10 Famously Exonerated Death Row Inmates

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Each of the ten men on this list was wrongly convicted, sentenced to death, and exonerated years later. We can’t even begin to imagine the kind of psychological damage spending time in prison must cause when you know that you’re innocent but practically no one believes you. And all the while, you’re waiting to die.

Even once they’re freed, the rehabilitation process for such inmates must be emotionally intense. In some sense, these men will never escape the stigma attached to them due to the crimes of which they were wrongfully accused. Yet with the right kind of counseling and guidance, perhaps people subjected to such miscarriages of justice can learn to let go, move on, and enjoy the rest of their lives.

10. David Keaton

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David Keaton was one of the Quincy Five. These were five black men from Quincy, Florida, who in 1971 were arrested and accused of killing deputy sheriff Khomas Revels at a convenience store – even though witnesses said they saw no more than four black men.

After three days of interrogation, Keaton confessed to the killing under duress. And although details in his confession were markedly different from the state’s evidence, an all-white jury convicted 18-year-old Keaton and sentenced him to death. Another member of the Quincy Five, Johnny Frederick, was given a life sentence. The other three were released.

Later, it was revealed that Keaton’s polygraph operator had a track record of extracting false confessions. And four months after Keaton’s conviction, fingerprint evidence linked three other men to the crime. They were arrested and later convicted.

Keaton and Frederick were granted new trials, but the charges were eventually dropped. Two years after his arrest, Keaton went on to become the first man in America to be exonerated from death row. Danny Glover played Keaton in the 2005 made-for-cable movie The Exonerated.

Keaton doesn’t like to talk about his death row experience. What’s more, he wells up at the mention of his grandmother, who died while he was in prison. He sometimes drinks too much and has flashbacks of the day he was taken in for questioning.

Soon after his release, Keaton drew comfort from locking himself away from the outside world. An accomplished poet, he says, “Prison changed me… You build a wall to keep from being hurt, and it’s hard to break down… Sometimes I feel like an outcast, like prison turned me into an island.”

9. Kirk Bloodsworth

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In 1993, Kirk Bloodsworth made history when he was exonerated because of DNA fingerprinting. This was a first for an American on death row. In 1985, Bloodsworth had been convicted for the 1984 rape and premeditated murder of a nine-year-old girl in Rosedale, Maryland. Five witnesses placed him close to the scene or with the victim, but Bloodsworth maintained that he was innocent.

In 1992, Bloodsworth read about a new technique, DNA fingerprinting, that had led to the conviction of murderer Colin Pitchfork. Bloodsworth reasoned that the same innovative technique could be used to prove his innocence.

The physical evidence in Bloodsworth’s case (the victim’s semen-stained underwear) was believed to have been destroyed – but was later found inside a paper bag in the judge’s offices. Tests proved that the semen was not Bloodsworth’s, and he was released, having served nearly nine years in prison, including two on death row.

The real murderer was identified a decade later when prisoners’ DNA evidence was added to federal databases. The killer was Kimberly Shay Ruffner, an inmate convicted of a separate rape with intent to murder whose prison cell had been just one floor below Bloodsworth’s.

8. Joseph Burrows

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In 1989, Joseph Burrows was wrongfully convicted of the 1988 murder of William Dulan, an elderly retired farmer from Iroquois County, Illinois. Burrows was implicated by cocaine addict Gayle Potter. Potter herself had been arrested when an accomplice, Chuck Gullion, tried to cash a check (forged by Potter) in Dulan’s name hours after his death.

Potter pleaded guilty to participating in the crime and testified against Burrows and Ralph Frye, a friend of Burrows who was mildly retarded. Potter said that Burrows had fired the gun, killing Dulan, and Frye validated her story. Despite the fact that the weapon belonged to Potter, her blood was found at the scene, and Burrows was placed 60 miles away from the crime by four witnesses, Burrows was sentenced to death.

After the sentencing, Frye spoke to a local newspaper reporter, withdrawing his testimony. He said that police had forced him into confessing. Burrows’ lawyers then uncovered further evidence implicating Potter. With the case mounting against her, Potter confessed that she had acted alone and falsely accused Burrows.

