be executed due to his young age.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed February, 2004, for murdering his three young children by arson at the family home in Corsicana, Texas. Nationally known fire investigator Gerald Hurst reviewed the case documents, including the trial transcriptions and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene and said in December 2004 that "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire." In 2010, the Innocence Project filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas, seeking a judgment of "official oppression".
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. 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.
Johnny Garrett of Texas was executed 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 prior. Immediately following the nun's murder, prosecutors and police were certain the two cases were committed by the same assailant. In both cases, black curly head hairs were found on the victims, linked to Rueda. Previously unidentified fingerprints in the nun's room were matched to Rueda. The flawed case is explored in a 2008 documentary entitled The Last Word.
Jesse Tafero was convicted of murder and executed via electric chair May, 1990, in the state of Florida for the murders of two Florida Highway Patrol officers. 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.
Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed 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.
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 then later exonerated.
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. And while the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted cruel and unusual punishment to include those that fail to take into account the defendant's degree of criminal culpability, it has not determined that executing the mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
This issue was 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 U.S. 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 by Atkins v. Virginia.
- "Innocence and the Death Penalty" at Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.).
- William Kreuter, "The Innocent Executed" at Justice Denied, the Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted.
- Karl Keys, "Thirty Years of Executions with Reasonable Doubts: A Brief Analysis of Some Modern Executions", Capital Defense Weekly, 2001.
- 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.
- "Executed But Possibly Innocent" at Death Penalty Information Center.
- "Executing the Innocent", Northwestern Univ. School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions.
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- Lois Romano, "When DNA Meets Death Row, It's the System That's Tested", Washington Post, December 12, 2003.
- Photo Gallery, FBI Documents Gallery, Police Reports Gallery, Crime Scene and Evidence Gallery, Correspondence Gallery, Videotape Interviews, and Full Case Documentation, by Bloodshed Books Corporation, http://www.bloodshedbooks.com/tour.php
- The Skeptical Juror, "Actual Innocence: Johnny Frank Garrett and Bubbles the Clairvoyant", http://www.skepticaljuror.com/2010/04/fine-folks-of-amarillo-wanted-justice.html
- "Center on Wrongful Convictions: Jesse J. Tafero". Northwestern University School of Law. Retrieved 2012-06-21.
- Andrew Cohen, "Yes, America, We Have Executed an Innocent Man", The Atlantic Monthly, May 14, 2012.
- Pilkington, Ed (15 May 2012) The wrong Carlos: how Texas sent an innocent man to his death The Guardian, Retrieved 15 May 2012
- "Tom Joyner gets justice for electrocuted kin, 94 years later". CNN. October 15, 2009.
- George Kelly exonerated 53 years after being executed
- The Age: Ross cleared of murder nearly 90 years ago. Retrieved 27 May 2008.
- Scott, Charles (1 Jan 2003). "Atkins v. Virginia: Execution of Mentally Retarded Defendants Revisited.". The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 31 (1): 101–104.