There is no such thing as a perfect justice system. There will always be flaws and injustices that will influence the outcome of a case. With the rise in popularity of docudramas like Making a Murderer that showcases the flaws in the system, it is clear that injustices like the ones that 8 discussed below still happen today. In the United States, studies suggest that as many as 4% of people sentenced to death are innocent. Here are just a few of the people who lost their lives to the death penalty, but who are now believed to be completely innocent.
George Stinney, Jr.
George Stinney, Jr. was just 14 when a jury took all of ten minutes to decide that he was worthy of the electric chair. Stinney was so small they had to use a phone book to properly strap him to the chair, and one of the electrodes was too big to fit on his tiny legs. He remains the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. More than 70 years later, we now know that he was innocent of the crimes he was accused of.
It was 1944 in Alcolu, South Carolina. Two young white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 8-year-old Mary Emma Thames were found beaten to death by a railroad spike. Witnesses claimed that George and his little sister were seen picking wildflowers with the young girls. The police arrested 14-year-old George and his older brother when their parents were not home. George’s brother was eventually released but the police continued to interrogate George for hours without his parents present. The police claimed that he eventually confessed to the murders, but those imprisoned with him said that George always professed his innocence.
At his trial, the jury was all white, no black people were even allowed in the courtroom. The only witnesses were police officers, the person who discovered the body, and two doctors who performed the post-mortem examination. Stinney’s appointed counsel offered no witnesses and provided no defense. George’s family fled Alcolu, his parents fearing what might happen to their other children.
Years later his family requested the case be re-opened. George’s little sister finally got the chance to testify that she was with her brother when the murders occurred and that they had not been with the girls. In 2014, the conviction was vacated, though many still believe George was guilty, including the descendants of the girls murdered and those involved with the prosecution.
In 1983, Carlos DeLuna was just 20-years-old when he stumbled upon Carlos Hernandez struggling with a woman, Wanda Lopez, behind the counter at a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas. Scared of getting in trouble with the police, Carlos DeLuna ran away from the scene. He was arrested 40 minutes later. Throughout his trial, conviction, imprisonment, and execution, DeLuna maintained his innocence and continued to tell police that Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. The police refused to believe him. Carlos Hernandez (who was related to, and looked remarkably similar to Carlos DeLuna) was never found, and no one involved with the case believed that he existed.
In 1991, four years after DeLuna was put to death, Professor James Liebman looked into the case as part of a project that involved researching the fallibility of the death penalty. He hired a private investigator who took only one day to find Carlos Hernandez and reveal a man that had a long, violent criminal record. Carlos Hernandez not only looked like Carlos DeLuna but he was also known for carrying a knife that was identical to the one that killed Wanda Lopez.
The discovery led Liebman on a long journey to find out the truth about the case. In 2012, the result of years of hard work by Liebman and his students was published; 436 pages filled with hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents and crime scene photos revealed a poorly-handled case that never gave Carlos DeLuna a chance. No usable fingerprints were taken from the scene, none of the blood at the scene was tested to see if it belonged to someone other than the victim, the fingernails of the victim were not scraped, the footprint left at the scene was not measured, and numerous other pieces of evidence, such as a cigarette butt at the scene, were not examined.
However, justice will never be served. Carlos Hernandez died of natural causes in prison in 1999 for another crime, and police continue to insist Carlos DeLuna was the killer and no posthumous pardon has been made.
Mahmoud Hussein Mattan was a father of three who was born in British Somaliland in 1923 and who later moved to Wales to work in a foundry. He faced racial abuse from the community, which led him to separate from his wife because of their treatment as a multiracial couple, although they continued to live on the same street and raise their children together.
On March 6, 1952, a woman named Lily Volpert was found murdered in her shop in the Cardiff Docklands area. Her throat had been cut with a straight razor and £100 had been stolen. Within hours, police questioned Mattan, and ten days later he was charged with murder. A raid of his home found no sign of the money, but a razor and a pair of shoes with specks of blood were discovered.