After being released in 1994, Burrows filed a civil rights suit, for which he received a $100,000 settlement.

7. Clarence Brandley

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African-American Texan janitor Clarence Brandley was convicted of the rape and murder of 16-year-old student Cheryl Dee Ferguson in 1981. Although he professed his innocence after the crime, he spent nine years on death row.

Despite a lack of evidence, Brandley was immediately the prime suspect. The trial process was plagued by racial prejudice and missing or overlooked evidence. Sperm was recovered from the victim’s body and destroyed without testing. A Caucasian pubic hair found on the body also went missing. And there was blood on the victim’s clothing that proved to be Type A, when Brandley’s is Type O. But none of this could prevent the janitor from being sentenced to death by an all-white jury.

Nevertheless, with the backing of civil rights activists who raised $80,000 for his plight, new evidence and witness statements to support Brandley’s claims of innocence built up. Six days before his scheduled execution, he was granted a stay.

In 1987, a judge found that Brandley had not been given a fair trial. Then in 1990, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld this ruling and Brandley was released.

Even then, though, Brandley’s troubles were far from over. He had gotten divorced in 1977 and was supposed to pay $190 a month in child support. However, while in jail he was unable to make these payments due to lack of income. The state of Texas renewed collection attempts for back payments following his release. In response, Brandley sued state agencies in Texas for $120 million over his wrongful incarceration, but this action was rejected.

6. Ronald Williamson

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In 1988, former minor league baseball player Ronald Williamson was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1982 rape and murder of Debra Sue “Debbie” Carter. The conviction relied upon evidence from hair analysis now considered inaccurate.

Williamson spent 11 years on death row and launched repeated appeals to clear his name. He never gave up. But in September 1994, he came within five days of death and resorted to screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” from his cell. Luckily, his execution was stalled following a habeas corpus petition.

Williamson was released on April 15, 1999, thanks to results from modern DNA testing. In 2003, he and co-accused Dennis Fritz successfully sued the City of Ada for $500,000. Yet sadly, five years later, Williamson died of cirrhosis in a nursing home. The story of his case was famously told in John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, published in 2006.

5. Michael Toney

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In 1999, Michael Toney was falsely convicted and imprisoned for murdering three people and injuring two others. The charges brought against him related to a bombing that had been carried out in Lake Worth, Texas in 1985. He was arrested based on the account of inmate Charles Ferris, who, to free himself, told authorities that Toney had confessed to the crime while they were in jail together. Later, Ferris retracted the story he had fabricated.

Toney’s conviction was overturned in 2008 when it was found that the prosecution had withheld information about the credibility of the only two witnesses against him. He was finally released on September 2, 2009. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, one month and a day later, Toney’s Ford pickup truck veered off the road in Cherokee County, Texas. The truck rolled over and Toney was thrown from the vehicle and crushed to death. He was 43 years old.

4. Peter Pringle

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Irishman Peter Pringle was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two Irish policemen – a crime committed during a bank raid in 1980. Over the course of a 12-day drinking binge around Galway, Pringle lost track of his car. Later, in a pub, he found out that police were looking for him. His car had been used as a getaway vehicle in the bank robbery.

As a former IRA activist, Pringle was known to the Irish authorities. Police found him in a drunken haze at a friend’s house. He had shaved his beard and dyed his hair. Yet Pringle maintains that he did not confess to the crime.

Colm O’Shea and Patrick McCann were also arrested for the robbery and murders. According to reports, the third accomplice (believed to be Pringle) was shot by one of the dead Irish policemen. But Pringle had no injuries, and his blood did not match that discovered at the back of his car.

O’Shea, McCann and Pringle’s 1981 hangings were commuted by the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who feared it would be a bad move politically. Eventually, Pringle’s conviction was lifted when it was found that his confession had been written prior to his being interviewed about the shootings. But by then, he’d already been in jail for 15 years. O’Shea and McCann’s charges stood, and Pringle was angry with them for not admitting that he wasn’t with them. However, he later understood that if they spoke up, their “not guilty” pleas would be harmed.

