• This website uses cookies


A conviction is not the same thing as guilt

There are many powerful reasons for abolition of the death penalty in the United States. It has been shown that it does not act as a deterrent, that it is racist, that it overwhelmingly affects the poor, who lack the legal resources needed to mount a strong defence, that it is more costly for the Administration than life imprisonment and that it is a form of torture. Moreover, it hypocritically seeks to punish homicide by killing. However, there is no argument against the death penalty that touches American citizens as deeply as the risk that the innocent may be executed.

Capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976 after a brief moratorium. The statistics since then show that there is one convict for every ten executed who is able to show his innocence and is eventually absolved after more than ten years’ fighting for his life from a prison cell. It is believed that there are numerous death row inmates currently held in US prisons who are the victims of wrongful convictions.

There are many reasons why such miscarriages of justice are so scandalously common, but abuse of the death penalty as a means of gaining political traction is one of the main ones. In many States, it is not only candidates for the office of governor who campaign energetically in favour of the death penalty: judges and district attorneys, both elective offices in the United States, openly boast of the number of people they have sent to death row, knowing that a reputation for being tough on crime will garner them votes. The political gains to be had from the death penalty in turn corrupt the system. Charges and convictions are sometimes based on false evidence or forced confessions, and it has even been known for alleged witnesses to receive payment in return for testifying against the accused, all to secure the execution of an innocent man.

The victims of wrongful convictions are almost always among from the poorest and most vulnerable members of American society. A study published in 2017 by the Madrid-based International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP) reveals that 90% of the 23 prisoners executed in that year displayed evident symptoms of mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage or severe brain trauma. There was also evidence to support the innocence of some.

Death penalty apologists tend to argue that many convicts are eventually freed from death row, proving that the system works and that new technologies and advances in forensic science like DNA analysis are enough to ensure that no irreversible errors are made. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a death row convict is absolved, it is almost always for non-judicial reasons. It is the tireless work of lawyers, investigative journalists and students that clears them, not the courts. It is in spite of, and not thanks to, the justice system that the innocent are freed.

Another widely held myth is that former convicts are richly compensated for the years they spent wrongfully incarcerated, and that they are helped to rejoin society. The truth is that most return to their communities with little or no support. Very few are ever compensated. They are simply dumped back into a world that is by now very different from the one they left, without the money to find a home, suffering acute posttraumatic stress and lacking the basic skills needed to find work. They need medical help to treat the physical and psychological effects of their incarceration, but they have no access to healthcare. They can only weep for lost family and friends, and for the time that was taken from them. They struggle to manage issues of insecurity, anger and depression, hangovers from their time on death row for crimes they did not commit.

Witness to Innocence was founded in 2005 by the nun Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, who was played by Susan Sarandon in the film of the same name. It is the only organization in the United States that works to empower those released from death row and to help them find an effective voice in the battle for the abolition of capital punishment in their country. It also offers a peer-based support network for freed convicts, most of whom receive no support, let alone compensation, when they leave prison.

1.1. The exonerated

The members of Witness to Innocence have built up a strong support and solidarity network to make of their voice a clarion call in the struggle against capital punishment in the United States

Dave Keaton

Spent eight years in Florida prisons (1971-1979), thirteen months on death row.

In September 1970, three armed black men walked into a grocery store in the city of Quincy, Florida. They locked the owner and his employees in the basement and took all the money from the cash register. At the end of his workday, the county sheriff stopped at the store to do some last-minute shopping and came across the robbers. There was a shooting and the sheriff was killed.

Three months later, Keaton, who was under suspicion for a robbery unrelated to this case, was arrested and accused of being one of the men involved in the assault. The five African-American young men who were charged with the murder made newspaper headlines as ‘The Quincy Five’.

After three days of relentless interrogation with beatings and threatening behaviour, investigators chose to ignore Keaton’s alibi –he had been driving his mother to hospital– and managed to coerce him into confession. During this time, despite his petitions, he was not allowed to talk to his mother or seek help from a lawyer. The details he provided in relation to the number of participants in the assault, the weapons used or the location of the getaway car did not match police evidence. At the trial, he claimed to be innocent and to have been tortured and coerced into confession during his interrogation. Despite all this, on May 6, 1971, an all-white jury sentenced him to death based on the testimony of the robbery victims, who identified him as the gunman. He was 18 years old.

A few months later, a man was arrested on a separate murder charge and revealed to his lawyer the names of three men he claimed to be the real perpetrators of the Quincy store crime. Joe Aloi, a private investigator, began to work on the case and eventually found a fingerprint and other evidence that incriminated those three men. He also discovered that the polygraph operator in Keaton’s case had a long history of extracting false confessions from suspects without the presence of their lawyers.

The three men were convicted in the autumn of 1971, but the Florida Supreme Court granted Keaton a retrial. Finally, although the state never admitted that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice, the charges against him were dropped due to lack of evidence, and in July 1973, he was exonerated from death row. Since he had also been convicted for robbery, his release did not become effective until 1979.

David Keaton became the first death row exoneree in the United States. He had spent 13 months in solitary confinement, in a cell so small that he could touch the walls on both sides when extending his arms. He would only be allowed out in the yard once a month. From his cell window, he could see the electric chair every day. He never recovered from the trauma he suffered. He spent the rest of his existence trying to rebuild his life and fighting the stigma of having been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He could never get a job. He lived on the streets for a while and got addicted to crack and cocaine. He became a loner. He was never awarded compensation and had no help for his integration back into society. He died at 63. He was a founding member of the Witness to Innocence organisation.

Delbert Tibbs

Spent three years in Florida death row (1974-1977).

Born in Mississippi in 1939. He was the youngest of 12 siblings in a family of black sharecroppers who moved to Chicago with the aim of thriving in life. At age 12, he started going to school. He learnt to read and write and became, for the first time, aware of the widespread racism. He promised his mother he would get an education. He got a day job and went to night school to continue his studies, but the civil movements fighting for the rights of the black population, which were then in full swing, made him reconsider his life project. Delbert learnt that white seminaries had opened their doors to people of color and quit his day job to become a seminarian. This was the most peaceful time of his life. He studied art and theology and was free to read all day long without feeling guilty about it.

But soon he felt that there was so much to see in the world. He dropped out of the seminary, sold his car and started hitchhiking around the country. Due to his being black and almost 6’4’’ tall, few people were willing to give him a ride. So most of the time he travelled on foot or on freight trains. He worked for three or four days at a time and used his earnings to travel for a couple of weeks afterwards, until it was time to find another job. He slept in all kinds of places: in railway carriages, under bridges or in cars.

