Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Infamous Inmates Who Were Wrongly Convicted

The U.S. justice system is far from perfect, and the evidence is all in the numbers. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, and 17 of these people have served time on death row. Some of these cases happened when DNA testing wasn’t available, and others were caused by human and systematic errors, but either way, these innocent inmates have paid an unfortunate price. Here are 10 infamous inmates who were wrongly convicted:

  1. West Memphis Three

    The "West Memphis Three" refers to the three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – who were convicted of the gruesome slayings of three young boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three men had been serving nearly two decades of their life sentences before they were freed on Aug. 19, 2011, after entering Alford pleas. At the time of the killings, the three teens were labeled as outcasts and Satan worshipers who had mullets and dressed in black. There was no physical evidence that linked the teens to the murders, but the surprising confession from Misskelley and implication that other two were involved took the case to another level. Misskelley recanted and botched parts of the story. New forensic evidence, including DNA from the crime scene that did not match the defendants, helped in the men’s case. The notorious case garnered a great deal of attention from celebrities and musicians, and even spawned several documentaries that have helped raise funds for the men’s legal fees and message of innocence. The murder case remains unsolved.

  2. Timothy Cole

    Timothy Cole was a Texas Tech University student who was wrongly convicted in the 1985 rape of student Michele Mallin. Cole was arrested and accused of being the Texas Tech rapist who had attacked several coeds, but the eyewitness account of one victim was all it took to get him imprisoned. Cole had never been in trouble with the law and didn’t match the description of the attacker – a chain-smoking rapist. Cole was asthmatic and didn’t smoke cigarettes, but he happened to work near the area where Mallin was raped. When she identified him in a Polaroid photograph as the attacker, police arrested Cole on that evidence alone. There was no physical evidence tying Cole to the crime, and several people testified that Cole was in his apartment studying at the time of the rape. The jury found Cole guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. A jailhouse confession by fellow inmate, Jerry Wayne Johnson, came in 1995 after the statute of limitations ran out, but it was meet with no action. Cole died in prison due to asthma complications. New DNA testing confirmed that Johnson was the rapist. Cole became the first person in Texas to be granted a posthumous pardon.

  3. Anthony Graves

    After spending 18 years behind bars, Anthony Graves left prison a free man. Graves was convicted of assisting Robert Earl Carter in the gruesome murder of Bobbie Davis and five others in Burleson County. There was no physical evidence that tied Graves to the murder and three different people confirmed his whereabouts at the time of the crime. But, Carter fingered Graves as the killer, and his testimony alone led to Graves being convicted of the slayings — he was sentenced to death. Graves’ life was spared when the case’s lead prosecutor, District Attorney Charles Sebesta, shared Carter’s confession to having committed the murders alone. Carter was executed in 2000, and a federal court overturned Graves’ conviction in 2006. Graves faced a retrial, but all charges against him were dropped. Graves will collect $1.4 million for wrongful imprisonment.

  4. Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee

    Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee were charged with murdering two white gas station attendants in Port St. Joe, Florida in 1963. Pitts and Lee, both black men, had been to the Mo-Jo gas station earlier in the evening and were part of a group of black men and women who were arguing with the attendants over using a whites-only restroom. After their violent arrests, the men pleaded guilty to the murders. Pitts and Lee recanted their admission behind bars, but it was a taped confession of another man, Curtis Adams Jr., admitting to the Port St. Joe murders that helped free them. Adams refused to repeat his confession on the stand, and the all-white jury found the men guilty of murder again. It took Governor Reubin Askew and three of his cabinet officers to pardon Pitts and Lee.

  5. Darryl Hunt

    In 2003, Darryl Hunt was exonerated for the 1984 rape and slaying of Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Hunt was imprisoned for 19 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Despite the fact that no physical evidence linked Hunt to the crime, he was convicted based on false witness testimonies. A hotel employee claimed to have seen Hunt enter the hotel bathroom and leave behind bloody hand towels. Others said they saw Hunt near the scene of the crime. An all-white jury sentenced Hunt to life imprisonment. In 1994, Hunt was cleared of any sexual assault and murder charges due to DNA testing, and in 2003, Willard E. Brown confessed to killing Sykes.

  6. Gary Gauger

    Gary Gauger was wrongly convicted of the 1993 murder of his parents on their farm near Richmond, Illinois. Gauger said he was asleep on the property when his parents were killed, but police did not buy his story. After a 21-hour interrogation by police, Gauger confessed to the crime that he later denied. His confession was the only evidence police had on Gauger, but it appeared to be enough for the jury to convict him of double murder. Gauger was sentenced to death. Two years into Gauger’s sentencing, federal law enforcement officers discovered a motorcycle gang member bragging about killing the Gaugers in a surveillance tape. The gang members were convicted of the slayings, in addition to other crimes, and Gauger was set free in 1996.

  7. James Woodard

    James Woodard was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend in 1981 and was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Woodard was accused of being the last person seen with the victim, but court records showed that there were two other men with her. This information and other evidence was never shared with defense attorneys, but it would have helped keep Woodard out of prison. Woodard spent 27 years behind bars in Dallas County, frequently writing letters to the prosecutors asking for help. His pleas were heard in April 2008, when Woodard was released from prison and exonerated because of new DNA testing that cleared him of the crime.

  8. Randall Dale Adams

    The conviction of Randall Dale Adams was one of the most documented criminal cases in U.S. history. Adams was charged with the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a patrolman for the Dallas Police Department, but insisted that he was innocent. The day before the murder, Adams’ car broke down and he hitched a ride with 16-year-old David Ray Harris. The two drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and pawned items that Harris stole, before Adams went back to his motel. That night Harris was stopped by two officers, Wood and his partner, Teresa Turko. Harris shot Wood five times as he approached the car. Harris returned to his home in Vidor, Texas, and he was later taken in for questioning regarding the murder. When his gun turned up to be the murder weapon, Harris admitted that he was at the shooting but claimed it was Adams who pulled the trigger. Adams was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court stayed his execution because of procedural issues. With the help of the investigative documentary film, The Thin Blue Line, more evidence surfaced that confirmed Adams’ innocence. Adams was released from prison in 1989.

  9. Juan Johnson

    Juan Johnson spent eleven and a half years in prison for the 1989 murder of Ricardo Fernandez outside of a Chicago nightclub. Johnson was 19 years old when he was arrested for allegedly beating to death a rival gang member, but Johnson continued to proclaim his innocence. The case rested on three supposed eyewitnesses, who were later discovered to have falsely identified Juan Johnson as the attacker after being coerced by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara to do so. After this information was discovered, Johnson’s conviction was reversed by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2002 and he was acquitted in 2004. Johnson was awarded $21 million in the wrongful conviction case, which is the largest amount ever given in Chicago history.

  10. Michael Anthony Green

    In July 2010, Michael Anthony Green walked out of the Houston jail a free man after serving 27 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Green was imprisoned for the 1983 rape of a woman who had been abducted and left in a stolen car. Green had been stealing cars and was spotted in the vicinity of the attack a week earlier. He also vaguely matched the description of the attacker: young, black male. The assault victim did not pick Green in a lineup at the scene of the crime, but changed her mind a week later and placed Green as the attacker. Although there was no physical evidence or witness testimonies linking Green to the assault, the jury found him guilty and sentenced Green to 75 years in prison. Many years later, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office reopened the case and new DNA tests proved that Green did not commit the rape.