Mattan’s trial began in July of 1952. The case rested on the testimony of Harold Cover, a Jamaican with a violent past who had been told he would receive a share of the reward in exchange for testimony that led to Mattan’s conviction. At trial, Clover maintained that he had seen Mattan leaving the shop after the murder. But a previous interview had him identifying a man named Taher Gass as the person leaving the shop. The jury was never told of the discrepancies in the testimony. The jury was also not informed that four other witnesses failed to pick Mattan out of a lineup as the man they had seen. One witness, a 12-year-old girl, clearly stated that Mattan was not the man she had seen near the shop at the time of the murder.
The trial was racially charged, with Mattan’s own lawyer calling him “half-child of nature, half semi-civilized savage.” On July 24, 1952, Mattan was found guilty. He was not granted an appeal and on September 3, he was hanged at the prison. His family always maintained his innocence, and they faced racism and discrimination throughout their lives for being related to a murderer.
The case of Jesse Tafero is tragic not only because he was eventually declared innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, but because his execution was considered to be incredibly inhumane. In 1976, Tafero was traveling with his girlfriend Sonia Jacobs, their ten-month-old daughter, Jacobs’ 6-year-old son, and a friend, Walter Norman Rhodes. They had pulled off the road in Florida and were sleeping in their car when they were approached by police officer Phillip Black and a visiting Canadian constable, Donald Irwin. Black and Irwin were shot to death.
Jacobs and Tafero were arrested, and they told police that Walter Norman Rhodes fired the gun and only went with Rhodes because they felt they had no other choice. There was gunpowder residue found on the hands of Tafero (who said Rhodes later handed him the gun) and Rhodes, but none on Jacobs. Rhodes testified that Tafero and Jacobs had pulled the trigger in exchange for a reduced sentence. The only other evidence that directly pointed to Jacobs and Tafero as the shooters were the testimony of an inmate who claimed that Jacobs had confessed while they were in prison. Both Jacobs and Tafero were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Both maintained their innocence and fought for appeals. They filed writs of habeas corpus against the testimonies that put them in jail. Rhodes recanted his testimony and admitted he fired the shots, but then reverted back to his original story. Tafero’s time ran out and he was sent to the electric chair on May 4, 1990. The execution was stopped three times when fire and smoke started coming out of Tafero’s head. He was still alive, moving and breathing when they halted the execution the first time.
After Tafero’s gruesome death, Rhodes finally admitted to authorities that he had been the shooter, but no changes were made to his sentence and he was released on parole in 1994.
The Gun Alley Murder took place in 1921 in Melbourne, Australia. 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke was sent on an errand for her aunt and never returned. She was eventually found raped and strangled in the Gun Alley. Headlines reported the gruesome crime and claimed that there was a maniac on the loose that was likely to strike again. With the newspapers causing panic, the police were desperate to quickly find the killer. Ross reported to police that he had seen the girl walk by his saloon and other witness stated they had seen the girl look worried as a man (who they identified as someone other than Colin Campbell Ross) was following her. The police focused their attention on Ross because of his prior police record (he was acquitted of shooting and robbing one of his customers).
As the interviews with the police continued, Ross told them of a number of witnesses who were at his saloon and could testify that he had never left the bar. These witnesses were never questioned. On January 12,1921, Ross was arrested and charged with murder. At the trial, a jailhouse witness who had a history of committing perjury told the jury that Ross had confessed to him.
Two other witnesses, a prostitute and a fortune-teller, split part of the reward money when they testified that Ross confessed to them. Hairs from Alma Tirtschke were compared with hairs found at Ross’ home, one blonde and one red, but an examiner still testified they came from the same person.
Ross was found guilty and sentenced to death. His hanging used a new type of rope that did not break his neck, only fractured it. For several minutes, he struggled against the rope as he slowly strangled to death. For decades, numerous people sought to clear Ross’ name, and on May 8, 2008, he became the only judicially executed person to be pardoned in Australian history.
In July 1982, the city of Waco, Texas was horrified by the brutal murders of three teenagers, two girls and a boy. Deputy Truman Simmons got the idea that local store owner Muneer Mohammad Deeb hired three men (including David Wayne Spence) to kill a woman named Gayle Kelly. But Gayle Kelly was not even one of the victims. Deputy Simmons claimed that the killers had mistaken one of the girls as Kelly, and then killed the others because they were witnesses.