In February 1974, he was hitchhiking 250 miles from Fort Myers when he was arrested by the police and questioned about the rape of a 17-year-old girl and the murder of her 26-year-old partner that had taken place in that town. The victims were hitchhiking when they were picked up by a black man who would then kill the young man and rape the girl, leaving her in a ditch by the side of the road bleeding and unconscious. After taking his photograph, the police released him since he did not match the rapist’s description. According to the victim, the attacker was a 5’6’’ black man with a dark complexion and a large Afro; Delbert was 6’3’’ tall, had a light complexion and a small Afro. Yet, when the photographs were sent to Fort Myers, the girl changed her description of the attacker and stated that Delbert was indeed her boyfriend’s killer. An arrest warrant was immediately issued and Tibbs was arrested. At the trial, in addition to the girl’s testimony, the prosecution presented a statement from an inmate who claimed that Tibbs had confessed to the crime in jail. He was subsequently sentenced to death by an all-white jury. His case sparked significant protests from activists who saw a clear instance of discrimination in the fact that the accused was a black man who was perceived as arrogant for his unwillingness to keep to the course established for black people. “Travelling like this is all right if you’re Jack Kerouak, but not if you’re a poor black man”, Tibbs would later say. Celebrities like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger got involved and raised funds for his cause.

Finally, the case was reopened, and in 1976 the Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that there was no physical evidence linking Tibbs to the crime. The jailhouse informant admitted that he had accused Tibbs in the hope that his cooperation would be exchanged for leniency in his own case, and the girl confessed that she had been smoking marijuana on the day of the crime, which could have led her to erroneously identify Tibbs as the assailant.

Tibbs was released in January 1977. The prosecution did not drop all charges against him until 1982. He went back to Chicago and devoted the rest of his life to writing poetry and campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.

Delbert Tibbs hand-cuffed after being arrested by the police. Florida, 1974.

Ray Krone

Spent ten years in jail (1992-2002), three of those on Arizona’s death row.

Krone was an employee of the U.S. Postal Service and had no criminal history. As a young man he graduated at the top of his class in high school and served six years in the Air Force, from where he was discharged with honors. From one day to the next, he was charged with the murder of a waitress who worked at a bar in Phoenix where he often played darts. The police knew that Krone had been there the night of the crime, so he was taken to the police station for interrogation, and they also took samples of his blood and a cast of his teeth to compare it with the bite marks found on the victim’s body. Two days later, on December 31, 1991, he was arrested. The centrepiece of the evidence against Krone was presented at the trial by a forensic odontologist who had concluded that the bite marks found on the victim’s body matched Krone’s teeth. He was sentenced to death. A law allowing convicts to request DNA testing was passed in 2001. Krone’s motion to have biological evidence analysed was accepted despite the prosecution’s opposition. The test results ruled Krone out as the killer and pointed instead to the real perpetrator. The charges against him were dropped and he was released in 2002. He was compensated with over four million dollars.

Randal Padgett

Spent five years in prison (1992-1997), three of those in Alabama’s death row.

In August 17, 1990, Cathy Padgett was found dead in her home in Arab, Alabama. She had been stabbed 46 times and there were signs that she had been sexually assaulted.  She had recently separated from her husband, Randal Padgett, who was having an affair with another woman. He immediately became the prime suspect in the murder. The police interrogated him and took blood samples to match them to the semen found in the victim’s body. He was arrested two months later. At the trial, the prosecution claimed that Padgett’s DNA matched that from the crime scene. He was sentenced to death in 1992. In January 1995, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that the state had withheld the results of a second DNA test which stated that the semen did not belong to Padgett. In preparation for a second trial, he sold his house, farm, cars and everything he owned and hired an expert lawyer who was able to prove that the existing evidence pointed to a co-worker of Padgett’s with whom the defendant had had an affair. In October 1997, Randal was acquitted of all charges.

Shujaa Graham

Spent eight years in prison (1973-1981), five of those in California´s death row.

Louisiana in the 1950s. Shujaa Graham was the son of black sharecroppers who worked in the southern cotton fields, where racism and segregation prevailed. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to the Compton-Watts area of Los Angeles, which was probably the worst district of the city in terms of violence and poverty. There he joined the neighbourhood gangs and started getting into trouble with the law. He spent his entire teen years in and out of juvenile facilities. When he turned 18, he was sentenced to serve five years in Soledad State Prison for robbery. On the way to the penitentiary, Shujaa was sitting next to activist Yassin Mohammed. They soon became close friends, and Mohammed taught Graham about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Once in prison, he learnt to read and write. He studied history and world affairs and ended up becoming a leader of the growing Black Panther Party movement within California’s penitentiary system, which was devoted to fighting against racism, for justice and education and for black prisoners to stand up together against the brutality of white guards.

In 1973 he was transferred to Stockton State Prison. A few months after his arrival an uprising took place and a guard was stabbed to death. Graham and another inmate, Eugene Allen, were charged with the murder. At their first trial, the jury was unable to determine whether they were guilty of the crime. A second trial followed, in which they were convicted and sentenced to death in the gas chamber of the San Quentin State Prison. Shujaa spent the next five years on San Quentin’s death row. He was placed in solitary confinement for the first six months. He got involved in protests and underwent hunger strikes, but to no avail. Then, out of nowhere, two high school students who were willing to help him visited him in prison. After having attended the trial, they started raising funds and campaigning to have Shujaa’s case reopened. In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that all prospective African-American jurors had been dismissed by the district attorney prior to his second trial. He had been tried by an all-white jury.

Shujaa was transferred to the county jail to await his next trial. By then he was in a state of paranoia and did not trust anyone. But it all changed the day a new worker first arrived at the prison and gradually began to earn his trust. Phyllis Prentice was a white nurse from a well-off family who, while in college, had come into contact with the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and learnt about Martin Luther King and the women’s movements of 1968. This was where her political and social activism had started. While working in prison she fell in love with Shujaa and they started a clandestine love story.

A third trial resulted in a hung jury. By then Phyllis had already quit her job at the prison and was devoted full-time to working towards Shujaa’s release. Finally, after a fourth trial, he was found not guilty due to the lack of incriminating evidence. He was released in March 1981.

Shujaa and Phyllis moved to San Francisco, where they started their life together and had three children. Living together as a family proved to be extremely hard, since an exonerated man leaves many friends behind in prison. The aftermath of being released makes it difficult to integrate back into society. He decided to learn landscaping and started his own business because he could not bear working in closed spaces. Phyllis continued working as a nurse. At present, they live in Maryland. They have several grandchildren. Together, they have continued to actively campaign against racism and for the abolition of the death penalty.

Thirty five years after Shujaa’s release, Phyllis and Shujaa sit down at home with his three siblings and six grandchildren to celebrate Father’s Day eating spicy southern-style crab with butter sauce. Takoma Park, Maryland, 2016.
Shujaa Graham. Elementary school Lake Providence, Louisiana, 1959–1960.
Lee Graham y Ophelia Graham, Shujaa´s grantparents, In front of their home in Lake Providence, Louisiana. Around 1980.
Shujaa and Phyllis shortly after Shujaa’s release. California, 1981.
Flier promoting support for the campaign to free Shujaa Graham and Eugene Allen, mid-1970s. It reads: Eugene Allen and Shujaa Graham are two young Black men who had been struggling against the racism and brutal oppression of the american System from behind the walls of the U.S.A. only because their dedication. They are presently being held captive in Death Row at San Quentin, having been falsely convicted of the death of a prison guard at Deuel Vocational Institute at Tracy, California on November 27, 1973.
Shujaa watering his garden. Takoma Park, Maryland, 2016.

