Wrongful Executions of Death Row Inmates

Did You Know that 4% Of Death Row Inmates Are Innocent?

The United States carries out one of the highest number of death penalty executions each year. However, a recent study has shown that it is likely that up to 4% of death row inmates are innocent.

There are approximately 3000 people currently on death row and if the new figures are correct, it is possible that up to 120 of them could be wrongful executions.  

Makes you wonder, huh?


San Quentin State Prison Lethal Injection Room
San Quentin State Prison Lethal Injection Room By CACorrections (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Since 1973, 156 inmates on death row were exonerated of their crimes. However, in the history of the United States, only 7 people executed by capital punishment were posthumously pardoned. In each case, the pardon was granted over 60 years after the execution.

To date, there have been no posthumous pardons granted for any execution carried out after 1945.

Wrongful Executions:  Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Data courtesy of Save-Innocents.com

  • Jack Kehoe                                        (executed 1878, pardoned 1979)
  • William Jackson Marion                (executed 1877, pardoned 1987)
  • John Snowden                                 (executed 1919, pardoned 2001)
  • Lena Baker                                       (executed 1945, pardoned 2005)
  • Thomas and Meeks Griffin          (executed 1915, pardoned 2009)
  • Joe Arridy                                          (executed 1939, pardoned 2011)

Along with these posthumous pardons, there have been 5 cases where death row inmates have died of natural causes and then been posthumously exonerated at a later date.

The Figures Don’t Add Up

Posthumous pardons and exonerations are extremely rare, and are almost unheard of for executions that occurred in recent years. However, if the new statistics are anything to go by, then it is likely that innocent people were executed for crimes they did not commit. There are a number of highly publicized cases where it is now strongly suspected that the person executed was in fact innocent.

Leo Jones

Potential wrongful executions:  Leo Jones
Potential wrongful executions:  Leo Jones

Jones was convicted of killing a policeman in Florida in 1981. After hours of interrogation, he signed a confession which he later claimed he was coerced into signing.

A few years after his conviction, the policeman responsible for his arrest and the detective who took his confession were forced out of uniform for ethical violations. Many witnesses came forward and gave information which pointed to another suspect in the case. However, Jones was still executed in 1998.

Cameron Willingham

Potential wrongful executions: Cameron Willingham
Potential wrongful executions: Cameron Willingham

Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters in a house fire in 1992. Arson investigators testified that they believed an accelerant was used to set three different fires in the house. Apart from this, the only other significant evidence came from a drug addicted jailhouse snitch who claimed that Willingham confessed to him. Willingham was executed in 2004.

It later emerged that the prosecution had given the snitch favorable treatment and then deliberately elicited perjured testimony from him. More recently, 4 national arson experts have studied the case and claimed that the original investigation of Willingham’s case was flawed and that it is possible that the fire started accidentally.

Claude Jones

Potential wrongful executions: Claude Jones
Potential wrongful executions: Claude Jones

Jones was convicted in 1989 for the murder of a liquor store owner during an armed robbery. The only piece of physical evidence that placed Jones at the scene was a single strand of hair, which prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.

In 2007, 7 years after Jones was executed, DNA testing established that the hair belonged to the victim of the crime, and not Jones.

Scary Stuff!

If you’re interested in finding out more, the Death Penalty Information Center has published a list of 13 cases where there is strong evidence of innocence. It’s an interesting read and is definitely worth checking out.

You can watch more here:

What do you think? Despite the evidence suggesting numerous wrongful executions, is there room for the death penalty in civilized society?