Justice is blind, but that may more often prove to be a bane rather than a boon for many people. Impartiality and objectivity, hallmark traits of the law, are often replaced with the blatant disregard of information and logic leading to sad, and in hindsight, gravely bad decisions. Here are 10 instances where executed prisoners were later found out to be innocent.
1. On 23 December 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham escaped a house fire only to be arrested for the death of his three daughters. They had died in the blaze. Faulty investigative techniques, redundant fire science, and swinging witness testimonies resulted in his execution. Many years later, the Texas Forensic science Commission found the claims of deliberate fire doubtful and unconvincing.
On 17 February 2004, 36-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the murder of his three daughters, one-year-old twins. Kameron Marie Willingham and Karmen Diane Willingham, and two-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall. The father had refused to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
He was convicted for deliberately starting a fire with the intention to kill his daughters. The motive set forth by the persecution was that the children were unwanted and Willingham wanted to get rid of them.
Another narrative was that he had abused the children and wanted to hide it, but Willingham’s wife and the mother of the children Stacy Kuykendall testified that he never abused the children
Witnesses who had earlier spoken about the distraught father’s attempts to save the children changed their narrative after the police suggested that he may be the culprit. They now testified that Willingham was calm and never tried to enter the house.
The crucial evidence stacked against him was the puddle-like char marks on the burnt floor. The science of that time indicated the use of liquid accelerant concluding that the fire was not accidental. It was a case of arson.
However, five years after his execution, David Grann wrote an investigative report on the case in The New Yorker. According to his research, the advancement in fire science and analysis of fire investigators suggested that the evidence for arson was not sufficient.
On 23 July 2010, a panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission acknowledged that the arson investigators of the time used “flawed science” to prove that the fire was deliberate.
2. Timothy Evans was accused of the murder of his wife and infant daughter. His neighbor, John Christie, testified in court that Evans regularly quarreled with his wife. He was executed on 9 March 1950. Three years later, Christie was identified as a serial killer who had killed several women including Beryl Susanna Thorley, Evans’s wife.
Timothy Evans and Beryl Susanna Thorley were struggling financially and decided to abort their second child. At the time, they had an infant daughter named Geraldine.
John Christie, their downstairs neighbor at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, London, offered to help them and perform the abortion.
However, on 8 November 1949, Christie, who was a serial killer and had already murdered several women, strangulated Beryl and Geraldine to death. When Evans returned from work, John Christie informed him that his wife died due to a botched abortion and his daughter would be taken care of by a couple from East Acton. He suggested Evans leave London for the time being.
On 30 November 1949, Timothy Evans confessed to the police at Merthyr Tydfil in Wales that he had accidentally killed his wife. The body was dumped in a drain outside their residence.
When police didn’t find the body in the drain, they re-questioned Evans. This time he told the truth.
After a thorough search of 10 Rillington Place, the police found the body of Beryl and Geraldine in the wash house. When Evans was shown their clothes, he accepted responsibility for their death.
This confession and the contradictory statements he had made earlier were cited as proof in court along with Christie’s testimony that the couple would fight often.
Evans was found guilty by the jury and was sentenced to death. He was hanged on 9 March 1950.
Three years later, the skeletal remains of several women were found at John Christie’s residence. This raised serious doubts about the conviction of Evans. Later, Christie confessed to killing Beryl and was executed on 15 July 1953. In January 2003, Evans’s relatives received compensation for the miscarriage of justice in his trial. (1, 2)
3. John Monk Stevenson was a suspect in the murder of 75-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. To save himself, Stevenson accused brothers Thomas and Meek Griffin. As they were rich, Stevenson believed the brothers could afford a competent defense lawyer. The brothers were convicted and executed in 1915. Ninty-four years later, they were exonerated after a relative appealed for their pardon.
Harvard Unity Professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, when researching for the PBS documentary African American Lives 2, came across the case of the Griffin brothers; Thomas Griffin and Meeks Griffin were respected and prominent Black members of the Chester County community in South Carolina. They were accused of the murder of 75-year-old John Q. Lewis in 1913.
Lewis, a White man, had an affair with a Black married woman, Anna Davis. The interracial affair was believed to be the reason behind the murder. Initially, John “Monk” Stevenson was suspected of the crime.
To save himself, he accused the Griffin brothers along with two other men of the murder. He thought them to be wealthy enough to afford legal counsel. The brothers had to sell their 130 acres of land to pay for their defense. However, they were sentenced to death.
Even though 100 people, including the mayor, petitioned the Governor to overturn the ruling, the brothers were sent to the electric chair on 29 September 1915.
In 2009, Tom Joyner discovered that the wrongly executed brothers were his grand uncles through the research for the documentary. He took the case to the State Appeals Court in Columbia where they were exonerated. (1, 2)
4. Joe Arridy, an imbecile man with the mental age of a five-year-old, was wrongfully executed in 1939 for the murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain. Touted as “the happiest prisoner on death row” by inmates, he played with his toy train that the warden gifted him while on death row.
Joe Arridy, a 23-year-old man with an IQ of a six-year-old, was convicted and executed on 6 January 1939 for the rape and murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain.
Dorothy Drain was found dead her sister injured at their home in Pueblo, Colorado while their parents were away. This led to a widespread hunt for the murderer. George Carroll, the county sheriff, came across Arridy after he was arrested for roaming around the railyards in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The intellectually disabled man was led by the sheriff into confessing to the murder. He was tried for the murder even though police chief Arthur Grady had arrested Frank Aguilar. He too admitted to the crime. The two confessions were pieced together to form the narrative that Frank Auglier, a serial offender, had convinced the easily impressionable Arridy to partner with him in the crime.
Joe Arridy’s defense tried to prove him insane to save him from the death sentence. They didn’t pursue his innocence even though there were alibis to testify that he wasn’t even in Pueblo on the day of the murder. He was convicted and executed in a gas chamber.
In 1992, Robert Perske became interested in the case. Through his research, he came to know that Joe Arridy was severely mentally retarded. When in prison on death row, warden Roy Best described him as “the happiest man on a death row” who would play with toy trains and demanded ice cream for his last meal.
5. On 9 April 1996, a woman was raped and murdered inside a public toilet. Huugjilt, a Chinese Mongol, discovered the body and informed authorities, but the police arrested Huugjilt. They extorted a confession out of Huugjilt to reach their quota of solved crimes. He was tried, convicted, and executed within three months. Eighteen years later, Zhao Zhihong, a serial killer, admitted to the murder.
On 9 April 1996, eighteen-year-old Huugjilt alerted police after he found a body in a public toilet inside a textile factory in Hohhot. The body was identified to be of a woman surnamed Yang. She was raped and strangled to death.
The police arrested Huugjilt and extorted a confession out of him within 48 hours. At the time, China was on an anti-crime drive and officials had to solve a certain number of crime cases. This influenced the way the case was handled.
He was sentenced to death within a month of the murder and executed by a firing squad in June of the same year.