Debra Milke

Spent 25 years in jail (1990-2015), 22 of those on death row in Arizona.

Born in Berlin to military parents who soon after moved back to the United States. In 1984 she married Mark Milke and a year later her son Christopher was born.

In December 1989, she divorced her husband and moved with her four-year-old son to an apartment, which she shared with a friend of her sister’s named Jim Styers. Jim arranged to meet his friend Roger Scott at a mall to go shopping. Christopher begged his mother to let him go with them because he wanted to have his picture taken with Santa Claus. A few hours later, Jim called Debra to tell her that the boy had disappeared at the mall.

The following day, Phoenix police arrested Roger Scott. After an interrogation that lasted for over 14 hours, Scott led the police to the desert and showed them where the child’s body lay with three shots to the head. According to the police officer in charge of the case, Armando Saldate, Scott confessed that Styers had committed the murder at the request of the child’s mother so she could collect an insurance policy on him. Milke voluntarily went to the sheriff’s office, where she was interrogated by Saldate. The interrogation was not recorded and no witnesses were present. The police report stated that Milke had confessed to recruiting the two men to murder her son.

In October 1990, Milke, Styers and Scott were sentenced to death, despite the fact that at the trial Milke categorically denied having confessed to the crime. Both Scott and Styers testified that Milke had had nothing to do with the murder.

In December 2007, an NGO submitted a report in support of Milke which stated that the interrogation techniques employed by Saldate led to believe that her confession had been fabricated, and that the actual interrogation that took place in 1989 –without witnesses and which failed to be recorded– violated her right to counsel, against self-incrimination and, ultimately, to a fair trial. This resulted in the filing of an appeal in 2009, which was subsequently dismissed. Milke’s conviction was finally overturned in 2013 on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. Saldate’s personnel file, which the prosecution had withheld during the first trial, revealed that the detective had a long history of misconduct, even when testifying under oath. In 2015 all charges against her were formally dismissed and she was released.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with the brutal murder of my son,” Milke declared after her release. “I always believed this day would come. I just didn’t think it would have to take 25 years, three months and 14 days to rectify such a blatant miscarriage of justice.”

Joaquín José Martínez

Spent six years in Florida´s death row (1996-2001).

In 1995, Joaquín José lived in Florida and had recently divorced his wife, Sloane Millian. Around that time, a policeman’s son and his partner were murdered. It all appeared to be the result of a settling of scores. In January 1996, Joaquín was arrested after his ex-wife, who had not forgiven him for his many infidelities, accused him of being the perpetrator of the crime. Neither the fingerprints nor the DNA found at the crime scene matched those of Martínez’s, but he was, nevertheless, sentenced to death. At the trial, a recording of a conversation between Martínez and his ex-wife that the police had obtained –and in which, according to the prosecutor, Joaquín confessed to the crime– was presented as evidence. The recording was inaudible and the transcript had been edited by the father of one of the victims, who worked as evidence manager at the sheriff’s office. The testimonies of his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, as well as that of an inmate who declared that Joaquín had confessed to him that he was the perpetrator of the crime, were also presented as evidence. In 2001 the case was retried –the recording and the testimonies of his exes were not admitted as evidence this time– and the jury unanimously returned a verdict of acquittal.

Earl Washington

Served 17 years (1984-2000), twelve of those in Virginia´s death row.

In June 1982, Rebecca Williams, a 19-year-old mother of three, was raped and stabbed to death. Two years later, police arrested Earl Washington, a 22-year-old black boy with a severe intellectual disability. He was sentenced to death after being interrogated and subsequently confessing to being the perpetrator of the crime. In 1985 a fellow death row inmate became invested in Earl’s case and contacted his own lawyer, who managed to secure a stay of execution nine days before he was scheduled to die. In 1994 the governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment after finding irregularities in the DNA test results presented at the trial. At a third hearing in 2000, psychologists described Washington as extremely submissive to any authority figure, which explained why, when forced by the police to give a confession, he had admitted to the crimes in order to gain their approval. His confession was found to have been coerced and new DNA evidence proved his innocence. In 2006, he was awarded 2.5 million dollars for his wrongful conviction.

Lawyer Johnson

Spent ten years in prison (1972-1982), two on death row in Massachusetts.

In the afternoon of December 7, 1971, a young man from Maine called James Christian was arguing with his drug dealer, Kenneth Myers, when someone pulled out a gun and Christian died from a gunshot wound to the head. Myers claimed to have seen Lawyer Johnson shoot the victim. Myers and Johnson had known each other since childhood, although they were not friends. Lawyer was not in the area at the time of the crime, but, failing to provide a solid alibi, he was arrested and charged with murder. At the trial, which took place six months later, the prosecution’s case mainly rested on the testimony given by Myers, who was then 18 years old. Lawyer was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair.

His conviction was appealed two years later. His lawyers claimed that the trial judge had improperly restricted the defence’s opportunity to cross-examine Myers. However, during retrial, a new witness, Alvin Franklin, testified that Johnson had confessed to the crime when they shared a cell in prison. Johnson was convicted again, but this time was sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was based solely on the testimony of two highly unreliable witnesses: one involved in the case and the other a jailhouse snitch.

10 years later, a young woman named Dawnielle Montiero went to the police and declared that in 1971 she had witnessed Kenneth Myers shooting James Christian. The defence did not know until then that Dawnielle, then a 10-year-old girl, had, with her mother’s help, called the police at the time to tell them that she had witnessed the murder. The girl had then stated that the shooting had been carried out by Myers, who she knew to be a violent member of the neighbourhood. The police refused to take her statement into account, arguing that she was too young, and withheld her testimony. Myers was again questioned and finally admitted to the defence that he had lied when incriminating Johnson. In July 1981, a retrial was granted, but the prosecution elected to drop the charges against him. He was released in October, 1982. The Massachusetts Department of Correction provided him with a pair of jeans, a shirt and a 20-dollar bill and left him at the prison gate. After 10 years of wrongful imprisonment, that was all he got.

No one offered help for his recovery and reintegration into society. Lawyer did not feel well. He had become hooked on heroin while in prison, after trying the drug he was offered by some older inmates, who said to him: “They’re going to kill you anyway”. The lawyer who had taken up his case after his second trial, Howard Friedman, had tried to affirm his right to receive treatment for his addiction in prison, but the court had denied that there was such a constitutional right.

After getting out of prison, he became a crazed loner. He was incapable of adapting to freedom. At his first Thanksgiving meal with his family after he was released, Lawyer scooped some food on his plate and ran upstairs to eat in his bedroom. That was the only place where he felt safe, because it was like being in his prison cell. He spent years fighting a contradictory desire to return to prison. He was not able to make decisions and felt terribly vulnerable.

Post-traumatic stress would haunt him for the rest of his life. He had no friends, except for his brother and Friedman, his lawyer. The last time he had a job or was in a stable relationship was before he was incarcerated. “I wouldn’t want to do this to a woman, make her have to deal with my craziness.” He lived with his mother until she died in 2008, four weeks after he received $500,000 from the state as compensation for his wrongful conviction. His first purchase was a tombstone for his mother’s grave.

