Death Penalty opponents have proclaimed that 102 inmates have been “released from death row with evidence of their innocence”, since the modern death penalty era began, post Furman v Georgia (1972). (The number of “innocents” may vary, periodically)
That number is a fraud.
Those opponents have combined the factually innocent (the “I truly had nothing to do with the murder” cases) and the legally innocent (the “I got off because of legal errors” cases), thereby fraudulently raising the “innocent” numbers. In addition, they have included many other cases that cannot be claimed as actually innocent and others which were prosecuted prior to the 1972 Furman decision and thereby have no relevance to a discussion of innocence within the modern death penalty framework.
A state’s example
Death penalty opponents claim that 24 of those 102 “innocent” cases are from Florida. The Florida Commission on Capital Cases found that 4 of those 24 MIGHT be actually innocent — an 84% error rate in death penalty opponents’ claims. (1)
If that error rate is consistent, nationally, that would indicate that 17 of the alleged 102 innocents MIGHT be actually innocent — a 0.2% actual guilt error rate for the 7300 sentenced to death in the US since 1973. None were executed.
Case examples – national
Here are a few examples of those “innocents” removed from death row.
Clarence Smith — he was removed from the “innocents” list when it was pointed out that this supposedly innocent defendant was convicted in federal court of charges which included the murder for which he had been acquitted in the Louisiana state court.
Delbert Tibbs – the Florida Supreme Court candidly conceded that it should not have reversed Tibbs’ conviction since the evidence was legally sufficient. The state prosecutor stated that “Tibbs was never an innocent man wrongly accused. He was a lucky human being. He was guilty, he was lucky and now he is free.”
Richard Neal Jones-– At the very least, Jones was present at the murder scene and a party to the conspiracy leading to the murder. His culpability would appear to be no less than that of the actual murderers.
Jerry Bigelow– conviction and death sentence were reversed for a reasons unrelated to his guilt.
Patrick Croy– There was no dispute Croy killed the police officer.
John C. Skelton-– the court majority explained: “ . . . the evidence against appellant leads to a strong suspicion or probability that appellant committed the capital offense . . .”
Dale Johnston– Prior to retrial, the court excluded incriminating statements Johnston made during his initial interrogation as well as incriminating evidence seized due to the interrogation. The prosecution then dismissed the case.
Jimmy Lee Mathers– The dissent points out that there was still ample evidence of Mathers’ guilt
Bradley Scott– the available circumstantial evidence “could only create a suspicion that Scott committed this murder.”
Jay C. Smith– the appeals court explained, “Our confidence in Smith’s convictions for the murder of Susan Reinert and her two children is not the least bit diminished — if anything, the courts have repeatedly reaffirmed their conclusion that Smith was “actually guilty”. Smith’s inclusion on the DPIC List is a “false exoneration” at its most extreme.
Andrew Golden-– the state court noted as follows: “The finger of suspicion points heavily at Golden. A reasonable juror could conclude that he more likely than not caused his wife’s death.”
Troy Lee Jones–The California Supreme Court held that while the evidence of Jones’ guilt was not overwhelming, it still suggested Jones’ guilt.
Benjamin Harris–Harris admitted taking turns with Bonds in shooting Turner and admitted having a motive to murder Turner.
Robert Hayes– Nothing about Hayes’ retrial changes the appeals court’s original observation that evidence existed to establish Hayes’ guilt.
Jeremy Sheets– The appellate court decision explains that Sheets was convicted of a racially motivated murder of a young African American girl. The evidence of Sheets’ guilt included the tape-recorded statements of an accomplice named Barnett, who had died prior to Sheets’ trial. The Nebraska Supreme Court reversed the conviction because Sheets could not cross-examine the dead accomplice.
Larry Osborne– A friend and potential accomplice, who died prior to trial, implicated Osborne in a grand jury proceeding. However, this witness then died prior to the first trial. His grand jury testimony was read at Osborne’s first trial and that conviction was reversed because there was no opportunity for Osborne to cross-examine the witness. On retrial, without the grand jury testimony of the dead witness, the prosecution had insufficient evidence to convince the jury of Osborne’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
A complete review of these and additional “innocent” cases can be found in Footnote 2, below. Most of the case descriptions, above, are edited from Campbell’s review (2a).
No one disputes that innocents are found guilty, within all countries. However, when scrutinizing death penalty opponents claims, we find that when reviewing the accuracy of verdicts and the post conviction thoroughness of discovering those actually innocent incarcerated, that the US death penalty process may be the most accurate criminal justice sanction in the world.
Under every debated scenario, not executing murderers
will always put many more innocents at risk. (3)
1. “Case Histories: A Review of 24 Individuals Released from Death Row”, Florida Commission on Capital Cases, June 20, 2002, Revised September 10, 2002 at
2. a) CRITIQUE OF DPIC LIST (“INNOCENCE:FREED FROM DEATH ROW”), Ward Campbell, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, California
b) “Bad List”, Ramesh Ponnuru, Senior Editor, National Review, 9/16/02 at
c) “Not so Innocent”, By Ramesh Ponnuru, Senior Editor, National Review, 10/1/02 at
d) “The Death Penalty Debate in Illinois”, John J. Kinsella, J.D., DCBA Brief (Online), June 2000, at
3. THE DEATH PENALTY – INNOCENCE ISSUES,
Dudley Sharp, Justice For All, 1/1/03.
A thorough review of the many innocence issues surrounding the death penalty. Upon request.
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, 713-622-5491,
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, BBC and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites
http://w1.155.telia.com/~u15525046/ny_sida_1.htm (from Sweden)
My focus has been on violent crime issues and what can be done, within the criminal justice and legislative systems, to lessen injury to the innocent and to prosecute the guilty. To accomplish that goal, involvement in community education, elections, legislation, victim’s rights issues, including assistance in individual cases are all important.