5 innocent people who executed or exonerated on death row

The death penalty in Montana has been on moratorium since 2006. The Montana Legislature is currently considering HB244, a bill aimed at revising Montana’s death penalty laws related to lethal injection. The Montana Innocence Project supports continuing a moratorium on capital punishment while the causes of wrongful convictions are fully identified and remedied. More than 170 people have been exonerated in the United States after serving time on death row. There are many reasons to oppose capital punishment, including the morality of its use, the relative costs associated with it, and whether it has a deterrent effect. Our focus is on the inherent risk of executing innocent people and the need to reform the system to prevent all wrongful convictions—including those in capital cases.  

In 1873, William Jackson Marion purchased some horses from his friend John Cameron in Beatrice, Nebraska. Shortly after, Cameron went missing. A body with three bullet holes in the skull wearing similar clothes to Cameron was found in Odell, Nebraska. The sheriff was certain that the body was Cameron and that Marion killed him. When Marion was finally tracked down a decade later, he was tried, convicted, and hanged. Four years later, Cameron reappeared in Beatrice alive and well. He had been in Mexico avoiding a woman who he had just had a child with.

This may have been the first but certainly not the last time the United States executed an innocent person. Among the most compelling arguments against the death penalty is the inherent risk of killing the innocent. Since 1973, more than 165 people who have been sentenced to death have been exonerated. 

Here are five innocent people who were executed or exonerated on death row:

Carlos DeLuna (Photo from The Guardian)

Name: Carlos DeLuna

Charge: Homicide 

Time on death row: 6 years 

Wanda Lopez was working at a roadside Shamrock convenience store in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1983 when a customer stabbed her to death. Lopez was on the phone with 911 dispatchers when she was attacked. Police rushed to the scene and discovered an eyewitness who saw the attacker leave the store; the description that went out was “Hispanic male wearing a grey sweatshirt.” 

Police found 20-year-old Carlos DeLuna a few blocks away hiding underneath a truck. DeLuna was brought to the crime scene where the eyewitness positively identified him. DeLuna told police that the perpetrator was another man named Carlos Hernandez. DeLuna and Hernandez were together earlier in the night at a bar near the Shamrock. Hernandez went to the Shamrock and never returned. When DeLuna walked over to the Shamrock to see what was going on, he saw Hernandez attacking the female store clerk. DeLuna ran. He had a sexual assault on his record and feared getting into trouble. When he heard sirens coming towards the Shamrock, he hid under a truck where he was later found by police. 

No one looked into Hernandez. No physical evidence connected DeLuna to the scene. He was convicted solely on the cross-racial eyewitness identification, sentenced to death, and executed in 1989 by lethal injection.

Six years after DeLuna’s execution, James Leibman, a law professor at Columbia University, conducted one of the most thorough reviews of a death penalty case in U.S. history that revealed mounting evidence of DeLuna’s innocence. 

These are Liebman’s main findings, which are published in the book “Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution:” 

The crime scene was covered in blood, but De Luna was not. 

Leibman found crime scene photos that were not shown to the jury. The photos demonstrate that the crime scene was covered in blood and that there was a bloody footprint belonging to the killer. DeLuna’s clothes and shoes were microscopically analyzed and not a single spec of blood was found on them.

The eyewitness was not sure. 

Liebman tracked down Kevan Baker, the eyewitness who saw the perpetrator leaving the store, and asked how certain he was in his identification. He said about 70 percent but then added that had the police not told him that they found DeLuna hiding under a truck two blocks away that he would have been only 50 percent certain. Further, nearly 75% of the DNA exonerations involve eyewitness misidentification—approximately 42% of which are cross-racial misidentifications. 

Hernandez was an obvious suspect. 

The prosecution claimed that they looked for Hernandez but could not find him; at DeLuna’s trial, they denied that Hernandez existed and called him a “figment of DeLuna’s imagination.” In a single day, with the help of a private investigator, Liebman uncovered Hernandez’s identity and criminal record. Hernandez had been arrested 39 times. Several of his crimes involved hold-ups of Corpus Christi gas stations, and he was even found cowering outside of a 7-Eleven with a knife just days before Lopez’s murder. This detail never made it to DeLuna’s defense attorney. Liebman also found two women who overheard Hernandez bragging about killing Lopez. Finally, Liebman found a previously unheard police radio tape that indicates another man was chased before they found DeLuna hiding. This man could have been Hernandez, but, again, this evidence was not disclosed to DeLuna’s defense team. 

DeLuna left behind his family including sibling Rose Rhoton who said goodbye to her brother on December 7, 1989. 

“I’ve always known Carlos was innocent,” Rhoton told ABC News. “It’s just that we did not know how to help him. At the end, he said, ‘I’m innocent. You’re executing the wrong person.’”

Had DeLuna been exonerated before his execution, he dreamt of working in the faith community. 

“If I were to get out, I think I would preach the word of God because I’ve learned while being here that’s the only way I can make it now,” DeLuna said shortly before his execution. 