Curtis McCarty

Served 21 years (1985-2007), including 19 years on Oklahoma´s death row.

In December 1982, an 18-year-old girl was raped and strangled at her home in Oklahoma City. McCarty became the prime suspect. The police knew they were both acquainted because of their drug addiction. He was questioned several times, but was not arrested until 1985, when the police laboratory analyst Joyce Gilchrist, who had examined the hairs found at the crime scene, altered her notes to reverse her original conclusion, and now stated that the hairs could be attributed to McCarty. Curtis was tried and sentenced to death. The case was retried in 1989 and 1995. In both instances, Gilchrist’s compelling testimony led to McCarty being sentenced to death. The falsification of Gilchrist’s notes was not discovered until 2000, when she was being investigated by the FBI for fraud in other cases. When the defence requested the hair evidence to be re-examined, the hairs could not be found. McCarty was exonerated in 2007. The judge dismissed all charges against him after additional DNA testing. In the 19 years he spent on death row he saw his best friend and many inmates die.

Randy Steidl

Spent a total of 17 years in jail (1987-2004), twelve of those on Illinois death row.

Randy Steidl was wrongly sentenced to death in 1987 for the double murder of two newlyweds in Illinois. Although there was no evidence against him and despite having a corroborated alibi, the prosecution framed Steidl as a revenge, knowing he had contacted the FBI about the involvement of state officials in illegal gambling and laundering of drug money. The jury gave credibility to the testimonies of two convicts, an alcoholic and a mentally ill woman, to whom the police had offered to reduce their convictions in exchange for testifying against Steidl. An investigation carried out in 2000 found that the police had falsified evidence and suborned perjury from witnesses. Corruption led all the way to the governor. In 2003, a retrial was ordered. DNA evidence confirmed Steidl’s innocence and he was released. In 2013 he was awarded six million dollars as compensation. “No amount of money can fully compensate me for what I have suffered. I saw twelve men die. Had it not been for people outside the judicial system, I would have also been executed.”

Paris Powell

Spent 16 years in prison (1984-2009), twelve of those on death row in Oklahoma.

Powell was born in Indiana. The son of a single mother, he was under state guardianship from the age of five, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile facilities. When he was18 years old, Rader Juvenile Detention Center organised a field trip to Northeastern Oklahoma Community College, where Powell was recruited for the football team. The following autumn he attended college, played football and integrated with the students. For two miraculous semesters he was off the streets.

In June 1993, 17-year-old Derrick Smith and his 14-year-old girlfriend were on their way home after attending a party. A car pulled over by their side and two men shot them, injuring Smith and killing the girl. Smith, who was facing charges for drug dealing, was questioned by the police in connection with the crime. At first, he gave inconsistent details, but eventually he implicated Powell, who he identified as one of the gunmen. Smith was the key witness at the trial: he identified Powell and claimed he had not received any favourable deals from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony. In May 1997, Powell, who had just turned 20, was sentenced to death.

In 2001 Smith wrote an affidavit recanting his prior statement. He claimed that the night of the shooting he was under the influence of drugs and, therefore, could not have identified the perpetrators, but that the police had coerced him into accusing Powell in return for a reduction of his sentence. Powell’s defence lawyers presented this statement as new evidence, and in 2009, after a series of unsuccessful petitions, the court vacated his conviction and dropped all charges against him.

In 2013 the Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily suspended the prosecutor in Powell’s case, ruling that he had abused his position by forcing witnesses to cooperate and withholding evidence from the defence.

Gary Drinkard

Spent six years in prison (1995-2001), five of those on death row in Alabama.

Gary Drinkard was sentenced to death in 1995 for the robbery and murder of an automotive junk dealer in Alabama. Not being able to afford a defence lawyer, he was assigned two court-appointed attorneys with no experience in criminal cases. His half-sister and her husband, who were both facing charges for other crimes, testified against him in exchange for the dismissal of their charges. Once on death row, Drinkard suggested to his wife that she should divorce him and find someone who could help her raise their three children, aged 6, 9 and 16. While in prison, he wrote to organisations all over the country requesting help. The Southern Centre for Human Rights took over his case. In 2000 the Supreme Court ordered a new trial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. Drinkard was acquitted after his lawyers presented the exculpatory evidence that had previously failed to be submitted: that he was at home at the time of the murder and that he had a back injury that made it physically impossible to have committed the crime. He was released in May 2001.

Derrick Jamison

Spent a total of 20 years in jail (1985-2005), 17 of those on Ohio’s death row.

In August 1984, two men robbed the Central Bar in Cincinnati and killed the bartender. Six months later, a man named Howell was arrested for sexual assault and confessed to being an accomplice in the bar murder. The police offered to reduce his sentence in exchange for testifying that Jamison was responsible for the murder. In October 1985, Jamison was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was 24 years old. He spent the next 16 years on death row, many of them in solitary confinement in an extremely small cell. He was only allowed to make two five-minute phone calls a year, one of them on Christmas Day. He faced six execution dates, but received a stay on every occasion. One of the stays was granted just one hour before the execution was scheduled. He saw dozens of fellow inmates die. His friend, John Byrd, was executed in 2002 despite the fact that another man had confessed to being the perpetrator of the crime for which John had been convicted. In 2003 Derrick was granted a retrial after it was discovered that the prosecutor had withheld evidence. He was exonerated and released from prison in 2005.

Albert Burrell

Spent 14 years in jail (1986-2001), nearly 13 of those on Louisiana’s death row.

On August 31, 1986, an elderly couple was murdered in their house in Louisiana. The whole town knew that the husband kept his money in a suitcase at home, so from the outset the police believed that the motive behind the crime was robbery. Two months later, Albert Burrell, an illiterate cowboy with an intellectual disability, was arrested. Within an hour, he signed a document declaring his guilt after being promised food and water in return. His arrest was prompted by his ex-wife, Janet Burrell, who claimed at the police station to have seen Albert on the night of the crime with bloodstained boots and $2,700 in one-hundred-dollar bills. She also declared that she saw the victim’s wallet on the front seat of Albert’s car and that he had confessed to being the shooter. Janet had personal reasons to frame her ex-husband: they were litigating over the custody of their five-year-old son.

In August 1987, he was tried and sentenced to death despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. He spent 13 years on death row at Angola Prison in Louisiana. He never saw his son while he was incarcerated, and only got to speak to him on the telephone once throughout his sentence. His appeals were repeatedly rejected for years. In January 1991, he learned about the rejection of one of his appeals for a new trial from a sadistic guard, who stopped by his cell and said to him: “We just got a call from the courts, Albert. Pack up your stuff. You’re going home.” Albert was euphoric. He packed all his belongings and sat waiting to be released. Hours later, the guard returned. “I was just playin’ with ya, Albert,” he said, “Your appeal is dead.” In 1996 he came within 17 days from being executed, but was granted a stay after his ex-wife recanted her testimony for the second time. Two days before the trial, the district sheriff threatened to take away Janet’s son if she changed her statement, so she incriminated Albert again.

In early 2000, one of the prison guards, who was convinced of his innocence, put him in touch with a team of lawyers that began investigating the case pro-bono. They found new evidence and eventually managed to get their motion for a new trial accepted. The judge, after learning that the DNA found at the crime scene did not match Burrell’s blood, concluded that there was no evidence that linked Albert to the crime, and that his conviction had been based on testimonies from unreliable witnesses. He was released on January 3, 2001. It was snowing. He was left at the prison gate after being given a denim jacket several sizes too big and a ten-dollar bill. He has never received compensation.

Ricky Jackson and Kwame Ajamu (formerly kwown as Ronnie Bridgeman)

39 and 27 years in jail respectively (1975-2014/2003), six months of those on Ohio’s death row.

In 1975 Ricky Jackson and the brothers Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, who were aged 19, 17 and 20 at the time, were arrested and charged with the murder and robbery of a salesman named Harold Franks. The only evidence against them was the testimony of a 13-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon, who declared to have witnessed the crime. No physical or forensic evidence linked them to the murder; they had no criminal record and witnesses for the defence provided them with three credible alibis. Nevertheless, they were sentenced to death. A few months later, their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment without parole. After spending 27 years in prison, Wiley Bridgeman and his brother Ronnie –who had since changed his name to Kwame Ajamu– were released on parole in 2003, tainted by the stigma of having been accused of a heinous crime that they had not committed. Ricky was never granted parole, as he was considered the actual perpetrator of the murder. He ended up serving 39 years, three months and nine days, the longest prison term for an exonerated defendant in U. S. history. In 2011, The Cleveland Scene magazine, published a thorough article on the case highlighting the numerous inconsistencies in young Eddie Vernon’s testimony, and the lack of additional evidence that linked the three defendants to the crime. Following the publication of the article, Eddie Vernon recanted his testimony and confessed that he had lied to the police when he claimed to have witnessed the murder. He stated that he had tried to rescind his statement before the trial, but had been told it was too late to change his story. Police officers never disclosed this information to the defence attorneys. Vernon’s retraction was the catalyst that prompted the Ohio Innocence Project to file a motion for a new trial. In 2014, the judge accepted motions to retry Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman. The prosecution dismissed the charges against both and the judge found them to be innocent. A month later, Ajamu’s sentence was overturned and he was also declared not guilty.

Ron Keine

Spent two years on New Mexico’s death row (1974-1976).

Inspired by the film Easy Rider, Detroit college student Ron Keine bought a Harley Davidson and decided to join, together with his friends, a Californian motorcycle gang that Keine ironically describes today as “a drinking club with a motorcycle problem”. He travelled all over the country for two years. In 1974, Keine and three of his friends borrowed a van to take a trip home and get some spare parts to repair their bikes. While travelling to Detroit they engage in quarrels and fights with the hitchhikers they pick up on the way. In Oklahoma, they steal some decorations from an abandoned gas station and end up getting arrested and charged with armed robbery and assault. The judge found out that the gas station had been closed for two years due to a fire . But before Keine and his friends were allowed to leave the police station, they were told by the prosecutor that they were going to be extradited to New Mexico and charged with the murder of college student William Velten at an Albuquerque motel.

Once in New Mexico, they were assigned a court-appointed public defender, who advised them to plead guilty so they would only be sentenced to life imprisonment. They pleaded not guilty and in order to intimidate and get them to confess to the crime, they were made to spend the two months before their trial on death row.

At the trial, the prosecutor presented the testimony of Judy Weyer, a maid at the motel, who claimed to have seen the men carry out the murder. Police, however, found no incriminating evidence in the van in which they travelled or in their pocket knives, nor from the ballistics tests that were conducted. At the trial, Keine requested his lawyer on several occasions to substantiate the falsehood of the accusations by highlighting the total absence of evidence, but he refused to do so. Keine and his friends were convicted and sent to death row.

After prosecutors reneged on all their promises to Weyer, she fully retracted her statements in a series of interviews for The Detroit News which exposed the corruption within the prosecution. In January 1975, in light of these revelations, they requested a new trial, but such request was subsequently denied. The taped interviews with Judy Weyer mysteriously disappeared. Ron and his co-defendants remained on death row until nine days before his date of execution, when a former police officer, Kerry Lee, confessed to his church pastor to having murdered the student. The pastor urged him to turn himself in, plead guilty and surrender the murder weapon. Ron and his friends were finally released in 1976.

Due to the corruption surrounding this case, the assistant prosecutor was disbarred and several police officers were fired.

From left to right: Richard Greer, Clarence Smith, William Venten and Ron Keine in one of the newspaper clippings that Ron keeps about his case. Michigan, 2016.
One of the clippings saved by Ron of The Detroit News, which published in 1974 the declaring from the waitress Judy Weyer, recognizing that his testimony in the case of the bikers was false. Michigan, 2016.

Collateral Damages

One of the most overlooked and seldom mentioned effects of the death penalty is the horrible victimizing of innocent people. This collateral damage is most disheartening when one looks at the immediate family of the death row denizen. What they suffer through is truly cruel and unusual. Even though I was Innocent –exonerated after two years on death row after the confession of the law enforcement officer who was the real murderer– my family suffered greatly. My mother would not come out of the house for two years because of peer pressure. She had a son on death row. Even her closest friends did not know how to greet her at the super market, drug store or on the street. What do you say to a mother who is grieving as the state prosecutor gets to kill her son? It will not be alright. Time will not heal these wounds. Tomorrow or next week or next month will not be better. Others, mostly strangers, but also a few so called friends were not so kind to her and did not remain silent. She quit church when someone sitting in the back row of pews loudly called out, “Murderer. Rapist.” As she walked out of that church, in tears with her shawl over her head in shame, she probably never heard the people admonishing the loud mouth.

She was shunned by the local society that had, in the past, respected her and relied on her outgoing personality to bolster the morale at community and social gatherings. She became a recluse. Even after I was exonorated she remained so. She died in sadness, never recovering her love of life and former status as a pillar of our community. I wonder if she ever understood that she shunned society more than they shunned her. My grandmother was a little stronger. She, at least, went to church. Some say that Grandpa went to church only to defend Grandma from the ridicule. I think it was so he could argue with people who talked about me, and so he could shake his ever present cane at them. I really loved that old man. He taught me how to fish.

Execution is not a death such as a car accident. Or a sudden misshap or An accidental death. A death that can be easily forgiven or excused. This killing is slow and calculated. It takes an average of ten years to execute a man and they start killing him the day he is put on death row. Throughout the appeals, which last many years and cost an average $3,200,000.00 per person, I wonder if families of the executed are aware of the indignity of even having to pay for that death with their tax dollars. Several times these men were innocent and the family knew it.

