Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Infamous Cases of Wrongful Execution

There’s no doubt about it – the U.S. criminal justice system is not perfect. And those imperfections become apparent when someone is the innocent victim of the death penalty. Wrongful executions have been happening for hundreds of years, but until the advent of DNA evidence and improved forensics technology, these individuals have remained guilty as charged. Today, DNA evidence has exonerated and released 15 death row inmates since 1992, but only eight inmates have been acknowledged of their possible innocence after execution by the Death Penalty Information Center. Here are 10 infamous cases of wrongful execution that deserve a second look:

  1. Claude Jones: Claude Jones was executed in 2000 for the murder of liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager, in San Jacinto County in 1989. On Nov. 14, 1989, Jones and another man were seen pulling into a liquor store in Point Blank, Texas. One stayed in the car while the other went inside and shot the owner. Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t see the killer, but Jones and two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan, were all linked to the murder. Although Jones said he never entered the store, Dixon and Jordan testified that Jones was in fact the shooter and they were both spared the death penalty. The deciding factor and only admissible evidence in Jones’ conviction came down to a strand of hair that was found at the scene of the crime. A forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to have come from Jones, and he was sentenced to death. Forensic technology was underdeveloped during the 1990 trial and it wasn’t able to match Jones’ DNA with the hair sample. Therefore, before his 2000 execution, Jones’ attorneys filed petitions for a stay of execution with a district court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and requested that the hair be submitted for DNA testing that was now possible, but all courts and former Texas Governor George W. Bush denied Jones and he was executed. In an attempt to prove that Texas executed an innocent man, the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer filed a lawsuit in 2007 to obtain the strand of hair and submitted it for DNA testing, which was determined to be the hair of the victim.
  2. Jesse Tafero: Jesse Tafero was executed by electric chair in 1990 for murdering two Florida police officers, Phillip Black and Donald Irwin. The murders occurred on Feb. 20, 1976, when Black and Irwin approached a parked car at a rest stop and found Tafero, his partner Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, her two children and Walter Rhodes asleep inside. They were ordered to get out of the car when the officers saw a gun lying on the floor inside the car and, according to Rhodes, Tafero proceeded to shoot both officers and took off in their police car. They disposed of the police car and stole a man’s car, but were arrested after being caught in a roadblock. The gun was found in Tafero’s waistband, although it was legally registered to Jacobs. Tafero had been convicted of robbery and had served seven years of a 25-year sentence before being convicted for murder. Tafero and Jacobs claimed that Rhodes was the lone shooter, but Rhodes testified against them in exchange for a lighter sentence. Rhodes later admitted that he was responsible for the killings, but Tafero was still sentenced to death.
  3. Cameron Todd Willingham: Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for murdering his three young daughters by intentionally setting fire to the family home in Corsicana, Texas. The arson-murder case fueled much controversy about Willingham’s guilt, which was determined by the case’s primary evidence – the arson investigators’ findings. They determined that the fire was deliberately set with the help of a liquid accelerant due to specific burn patterns, laboratory tests and points of origin. Willingham maintained his innocence and appealed his conviction for years, but was executed at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on Feb. 16, 2004. In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission panel reevaluated the case and determined that state and local arson investigators used “flawed science” when they labeled the fire as arson. Although advances in fire science and arson investigations have improved since 1991, the year of the fire, experts now believe the Corsicana Fire Department was negligent in their findings. The science commission is still investigating the arson ruling, and if the judge clears Willingham, it would be the first time an official has formally declared a wrongful execution in Texas.
  4. Larry Griffin: Larry Griffin was executed in 1995 for a drive-by shooting that killed 19-year-old drug dealer Quintin Moss in St. Louis. Griffin immediately became a suspect because his older brother Dennis Griffin, another well-known drug dealer, was murdered just six months earlier. Moss was believed to have killed Dennis Griffin. Although there were a number of possible suspects in the murder of Moss, a witness account by a white man named Robert Fitzgerald, who claimed to have seen the shooting, knew the license plate number of the vehicle and could identify the gunman was all it took to have Griffin arrested. Fitzgerald was a convicted felon who had a long history of run-ins with the law, which raised concerns about the legitimacy of his story. During the 1993 hearing, Fitzgerald admitted to being unsure if Griffin was the man in the car after all. There were two key witnesses who wavered and a third person whose testimony could have helped Griffin, but was never contacted by either the defense or prosecution. Griffin continued to proclaim his innocence until his execution. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund investigated the case after Griffin’s execution and wanted to uncover more witness accounts that could support their claim that Missouri executed an innocent man.