Cameron Todd Willingham and his family. (Photo from The New Yorker)

Name: Cameron Todd Willingham 

Charge: Triple-homicide and arson  

Time of death row: 12 years

In 1991 in Corsicana, Texas, 23-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham’s home set fire early in the morning. Willingham, his one-year old twins, Kameron and Karmen, and his two-year-old, Amber, were all inside. Willingham was observed doing everything he could to get inside to rescue his daughters, but he was unable to. Even as firefighters arrived, Willingham was attempting to get in and ultimately had to be restrained in handcuffs for his own safety. One firefighter told the New Yorker that it would have been crazy for anyone to go into the house based on the severity of the fire. 

The three children died from smoke inhalation. Willingham’s wife, 22-year-old Stacy Kuykendall, who had left the house early on the morning of the fire, worked at a bar, and Willingham was an unemployed auto mechanic. The small town, which was about 55 miles north of Waco, collected money to help the Willinghams pay for the funerals.

Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, and Manuel Vasquez, a deputy fire marshall, investigated the fire. Their findings were that someone poured liquid accelerant in the children’s room, under each of their beds, and then down the hallway towards the front door. They called it a “fire barrier” and concluded that the accelerant was deliberately poured so that no one could escape. A lab found mineral spirits, a substance often used in lighter fluid, in one of the samples of burned materials from the house.

Just like that, the tragic fire became a triple homicide. The closest thing the prosecution had to a motive was that Willingham had Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters in his house, which a family counselor who had never met Willingham testified indicated an interest in “satanic-type activities.” 

Willingham was convicted of murdering his three girls and sentenced to death. Before Willingham’s execution, his attorney enlisted Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, to review the initial investigation. He had little doubt that it was an accidental fire that was likely caused by a space heater. Vasquez recalled finding the space heater off, but Stacey was sure it was on. She remembered turning it down before she left because Amber was always putting things too close to it. Hurst told the Board of Pardons and Parole that there was no evidence of arson and that Willingham was about to be executed based on junk science. 

Despite receiving this report, the board unanimously voted to move forward with the execution. Willingham died by lethal injection in 2004. He requested that his parents not be present. Prior to his execution, Willingham asked them to never stop fighting to vindicate him and to cremate his body and sprinkle some of his ashes over his children’s graves. 

Later that year, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to examine the original fire investigation, and they agreed with Hurst’s findings. Shortly after, the Innocence Project hired four top fire investigators to do the same thing. They concluded that every indicator of arson that Fogg and Vasquez relied on had been proven scientifically invalid. In 2005, Texas established a commission to investigate allegations of error in forensic science. Willingham’s case was the first to be reviewed. Fire scientist Craig Beyler concluded that there was no scientific basis for arson, that Fogg and Vasquez ignored evidence, relied on discredited folklore, and that their reasoning was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” Most notably, Beyler told the New Yorker that the investigation violated “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”

Kuykendall was essentially the only surviving member of the family. She has remained mostly silent, but told the Huffington Post in 2012, “My girls would have been 23 and 21 years old today. I miss them so much.”

Troy Davis (Photo from The New York Times)

Name: Troy Davis 

Charge: Homicide 

Time of death row: 20 years 

On August 19, 1989, Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail intervened in an altercation between two men at a park and was shot twice and killed. A man named Sylvester Coles was present at the shooting and implicated Troy Davis. Nine other people who were at the park joined Cole in pointing the finger at Davis. Davis admitted to being at the park. He said that he saw Coles attacking a man but that he left before the shooting took place. No physical evidence connected Davis to the crime, but a jury convicted him and recommended the death penalty based on the nine eyewitness accounts in August 1991.

In September 2003, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper published a series of stories in which seven of the nine eyewitnesses recant their testimonies. Many of them told the newspaper that police pressured them to implicate Davis and that it was actually Coles who shot MacPhail. 

On July 16, 2007, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Davis a 90-day stay of execution just one day before he was scheduled to be executed. At his second execution date, the Supreme Court of the United States delayed the execution just two hours before it was scheduled pending its decision to hear the case. They ultimately decided not to hear the case, and three days before his third execution date, the Georgia Court of Appeals stayed the execution to allow for a new petition. Several failed appeals later, they set a fourth execution date for September 21, 2011. Public figures around the world, including Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI, called for a stay of execution, but Troy was executed four hours late when SCOTUS announced its decision to refuse to grant the stay.      

Before his execution, he told his sister, Kimberly Davis, that he wanted her to continue fighting to clear his name and end the death penalty. She has committed her life to campaigning around the country to end the death penalty in every state. 

Jimmy Dennis (Photo from Philadelphia Magazine)

Name: Jimmy Dennis

Charge: Homicide 

Time on death row: 25 years

Jimmy Dennis spent 25 years on death row for the 1991 murder of 17-year-old Chedell Williams. Williams was wearing her favorite pair of gold, figure-eight shaped earrings. Her mom worried about her wearing them because she had already been robbed at gunpoint for them; her boyfriend paid the robbers $100 to give them back. On an October day after school, Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men as they ascended the stairs at the Fern Rock Bus Station in Philadelphia. The men demanded Williams’ earrings. The girls ran out of the bus station. Howard heard a gunshot and saw Williams fall to the ground. Neither the gun nor the earrings were ever recovered. 