My father planned his suicide for months. He was saved, just in time by the news of my exoneration. A few days later and the state would have got a death anyway as he had already purchased the gun. Probably the worst effects of all were inflicted on my kids. Peer pressure is perhaps the most profound on school age children. Children can be cruel and outright vicious. “Your daddy is a Murderer.” “Your daddy rapes people.” “They should have killed him.” “How do we know he did not do it?”
“My dad says that your dad got out because of a slick lawyer.” “ My mom says she better not see him at any school functions or she will give him a piece of her mind.” “Our parents are watching him when he is around kids.” This all happened even though my daughters were born years after my release.

I would get that phone call from the school to come and pick up a daughter as she was in distress. As she sat crying, waiting for me to leave work to come and get her she didn’t know that I was also wiping the tears off my face. Some time I would have to sit in the school parking lot a few miniutes so I could compose myself before entering the place. I had to be strong for her.

These were innocent little girls. What did they ever do to deserve this? How can God let this happen to them? It became an ordeal to make them go to school every day. They shuddered at the thought of it. Changing schools (six times) worked only for a short time until the punishment started again. They never did graduate. They both quit when they became old enough to do so. What a total waste of a human mind. One of the girls has an IQ of about 160. My only thanks is that this did not happen when I was on the row. They did not have to live through the debacle of a justice system that is allowing the state to kill their daddy. Thousands of other innocent children were not so lucky. I wonder what it is like for them to have to carry that burden. I wonder how mothers answer that much dreaded question, “Why do they have to kill my daddy”

Ron Keine

Ron Keine in the 70’s with his friends, members of a California’s motorcicle gang called The Vagos.
Ron Keine as a kid in a family album portrait, around 1960.
Ron with a girlfriend, around 1970.

Glen Edward Chapman

15 years on North Carolina’s death row (1994-2008).

Chapman was arrested and charged with the 1992 murders of Betty Ramseur and Tenene Conley, both prostitutes and drug addicts. Chapman admitted that he had smoked crack with Ramseur, and that he had had consensual sex with Conley, but denied all other accusations. Police detectives not only lied in court, but also covered up the confession of the actual murderer, concealed the fact that another man had been positively identified in a photo lineup, and changed several witness statements with the aim of winning Chapman’s conviction. Police corruption was aggravated by the utter incompetence of the lawyers assigned to defend Chapman, as well as by other wrongdoings, such as the concealment of forensic evidence that argued that one of the victims might have actually died of an overdose. Chapman was sentenced to death in 1994. He spent 15 years on death row, of which the first four were particularly distressful, although he never gave up. After multiple appeals, the judge ordered a new trial. The prosecution dismissed all charges and Chapman was released in April 2008. He has received no compensation for his wrongful conviction.

Paul House

Spent 22 years on Tennessee’s death row (1986-2008).

In 1985, Carolyn Muncey was found dead by a creek near her home. House, an outsider with a criminal record, was interrogated in connection with the crime. He claimed to have been at his own house at the time of the murder. However, at the trial two witnesses testified that they had seen him drying his hands on the night of the crime in the vicinity of the place where the victim’s body was found. A forensic expert claimed to have found Muncey’s blood on a pair of jeans that belonged to House, and that his blood type matched the semen found on the victim’s clothing. House was sentenced to death. While in prison, he began to suffer the effects of multiple sclerosis. It took over two years to diagnose the illness, during which he was only given aspirin. It was his fellow inmates who took care of him. After several appeals, The Innocence Project filed a brief with the Supreme Court in 2005, and House’s case was reopened in 2006. New DNA testing revealed that the semen and the blood found in Muncey’s body belonged to her husband, and that the victim’s blood had probably spilled, accidentally or deliberately, on House’s jeans. All charges against him were dropped and he was subsequently released in 2009.

Freddie Lee Pitts

Spent twelve years prison (1963-1975), nine of those on Florida’s death row.

In August 1963, Freddie Pitts and his friend Wilbert Lee pulled into a petrol station to refuel. When they tried to go to the toilet, two white attendants told them that African-Americans were not allowed to use them, and this led to a strong argument. Three days later, the petrol station attendants were found dead.

Pitts and Lee were arrested after a woman who was with them that night accused them of the murders. The police beat them up and threatened to harm Lee’s wife until they confessed to the crime. Since they had pled guilty, they were sentenced to death by an all-white jury without trial.

In 1964 they appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, alleging that procedural errors had been made in their case, but the Court ruled against them. They later filed a motion objecting to the composition of the jury that had sentenced them, but the Court upheld their conviction.

In 1966 a man named Curtis Adams confessed to the murders, and in 1967 Pitts and Lee filed another appeal in which they argued, among other things, that they had been coerced into pleading guilty, that their lawyer had been inadequate, that the State had withheld evidence that supported their innocence, and that Adams had confessed to the crime.

Moreover, the woman who had accused them recanted her statement, claiming that she had been coerced by the police. Pitts and Lee eventually had a trial, but they were again declared guilty by an all-white jury. Neither Adams’ confession nor the woman’s recantation were accepted by the jury. Their death penalty sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.

In 1972 Gene Miller, a reporter for The Miami Herald, began investigating the case. He wrote hundreds of articles defending Pitts and Lee’s innocence and a book, Invitation to a Lynching, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Pitts and Lee made an appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, but in 1975 the Governor, who had read Miller’s book, signed a pardon that released Pitts and Lee after 12 years in prison. In 1998, after a 20-year wait, the State of Florida awarded Pitts $500,000. This was the first time that the state had granted compensation to a convict wrongfully sentenced to death.

Freddie Pitts (in the middle) and Wilbert Lee after their second murder trial. Florida, 1972. Courtesy of the Florida Memory State Library.

Isaiah McCoy

Spent six years in prison (2012-2017), five of those on Delaware’s death row.

Isaiah was sentenced to death in 2012 for the murder of drug dealer James Munford. At the trial, Munford’s girlfriend and a nephew of McCoy’s testified against him. Even though the fingerprints and DNA taken at the crime scene did not match McCoy, the jury found him guilty. In 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court ordered a new trial on the grounds of the procedural mistakes that had taken place in the first trial, and the acts of misconduct in which the prosecutor David Favata had engaged by humiliating McCoy and lying to the judge. In 2017, McCoy was acquitted of all charges. Six months later, he filed a federal lawsuit in which he claimed that, while in prison, he was provoked and mistreated physically and emotionally by guards and inmates alike, including spitting in his food and being subjected to other indignities. He also alleged that he was seldom allowed to leave his cell, that he was denied his rights to privacy, to visit the law library and to legal counsel, and that he was generally treated in a cruel and inhuman manner throughout his detention.

Kirk Bloodworth

Spent nine years in prison (1984-1993), two of those on Maryland’s death row.

In 1984, a nine-year-old girl was found dead with signs of having been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. The crime shocked the local community. A composite sketch of the suspect, which the police had constructed based on the description provided by two young boys, was shown on television. Shortly thereafter, officers received an anonymous call informing them that the composite resembled former Marine Kirk Bloodsworth. He did not have a solid alibi, so the police arrested him. At the trial, five witnesses testified to having seen Bloodsworth in the area. Despite the fact that he had pled not guilty and that the perpetrator’s description did not match his features, he was convicted and sentenced to death in the gas chamber, amidst an outburst of ecstasy from those present in court. Two years later, he was tried again after it was found that the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defence. This time, he was convicted again and sentenced to two life terms. In 1992, Bloodsworth’s lawyers read about an emerging DNA analysis technique, and requested to have a semen sample tested in order to prove his innocence. In 1993, Kirk became the first convict on death row that was exonerated as a result of genetic testing.