Spence, Deeb, and two other men were arrested with no evidence to prove their guilt. There were no witnesses that placed them at the scene. Despite the brutality of the murders and the belief that the girls had been raped, there was no physical evidence that tied any of the three men to the murders. The only thing that linked the men to the murders were some supposed jailhouse confessions that other inmates claimed that the men had made. Many of these men later recanted their stories and admitted they had been offered lighter sentences or the opportunity to have sex with their wives or girlfriends in the district attorney’s office.
With so little evidence, there was no way to get a conviction, until bite mark specialist Homer Campbell testified that the marks left on the bodies could have been made by none other than David Wayne Spence. He said that he used enhanced pictures of the bodies and molds of Spence’s teeth to conclude without a doubt that Spence had made the bite marks.
In 1993, Spence’s lawyers sent the pictures and molds of Spence’s teeth to five experts around the country. Some were unwilling to judge the marks as even being made by teeth, and none were able to match the molds to the marks. In 1993, Deeb, who had also been sentenced to death, appealed his case and won. He was released from prison. David Wayne Spence was not successful in his appeal and was executed by lethal injection in 1997.
Harry Gleeson remains the only executed person to be pardoned in Ireland, and it took 76 years for it to happen. Mary “Moll” McCarthy lived in a small run-down cottage near the farm of a man named John Caesar. She was a bit of an outcast, being a single mother of 7 children by at least 6 different fathers. On November 21, 1940, Harry Gleeson was working on his uncle John Caesar’s farm when he discovered McCarthy’s body.
She had been shot twice in the face. Seven days later Gleeson was arrested for her murder. The Irish police force claimed that Gleeson was the father of McCarthy’s seventh child. Though the child had died in infancy, police claimed that Gleeson killed McCarthy to keep his uncle from finding out about the illegitimate child. Gleeson believed his uncle would cut him out of his inheritance if he discovered the truth.
There was little evidence against Gleeson. Prosecutors claimed that the time of death was the evening of November 20, but medical records suggested that the time of death was sometime on November 21. Gleeson had an alibi for the November 21, but not for the night before. Harry’s aunt and uncle were never called in to testify on his behalf despite the fact that they were considered to be very trustworthy by the police. Prosecutors claimed that John Caesar bought ammunition for his shotgun which matched the bullets used to kill McCarthy, but the registration at the shop told a different story.
Gleeson was found guilty and hanged in February 1941 despite the claims from his family, his lawyers, and numerous members of the community that he could not be guilty. For decades, people investigated the case, with some going as far as to claim that it was a member of the police that had fathered McCarthy’s seventh child, killed her, and accused Gleeson to protect himself. Finally, on December 19, 2015, President Michael D. Higgins signed the only posthumous pardon in Irish history for Harry Gleeson, and it was presented to his family during a ceremony the following year.
Timothy Evans stands as a testament to the unfortunate situation of people with mental illness in the legal system. Evans was always slow to meet his developmental milestones growing up and he suffered from tubercular sore on his right foot. The sore never healed and would often keep him out of school. By the time he left school, he was still completely illiterate. As an adult, he struggled to find work, finding that his foot prevented him from working in the coal mines. In 1947 he was living in London when he and his wife Beryl had a daughter, Geraldine Evans.
The couple had a relationship that was fraught with arguments and violence. They struggled to make ends meet, and in 1949, Beryl became pregnant again. Without enough money to support themselves, much less another child, they believed that their only option was an abortion. On November 30, 1949, Evans showed up at the police station and said that he had given Beryl a mixture to abort the baby and had accidentally killed her. He said that he placed her body in a drainage ditch. Police never found the body, which prompted Evans to change his story. He said that a man named John Christie had agreed to perform the abortion and that Beryl had died during the procedure.
The Evans’ lived on the top floor of 10 Rillington Place and John Christie and his wife lived on the bottom floor. When police searched the home, they found the bodies of both Beryl and Geraldine. They had been strangled. The trial against Evans took 3 days, and a jury found him guilty in 40 minutes. He was executed on March 9, 1950. Three years later, police found numerous bodies at 10 Rillington Place. All of the women that had been killed and abused by John Christie.
These bodies were missed in the original search for Beryl and Geraldine, including the human thigh bone that was used to prop open a fence. It wasn’t until 1965 that an inquiry found that John Christie was the likely murderer of Beryl and Geraldine. Timothy Evans was granted a pardon in 1966.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading