We like to think that our criminal-justice system is infallible, but sadly, mistakes do get made. The ultimate miscarriage of justice is when an innocent person goes to the death chamber for a crime he or she didn’t commit. In this list, we’ll share 10 tragic stories about wrongfully executed people who were exonerated after their deaths.
Johnny Frank Garrett (1992)
If you were going to make up a horrible crime, raping and murdering a 72-year-old nun would probably be one of the worst one you could think of. When cops in Texas brought in 17-year-old Johnny Frank Garrett, he admitted to the crime, but a psychologist found him incompetent due to mental illness, and there was no evidence of him actually having done it. He was executed in 1992, but DNA evidence unearthed in 2004 identified a Cuban man, Leoncio Perez Rueda, as the actual criminal. Obviously, that didn’t do Garrett any good.
Charles Hudspeth (1892)
Now here’s a truly horrific failure of justice: a murder conviction in which the victim was actually alive. In 1887, a man named George Watkins disappeared from his Arkansas home. His wife pinned it on her lover, Charles Hudspeth, and it was only a matter of time before a jury found him guilty and he was hanged. But guess what? The next year, Watkins was found alive and well in Kansas. He’d just split the scene because his wife was cheating on him and he was super pissed. She must have been some woman.
Carlos DeLuna (1989)
What is it about Texas that makes them kill so many people so quickly on death row? You’d think that after screwing it up once or twice they might hold their horses with the executions, but it’s just full speed ahead. In the case of Carlos DeLuna, it was particularly egregious. DeLuna was charged with murdering a female gas-station attendant with a switchblade, but he claimed another man named Carlos Hernandez had done the deed. The Corpus Christi police couldn’t find any such Hernandez (and claimed he didn't exist), so they put DeLuna to death in 1989. Just last month, however, a five-year research project at Columbia School of Law established that DeLuna was wrongly executed. They discovered that Hernandez, who looked like DeLuna, lived nearby at the time, was a convicted criminal and later murdered a lady with the same switchblade. The final kicker was that until the day he died, he even bragged to others about committing the murder and framing DeLuna for it.
Ellis Wayne Felker (1996)
Often with these wrongful executions, the fall guy isn’t a good person either by any means. Ellis Wayne Felker had already been in and out of jail for aggravated sodomy when he was collared for the murder of Georgia woman Evelyn Joy Ludlam, so he made a perfect suspect. However, he was under police surveillance at the time she was allegedly murdered, and even though DNA evidence and a confession from another man existed, he was put to death in the electric chair. He still hasn’t been officially exonerated, but so much doubt exists that it’s hard to believe that nothing fishy went on.
Mahmood Hussein Mattan (1952)
Somalian longshoreman Mahmood Hussein Mattan encountered all kinds of racism when he relocated to Cardiff, Wales, and it eventually led to his death. In 1952, he was charged with the murder of Lily Volpert, who had been ambushed in her house. Her throat was slit with a straight razor and she was robbed of approximately 100 pounds. The evidence against Mattan was that he shaved with a straight razor and there were tiny flecks of blood on his shoes. The main witness was a Jamaican criminal who had been paid off by the Volpert family. That was enough for a conviction and Mattan was hanged in Cardiff Prison. Years later, the main witness was convicted of trying to kill his own daughter by slitting her throat with a straight razor. Mattan’s conviction was overturned in 1998, and his family was awarded 725,000 pounds in compensation.
Larry Griffin (1995)
There are times when the zeal of the police to close a case can lead to some serious problems. When Missouri drug dealer Quintin Moss was shot 13 times in a drive-by, St. Louis police had one witness, and he specifically said that he didn't see Larry Griffin in the car. That didn’t matter to the cops, who railroaded Griffin to a death by lethal injection in 1995. The testimony they did take was from professional criminal Robert Fitzgerald, a man nobody could actually place at the scene, and who gave the cops a story with dozens of holes in it. Needless to say, Griffin’s conviction, while not formally reversed yet, is as flimsy as wet paper.
Timothy Evans (1950)
Can you imagine the level of panic you’d feel if you were accused of a crime that you didn’t commit? In the case of Welshman Timothy Evans, the crime was exceptionally horrible. In 1950, he was convicted and executed for the death of his own baby daughter, Geraldine, despite loudly protesting his innocence. At the trial, Evans claimed that his neighbor John Christie had committed the crime, but police didn’t take it seriously. Whoops for them, because three years later they discovered that Christie was actually a serial killer who had murdered at least eight women, including his own wife. Evans was pardoned after his death, which we're sure must have been so comforting to his family.
Leo Jones (1998)
This is another one that hasn’t been formally overturned, but upon examination, it couldn’t be more suspicious. In 1981, Leo Jones was convicted of the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville, Fla. The prime piece of evidence was a confession that Jones had signed in police custody. Jones later said that the confession was forced out of him, with the arresting officers beating him to a bloody pulp and making him play Russian roulette in the interrogation room. This seemed like an unlikely story, except that just a few years later both officers were forced out of the department over multiple ethics violations, including using torture to get confessions from suspects. Throw in another suspect who bragged about committing the crime and you’d think there were plenty of reasons to reopen the case, but sadly Jones rode Old Sparky to the grave in 1998.
Derek Bentley (1953)
Here's another case from England. In 1952, a young man named Derek Bentley robbed a warehouse with his friend, Christopher Craig. During the crime, a police officer was shot in the head. Craig was the one who fired the shot, but when it came time for trial, his status as a minor meant that he couldn’t be given the death penalty. So the magistrate decided to give it to Bentley instead, despite the fact that he was in police custody when the officer was killed. Even worse, forensic evidence unearthed afterwards pointed to the theory that the officer was killed by fire from a police revolver. Bentley never learned any of this, as he was executed in 1953.
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Thomas and Meeks Griffin (1915)
Here’s a two-for-one that shows you just how messed up the legal system was back in the early part of the 20th century. Brothers Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed in 1915 for the murder of John Q. Lewis, an elderly Confederate veteran. But here’s the twist: the case against them was predicated on the testimony of John “Monk” Stevenson, a known petty criminal who was caught by the cops with the victim’s gun in his possession. For some reason (racism), the authorities believed him and busted the Griffins, who were by far the area’s wealthiest African-American residents. They sold their farm to pay for their legal defense, and even though more than 100 townspeople wrote letters in their defense, they still got the chair. In 2009, research resulted in their posthumous pardons.