John Thompson

Spent 18 years in prison (1984-2003), 14 of them on death row in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana.

In 1984, 22-year-old John Thompson was tried and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of a hotel executive. The prosecution based their case on the testimony of the man who had sold Thompson the murder weapon and a ring that belonged to the victim. For the next 15 years, he came within weeks of being executed on several occasions. Finally, in 1999, five weeks before his seventh execution was scheduled, an investigator for the defence discovered a laboratory report that revealed that the blood found in the victim’s trousers was not Thompson’s. The prosecutor in the case, who had terminal cancer, confessed to a friend that he had concealed this evidence at the trial. Thompson was granted a retrial in 2002. At this point, the police claimed to have lost the murder weapon and several eyewitnesses stepped forward and declared that Thompson was not the murderer. Thompson was exonerated and received compensation for $14 million. At present he leads Resurrection after Exoneration, an organisation that helps former inmates that have been exonerated.

Nathson Fields

Spent almost 20 years in prison (1984-2004), including more than eleven years on death row in Illinois.

Nathson Fields and Earl Hawkins were sentenced to death for the murder in 1984 of two members of a rival gang in a trial riddled with irregularities. In 1993, it came to light that the judge in the case had accepted a $10,000 bribe. The magistrate spent 13 years in prison for rigging trials in capital punishment cases. As a result of this development, several witnesses recanted their testimonies claiming that both the police and the prosecutors had coerced them into falsely identifying Fields and Hawkins, so the court decided to grant them a new trial in 1998. Ongoing appeals by the prosecution delayed the retrial for another six years. When the trial was finally held, Hawkins, who had admitted to killing 15 to 20 people, testified against Fields in exchange for a lesser sentence. The judge found his testimony worthless, saying that “If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?” Fields was released on bond in 2003 while awaiting a retrial that eventually took place in 2009 and in which he was acquitted of all charges.

Harold Wilson

Spent 16 years on Pensilvania’s death row (1989-2005).

In 1988 three people were hacked to death with an axe in a house in Philadelphia. The following day, Wilson was arrested. During the interrogation, he admitted having used drugs in the house, but denied being the perpetrator of the murders. At the trial, police testified they had found a jacket with the victims’ blood in the basement of Wilson’s home.The lead prosecutor in Wilson’s case, Jack McMahon, became well known 10 years later when a training video in which he advised new prosecutors to exclude African Americans from juries in capital punishment cases was leaked to the media. Wilson was convicted of three counts of murder and sentenced to death. In 1998 a court granted Wilson a retrial on the grounds that the defence lawyer had failed to present mitigating evidence and that the prosecutor had used racial profiling to eliminate potential African American jurors. In 2003 the new trial ended in a mistrial as a result of the prosecution leaving a series of gruesome photographs of the crime scene in plain sight of the jury. At a third trial, in 2005, the defence presented DNA evidence that showed that the blood on the jacket was not their client’s. Wilson was acquitted of all charges and set free. He was compensated with $500,000.

Ronald Kitchen

Spent 21 years in prison, 13 of those on Illinois’ death row (1988-2009).

In 1988 the bodies of two women and three children were found in a Chicago home. Nine days later, Kitchen became a suspect in the murders when a snitch called Willie Williams told the police that Kitchen had confessed to the crime during a telephone conversation. Kitchen was arrested and interrogated by Detective Michael Kill, a subordinate of Commander Jon Burge, who would be fired in 1993 for the systematic torture of dozens of African American criminal suspects. After 16 hours of threats and beatings, Kitchen signed a confession. At his appearance in court, he told the judge that he had been tortured. The judge ordered his transfer to a hospital, where he received treatment for testicular trauma and other injuries. Despite the abuse he had been subjected to, and based solely on Williams’ testimony and the confession obtained by Kill, Kitchen was sentenced to death in 1990. In 2003, a judge removed the prosecution team from the proceedings because of the multiple allegations of torture against them, and began to reinvestigate the case. In 2009, the judge agreed to dismiss all charges against Kitchen and declared him not guilty. He was awarded $6 million in compensation.

Anthony Ray Hinton

Spent 29 years on Alabama’s death row (1986-2015).

Hinton was convicted of a double murder in 1986 on the basis of the testimony from a firearms expert who claimed that the crime scene bullets were a match to a gun that had been found in his home. Hinton was arrested in spite of his alibi –he had been at work in a warehouse– and of the fact that his car did not fit the description of the killer’s car. At the trial, the defence expert, who was a specialist in vintage weapons and who was blind in one eye, declared that he had not test-fired the gun and that he had been unable to properly examine the bullets using a microscope. Hinton’s inexperienced lawyer did not present any exculpatory evidence, and the prosecutor, who had a long history of racial bias, stated that he could tell that Hinton was guilty and evil “just by looking at him”. In 1998 Equal Justice Initiative, an organisation that provides legal aid for the homeless, began representing Hinton. In 2002 he hired three ballistics experts to conduct a new examination of the bullets and the gun. They testified that the bullets had not been fired by Hinton’s gun. In 2014, the case was reopened. The prosecution decide to drop the charges and Hinton was released on April 3, 2015.

Herman Lindsey

Spent three years on Florida’s death row (2006-2009).

Herman Lindsey was sent to Florida’s death row in 2006 for the murder of the owner of a pawn shop. Lindsey was a drug dealer and often got into trouble. The police arrested him for questioning and, in the absence of other suspects, ended up charging him with the murder. Three years later, in 2009, the Florida Supreme Court overturned Lindsey’s conviction based on the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him and the fact that he could not be placed at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. The judges also believed that the prosecution had been allowed to range too widely during cross-examination and stated that “The prosecution’s comments were not only improper, but were also prejudicial and made with the apparent goal of inflaming the jury. Therefore it cannot be concluded that these comments did not affect the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty.” Herman currently lives in Florida, where he works with at-risk youth.

Greg Wilhoit

Spent eight years in prison (1987-1993), four of those on Oklahoma’s death row.

Greg Wilhoit was the youngest son of a middle-class Christian family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was married and had two daughters, then four months and 14 months old. He had met his wife Kathy two years before at a rehabilitation clinic. On May 31, 1985, Kathy was found dead in her apartment. Her throat had been slashed and she had been raped. Kathy and Greg had been separated for three weeks, which made Greg the leading suspect in the case. A year after Kathy’s death, he was arrested and charged with murder. No one had seen him enter or leave the apartment that night, and none of the physical evidence collected at the crime scene incriminated him. The prosecutors based their case solely on the testimony from dental experts, who claimed that the bite marks found on Kathy’s breast matched Greg’s teeth.

