Answering the hard questions: Innocence

“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.” -Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Consider the following:

Because human beings administer the death penalty system and because human beings are fallible, innocent people may have been executed in the past and will continue to be executed in the future.

Since 1973, more than 130 people in 26 states have been released from death rows across the U.S. after evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged. This represents approximately 1 exoneration for every 9 executions. In April 2002, Ray Krone became the 100th person to be released from death row since 1973. Krone spent 10 years in prison in Arizona, including time on death row for a murder he did not commit. DNA testing finally demonstrated his innocence.

The exonerations of 13 Illinois death row inmates led Governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in the State of Illinois. Calling the death penalty process “arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral,” Governor Ryan cleared Illinois’ death row in January 2003, commuting 167 condemned inmates’ sentences to life in prison.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty published a report titled Innocent and Executed which details the cases of four executed individuals who were most likely innocent, including Carlos De Luna.


In 2007, Michael McCormick was found not guilty in a new trial after spending 20 years fighting his death sentence in Tennessee. DNA evidence ultimately led to his acquittal. He became the 125th person released from death row nationwide.

Paul House was on Tennessee’s death row for 22 years though evidence indicating his innocence (including DNA) had been uncovered in the 1990’s. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “this is the rare case where—had the jury heard all conflicting testimony—it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have lacked a reasonable doubt.” In other words, House would not be found guilty in a fair trial with all the evidence properly introduced. His conviction and sentence were thrown out by a federal district court judge in December 2007, and he was released on bond in July 2008 to await a retrial. Finally, in May 2009, the district attorney dropped all the charges against House making him the 132nd person released from death row nationwide and the second in Tennessee.

Factors leading to wrongful convictions include:

  • Inadequate defense
  • Police and Prosecutorial misconduct
  • Perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony
  • Tainted jailhouse testimony
  • Suppression of mitigating evidence and misinterpretation of evidence
  • Death qualified juries
  • Lack of or unreliable eyewitness testimony

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