The execution of Troy Davis late on Wednesday night sparked an intense debate around the legitimacy of the death penalty in the U.S. Former president Jimmy Carter, a supporter of Davis, said after the execution, “if one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty system in our country is unjust and outdated.”
With the debate revived, people began to look back at the history of the death penalty in the U.S., seeking out other examples of questionable executions. The first name on many people’s lips: Cameron Todd Willingham.
Willingham was convicted in 1992 for the murder of his three young children in a fire that investigators said was arson. Later reports showed, however, that their was no credible scientific evidence for arson, and that Willingham could likely have been innocent. His story was detailed in a 17-page New Yorker essay that galvanized support for his case from around the world. Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004.
In the years that followed Willingham’s execution, those who oppose the death penalty have held the case up as a model of wrongful execution, an increasingly hot topic in recent years.
In 1998, the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions was founded to deal almost exclusively with this issue.
In 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned, commuted to life in prison, or gave a lesser terms of imprisonment to every single Illinois prisoner sentenced to death, in an attempt to avoid wrongfully executing an innocent man.
Famous past cases of alleged wrongful convictions include Jesse Tafero of Florida, who was convicted of murdering two police officers and despite an admission of guilt from another person; Johnny Frank Garrett of Texas, who was convicted for allegedly raping and murdering a nun although a Cuban national was the primary suspect; and Wayne Felker of Georgia; who supporters say was convicted despite a signed confession by another suspect and DNA testing that may have proved his innocence. All three men were executed.
This morning, the blog Letters of Note released a letter from a famous case of wrongful execution in 1987. Kirk Bloodsworth was a man sentenced to death for the rape, mutilation and first-degree murder of a 9-year-old girl. While he was in prison, he sent a letter to news reporter Jane Miller at Maryland-based WBAL-TV part of which is excerpted here:
I know like I know my name that I'm innocent and since that is the complete truth one is left with the very chilling fact, who ever murdered (Dawn Hamilton is still out there.)... What I say is not from my head, but from my heart. I love life too much.
I expect a lot from this state even though it cares not about me or the tragedy that’s fallen upon it and its community. We can not stop in trying to find the real murderer it’s a must not just for me, but for others like Dawn Hamilton.
Bloodsworth later became the first American inmate to be exonerated from his crime as a result of DNA profiling. He was not executed, and today is a Program Officer for The Justice Project
The Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions has a list of other exonerated death row inmates here.
Supporters of Davis’ case, including human rights group Amnesty International, had hoped he would be exonerated because of the lack of DNA evidence linking Davis to the crime.
After he was executed, Laura Moye of Amnesty International said the execution was “the best argument for abolishing the death penalty,” and demonstrated “why government can’t be trusted with the power over life and death.”