In a perfect world, prisoners on death row would always be guilty of the heinous crimes that resulted in such harsh punishment. While the evidence used to convict these criminals is normally overwhelming, there have been cases in which innocent prisoners were executed.
1. Larry Griffin
In June of 1980, a drive-by shooting resulted in the death of a teenaged boy named Quintin Moss. The area in which the shooting took place was known to be frequented by drug addicts looking for their next fix.
The primary testimony in the case was made by Robert Fitzgerald, a convicted criminal. According to Fitzgerald, he was in the vicinity and saw a car occupied by three African American individuals. He said that Griffin reached out and fired the fatal shots.
Griffin’s attorney had never represented a client in a murder case and did not challenge the allegations made by Fitzgerald although there were inconsistencies in the testimony. Furthermore, Griffin’s legal counsel did not call to the stand those who confirmed that the accused was with them at the time of the murder. Despite all of this, Griffin was executed by lethal injection in 1995.
2. Ellis Wayne Felker
When a cocktail waitress turned up missing, officials zeroed in on Ellis Wayne Felker. The woman’s body was later discovered in a creek and it was evident she had been raped and murdered. The body was examined by an inexperienced medical technician, and this individual determined the body had been expired for five days; however, other professionals estimated the body had only been dead for three days.
Despite the fact that DNA as well as the confession of another suspect was present, Felker was charged with the murder and executed by electrocution in 2000. Recently, the case was reopened. Testing on DNA has indicated the evidence against Felker was inconclusive.
3. Leo Jones
In 1981, a police officer in Jacksonville, FL was shot as he drove in his cruiser. Officers quickly showed up at the apartment of suspect Leo Jones. They arrested the suspect saying that he had confessed to the crime; however, Jones said this was not true.
Evidence began to surface regarding the work ethic of Jones’s arresting officer. Retired officer Cleveland Smith said that he had witnessed the officer torturing suspects into confessing to crimes they did not commit. Furthermore, the officer had bragged that he had beaten Jones upon the arrest.
During the trial, there were multiple confessions pointing the finger at another killer. Despite strong evidence in Jones’s favor, he was executed by electrocution in 1998.
4. Cameron Todd Willingham
In 1991, a tragic fire occurred in the home of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham occupied the home at the time of the fire along with his two young daughters. Unfortunately, the girls did not survive.
Officials pointed the finger at Willingham, alleging he intentionally set the fire to cover his abuse toward his daughters. Willingham’s wife had testified that the accused never abused the children; on the contrary, she claimed he was only guilty of spoiling the girls.
To make matters worse for Willingham, a psychiatrist diagnosed the accused as being an “extremely severe sociopath” as Willingham had Led Zepplin and Iron Maiden posters hanging in his home.
During the trial, Willingham was offered a life sentence in exchange for a confession; Willingham turned down the offer, unwilling to admit to the crime. In early 2004, Willingham was executed by lethal injection, and the case is set to reopen at a later date.
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Rick Little is a probation officer and guest author at How Do I Become A, where he contributed to the Career Guide To Becoming A Probation Officer.