In preparation for the trial, his parents hired one of the top defence lawyers in Oklahoma, but he turned out to be a fraud. He not only failed to prepare for Greg’s trial, but also appeared in court drunk and once vomited in front of the judge. Greg was consequently found guilty and sentenced to death. The judge conferred these blunt words upon him: “You are to die by lethal injection. If that fails, we’ll electrocute you. If the power goes out, we’ll hang you. And if the rope breaks, we’ll take you out back and shoot you.”

He spent five years on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. His daughters were adopted by other people, although they regularly visited their actual grandparents, who told them that their biological father was in the Navy. Greg strictly forbade his family from having the girls visit him in prison. He did not want them to see him like that. They would occasionally talk on the phone, but that was all.

Shortly after arriving on death row, things began to change for the better. Mark Barrett, the Public Defender appointed to handle Greg’s appeal, turned out to be a great lawyer and became a trusted friend. Barrett, who was convinced of his client’s innocence, worked tirelessly for over four years to get him out of prison. The nation’s top forensic odontologists examined the bite mark evidence, and testified that it did not match Greg’s teeth. A second trial was held in 1993, and Greg was acquitted of all charges.

A few days after being released, Greg moved to California. He could not bear to remain in the place where he had suffered so much. He started a new life in Sacramento. He remarried, but was unable to live with the stigma and the scars of having been on death row. He started drinking and using drugs again, and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He ended up prostrated in a wheelchair as a result of several accidents. He died in 2014 from liver complications. He had hepatitis C and cirrhosis. Writer John Grisham included his story in his only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man.

Nancy Vollersten, Greg’s older sister, poses in her bedroom at home with Greg’s picture on her side. The one that she carries around the country, campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty and in memory of his brother. Desmond, Oklahoma, June 2016.
Greg with his eldest daughter Krissy, on the porch of his parents’ house in the outskirts of Tulsa. Oklahoma, around 1983.
Greg as a teenager poses at home dressed in the uniform of his baseball team. Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1969.
Ida Mae and Guy, Greg’s parents, on the porch of his old house, on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2016.

Perry Cobb

Spent eight years on death row in Illinois (1979-1987).

Cobb, together with Darby Tillis, was sentenced to death in 1977 for the murder of two white men during the robbery of a hot dog stand in Chicago. The prosecution based their case on the testimony of an eyewitness, Phyllis Santini, who accused them of being the perpetrators of the crime. Both men professed their innocence, but were arrested after a wristwatch that belonged to one of the victims was found at Cobb’s house. Cobb claimed that he had bought the watch from Johnny Brown, Santini’s boyfriend. The first two trials ended in hung juries. The all-white jury in the third trial sentenced both men to death. It took Cobb a year and a half to persuade his wife, whom he loved deeply, to divorce him. The Supreme Court reversed the case in 1983. After the reversal, journalist Rob Warden published an article on the evidence of the case. A former co-worker of Santini’s read it and immediately contacted Cobb and Tillis’ defence lawyers to inform them that, when working together some years before, she confided that she and her boyfriend had robbed a restaurant and shot the owner. Prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Falconer from testifying. His critical testimony at a fifth trial held in 1987 led to the acquittal of Cobb and Tillis.

Juan Meléndez

Spent 18 years on Florida’s death row (1984-2002).

In 1983 Delbert Baker was murdered at the beauty salon he owned in Polk County, Florida. He had been shot, his throat had been slashed, and some of his jewellery was missing. A few days later, Juan Meléndez, an uneducated Hispanic fruit picker, was arrested after David Falcon, a convicted felon, told the police that Meléndez had confessed to having committed the crime. During the pre-trial investigation, Meléndez’s lawyer interviewed a man in prison named Vernon James, who had witnessed the crime and claimed that Meléndez was not the murderer. However, this interview was never presented as evidence. At the trial, Juan, who could not afford a lawyer and spoke very little English, was sentenced to death despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. Sixteen years later, Juan’s new lawyers came across a transcript of James’ taped confession. Juan was awarded a new trial, but the prosecutors decided to drop the charges instead. He was released on January 3, 2002. He was left at the prison’s gate with $100, a pair of trousers and a shirt.

Sabrina Butler-Smith

Spent five years in prison (1990-1995), almost three of those on Mississippi’s death row.

Sabrina Butler grew up in poor and racially charged Mississippi in the 1970s. She dropped out of school to get married at the age of 15. By 17, she was already the mother of two children, Daniel and Walter. One night in 1989, she went to check on nine-month-old baby Walter and realised he was not breathing. Alarmed, she took the baby in her arms, and rushed to her next door neighbours for help. She performed CPR on him but, on arrival at the hospital, the doctors were only able to certify the death of the child.

The following morning, she went down to the police station, where a detective yelled at her, “You know you killed your baby. You stepped on him with your feet and smashed him on the floor. You killed him.” Sabrina panicked. She explained that she had tried to save his life and that the bruises on the child’s body were caused by her attempts to resuscitate him. No matter what she said, the detective kept screaming over and over again that she had killed her son. The interrogation was conducted for over three hours. Sabrina was terrified. In that state of mind, the police coerced her into signing a guilty plea that was full of lies. “I signed my name in tiny letters in the margin to show some form of resistance to the power they had over me. I was 17 years old. People who say they would never sign a false confession have never been in my shoes.” After this, she was put up in jail and was not even allowed to attend her son’s funeral. Her murder trial commenced in March 1990. The court scheduled her execution by lethal injection for July 2, 1990. Meanwhile, the newspapers would display headlines such as “The most depraved mother a child could have, sentenced to death.”

Following her conviction, Sabrina filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Mississippi. Her own mother fought tirelessly to prove her innocence and managed to get an excellent lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, to take her case pro bono. In 1992 the courts reversed her conviction, declaring that the prosecution had failed to prove that the incident was anything more than an accident. The case went to retrial in 1995. One of Sabrina’s neighbours had provided evidence that corroborated her account that the injuries sustained by her son were the result of her unsuccessful resuscitation attempts. In addition, the medical examiner now believed that Walter’s death was due to a kidney disease.

Sabrina was acquitted in December 1995, becoming the first woman in the United States to be exonerated from death row. She returned to her hometown of Columbus, where everyone recognised her as “the woman who killed her child”. To this day, nobody has given her a job. With the compensation she was awarded for her wrongful conviction, she bought a house next to her own home and lives off rental income. Shortly after her release, she married Joe Porter, one of the guards on death row, and has had two more children – Joe Jr. and Nakeria.

One of the polaroid images that Sabrina kept on the wall of her cell on death row. Top left: brothers Anthony Smith and Keith Smith. Bottom: Sabrina Butler with her mom Rose Smith. Taken in prison on death row. Mississippi, 1990.
Joe Porter, the officer that Sabrina married after being released from jail in 1996.
Sabrina Butler. School years. In the back it reads: Sabrina Tiffany Smith. 13 years old. Taken at Caledonia high school. Mississippi, 1983.
Sabrina’s baby Walter D. Butler, four months old here, just before he died in 1990. One of the polaroid images that Sabrina kept on the wall in her cell on death row.