Dennis became a suspect because someone told police that it was “Jimmy from the Abbotsford projects” who killed Williams. As police followed the lead, they learned that the tipster heard the information from someone who heard it from someone else. It was a rumor on top of a rumor, but police pursued the lead. Dennis was confident he would not be wrongfully convicted because he had a solid alibi. He was on a bus across town during the murder, and he had waved the one of his neighbors from the bus. Dennis was ultimately charged with Williams’ first-degree murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. 

Dennis was freed in May 2017. His conviction was overturned based on three Brady violations: (1) Howards implicated two of her fellow classmates in the murder, specifically indicating that she recognized them, but the prosecution failed to investigate them or tell the defense about them; (2) a convicted person in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility reached out to police because one of the perpetrators called him and bragged about committing the murder with two other people; he gave police the names and addresses of the perpetrators and the description of the getaway car, but they never followed up or told the defense; and (3) the state had a receipt that helped establish Dennis’s alibi that they never turned over. 

Dennis told Philadelphia Magazine that his worst day on death row was when a guard abruptly opened his cell door and yelled, ‘Your dad died,’ and then walked away. Dennis’s dad, James Murray, died from Alzheimer’s disease. Before his diagnosis, Murray would drive Dennis’s mom and two daughters on a 10 hours round trip to visit Dennis once a month. Throughout Murray’s illness, Dennis was essentially cut off from his family and unable to help because of his wrongful incarceration on death row. 

Also while facing death for a crime he did not commit, he missed his daughters growing up. They were just one and four-years old when he was wrongfully convicted. While too young to fully comprehend what was happening, Dennis told Philadelphia Magazine that they both cried when the guilty verdict was read. They are now grown, and one has a child. He calls to check in on them everyday and visits them when he can. He told Philadelphia Magazine that he is careful to drive below the speed limit and that he avoids staying out too late because he is terrified of anything that might result in a police encounter. 

Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin (Photo from the Tampa Bay Times)

Name: Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin

Charge: Double-homicide and burglary 

Time of death row: 10 years 

On June 17, 2004, 47-year-old Cheryl Williams and 68-year-old Carol Bareis were found stabbed to death in their home in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Williams was stabbed more than 100 times, and Bareis was stabbed twice. Police found a bloody 10-inch kitchen knife between their house and the house next door. William’s daughter, Samantha Williams, immediately said she had a “gut feeling” that the murderer was 24-year-old Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin who lived next door. 

Aguirre-Jarquin is a Honduran immigrant who washed dishes and prepped food at a restaurant. Police questioned Aguirre-Jarquin and his roommate, but they knew nothing about the crimes. However, Aguirre-Jarquin shortly after admitted that he had gone next door to get some beer the night before and saw the dead bodies. He was arrested for tampering with evidence. When police learned that the knife resembled knives from Aguirre-Jarquin’s restaurant and that the restaurant was missing a 10-inch knife, he was charged with first-degree murder and burglary. 

Aguirre-Jarquin went to trial in 2006 where experts testified that 64 of the 67 bloody footprints in the home matched his shoes, that blood splatter from Cheryl Williams and Bareis’ were on clothes found in a plastic bag in Aguirre-Jarquin’s home, and that Aguirre-Jarquin’s fingerprint was on the knife. 

Aguirre-Jarquin told the jury that on the night of the murder, he went through the front door that is aways unlocked to ask for some beer. He found Cheryl William’s body and tried to revive her. He then saw Bareis’s body in the next room and feared the killer could still be in the house, so he grabbed the knife near Cheryl Williams’ body. After looking around and not finding the killer, he ran home, tossed the knife, put his clothes in a bag, and cleaned himself off. He did not call the cops because he was not a citizen and feared deportation. 

Aguirre-Jarquin was convicted of two first-degree murders and burglary, and he was sentenced to death. 

In 2011, the Innocence Project sought DNA testing of the more than 80 pieces of evidence. The results excluded Aguirre-Jarquin as the source of the DNA; further, Samantha Williams’ DNA was found in eight locations that were consistent with her being the attacker. Samantha Williams later admitted to killer her mom and Bareis. Further, a forensic scientist found that the blood on Aguirre-Jarquin’s clothes were not blood splatter but rather consistent with him trying to revive the women.

After a lengthy battle, the Florida Supreme Court granted Aguirre-Jarquin a new trial in October 2016. A mistrial was declared during jury selection, and in the second trial, the prosecution abruptly dismissed the charges while jury selection was still in progress. 

Aguirre-Jarquin was released on a federal immigration court bond after the Department of Homeland Security placed an immigration hold on him. He is currently seeking asylum. 

Aguirre-Jarquin grew up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he personally witnessed at least three murders. He and his friends estimated that a murder of someone they knew occurred at least once a month. He came to American to escape the prolific gang presence.