  5. Ruben Cantu: Ruben Cantu was executed in 1993 for the murder-robbery of a San Antonio man at the age of 17. Cantu had no previous convictions, but was pinpointed as a violent murderer who shot one victim nine times, as well as shot the only eyewitness nine times with a rifle, but he lived to testify. Juan Moreno offered his testimony to police and identified Cantu as the shooter, but later recanted, admitting that he said Cantu out of influence and fear of authorities. Although the case had a compelling witness testimony, there was no physical evidence that linked Cantu to the crime. In addition, his co-defendant David Garza, who allegedly committed the murder-robbery with Cantu, remained silent and signed a sworn affidavit allowing his accomplice to be falsely accused. Cantu maintained his innocence until his execution and claimed that he had been framed in this capital murder case.
  6. David Spence: David Spence was executed in 1997 for murdering three teenagers in 1982 in Waco. Spence was convicted of raping, torturing and murdering two 17-year-old girls and murdering an 18-year-old boy. As the original allegations go, Spence was hired by convenience store owner Muneer Deeb to kill one girl and he ended up killing these three teens by mistake. Deeb was charged and sentenced to death, but later received a re-trial and was acquitted. Authoritative sources even had serious doubt about Spence’s guilt. Although there was no clear physical evidence to link Spence to the crime, prosecutors used bite marks that were found on one of the girl’s body and matched it to Spence’s teeth. Even jailhouse witnesses were bribed into snitching on Spence. Despite weak evidential support and jail mate testimonies, Spence was executed.
  7. Carlos De Luna: Carlos De Luna was executed in 1989 for the 1983 stabbing of Wanda Lopez, a Texas convenience store clerk. There were two eyewitnesses who played a key role in the conviction of De Luna. Before the murder-robbery, George Aguirre was filling up at the gas station where the crime occurred, when he saw a man standing outside the store slide a knife with the blade exposed into his pocket and enter. The man asked Aguirre for a ride to a nightclub, but he refused and went inside the store to warn Lopez about the suspicious man. Aguirre left and Lopez called the police to describe the man. As she was on the phone with a dispatcher, the man came back into the store and robbed her. The second witness, Kevan Baker, pulled into the station and heard bangs on the station’s window and saw a man struggling with a woman. As Baker approached the gas station, the murderer threatened him and took off. When police searched the area, they found De Luna not far from the station. He was shirtless and shoeless in a puddle of water and screamed, “Don’t shoot! You got me!” Both Aguirre and Baker confirmed De Luna was the man at the station. Little to no physical evidence was collected at the crime scene, including blood samples and fingerprints that could have helped De Luna. De Luna maintained his innocence and repeated that Carlos Hernandez was the actual killer. Despite Hernandez’s trouble with the law and repeated confessions to the murder, De Luna was executed.
  8. Joseph O’Dell: Joseph O’Dell was executed in 1997 for raping and murdering Helen Schartner. O’Dell was convicted on the basis of blood evidence and a jailhouse snitch. O’Dell represented himself and continued to proclaim his innocence in various unsuccessful appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court, Federal District Court and the Supreme Court. O’Dell requested that the state submit other pieces of evidence for DNA testing, but he was refused. Despite much effort and several appeals, the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and reinstated his death sentence. After his execution, Lori Urs, an anti-death penalty advocate and former wife to O’Dell, sought to further investigate the case and exonerate O’Dell based on mistaken blood matches, court opinions and refusal of DNA testing. However, the last of the DNA evidence from O’Dell’s case was burned in March 2000 and the appeals were laid to rest.
  9. Leo Jones: Leo Jones was executed in 1998 for murdering a police officer in Florida. Although Jones confessed 12 hours after the murder, he said that he was forced to say he did it during hours of intimidating police interrogation, where they threatened his life and made him play Russian roulette. One witness believed that the police department was out to get Jones because he had assaulted an officer once. The same two arresting officers were released from the department shortly after for using violence in other cases. Despite repeated appeals, other potential suspects and witness testimonies in support of Jones’ exoneration, the sentencing stood as is. Jones was also denied another method of execution and was killed by the electric chair.
  10. Timothy Evans: Timothy Evans was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of his daughter in 1949 at their home in Notting Hill, London. Evans maintained his innocence and repeatedly accused his neighbor, John Christie, of murdering his wife and daughter. The police investigation and physical evidence used to convict Evans was weak. After Evans’ trial and execution, Christie was found to be a serial killer who was responsible for murdering several women at his residence. There were massive campaigns to overturn Evans’ conviction and an official inquiry was conducted 16 years later. It was confirmed that Evans’ daughter had been killed by Christie, and Evans was granted a posthumous pardon. This case of injustice had a strong influence in the UK’s decision to abolish capital punishment.