What’s more, it’s not all doom and gloom. Pringle met fellow wrongfully accused death row inmate Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs (an American woman also accused of killing two policemen) at an Amnesty International meeting in Galway. The couple married in 2011.

3. Anthony Porter

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In late 1998, Anthony Porter was less than 50 hours from death when the Illinois Supreme Court granted him a reprieve. The South Side gang member was convicted of the 1982 double-murder of teenage fiancés Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard. The conviction was largely based on the evolving account of gang member William Taylor, who claimed to have witnessed the crime.

Taylor’s story made Porter the prime suspect, and police ignored other leads. They even disregarded pointers from Marilyn Green’s mother, who suspected that a man named Alstory Simon had killed the couple and that the murders were drug-related. Simon and his wife Inez Jackson subsequently relocated to Milwaukee.

When he heard that he was linked to the killings, Porter turned himself in to prove his innocence. However, despite the lack of evidence, he was arrested and charged. Porter was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to death.

In 1998, Chicago-based volunteer lawyer Daniel R. Sanders tested Porter’s IQ. It was measured at 51, making it likely that he was mentally retarded. This led to a successful last-minute petition – and a stay of execution just two days before he was due to die. University professor David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and a team of journalism students began to study the case and worked hard to prove Porter’s innocence.

In December that year, William Taylor told Ciolino and one of the students that the police had pressured him into identifying Porter as the murderer. In late January 1999, Inez Jackson admitted that she had been present when Alstory Simon shot the victims. Four days later, on February 3, 1999, Simon himself confessed to the killings, and two days after that Porter was released. The murder charges against him were officially dropped the following month. Yet even so, Porter had spent 17 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

2. Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon

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Brooklyn-born Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon was given the death sentence for the 1983 murder of Delbert “Mr. Del” Baker, which took place in the victim’s Auburndale, Florida beauty salon. According to Melendez-Colon, he was with one Dorothy Rivera at the time of the murder, an alibi corroborated by four witnesses. Melendez-Colon also claimed that he’d never even met Baker.

The conviction relied upon the testimony of informant and criminal David Luna Falcon, who said that Melendez-Colon had confessed to the killing in private. Witnesses testified that Falcon had previously threatened to kill Melendez-Colon due to a dispute.

A witness by the name of Terry Barber placed two men, Vernon James and a man named “Bobo,” at the crime scene. Moreover, an inmate called Roger Mims claimed that James had had a sexual relationship with the deceased and killed him. There was also a taped statement by James that indicated he was the killer. Yet despite all this, Melendez-Colon – who couldn’t read and write English at the time – was charged with the murder.

Melendez-Colon’s appeals were quashed three times over a period of 16 years before his lawyers stumbled upon the recording of James’ confession while reviewing the case files. The new evidence meant that Melendez-Colon was allowed a fresh trial, and this time the state of Florida declined to prosecute.

In the end, Melendez-Colon spent more than 17 years on death row before his release in 2002. He was given a measly $100 compensation and has still not received any form of apology for his wrongful incarceration. Melendez-Colon now lives in New Mexico and tours the world as a public speaker and human rights activist.

1. Leroy Orange

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Chicago native Leroy Orange and his half-brother Leonard Kidd were arrested in January 12, 1984 for the murder of four people (including a 10-year-old boy). Orange’s arrest was founded on false accusations made by Kidd. Following 12 hours of interrogation as well as alleged torture by Chicago police, Orange confessed to the murders.

Prior to Orange’s trial, Kidd recanted his statement (also supposedly extracted by means of torture), and while under oath he admitted that he had acted alone. However, this still wasn’t enough to clear Orange of the crime. Orange’s family apparently laid blame on his private attorney during the trial for gross incompetence.

Following several unsuccessful appeals, Bluhm Legal Clinic Director Thomas F. Geraghty and some of his students put their weight behind the case. And in January 2003, Orange was given a full pardon by Illinois Governor George Ryan. The Governor censured both the prosecutors and the judiciary for their reliance on “procedural technicalities at the exclusion of the quest for truth.”

Interestingly, Orange was one of 14 men in the 1980s given the death sentence owing to confessions made after alleged incidents of torture in police headquarters on the south side of Chicago.

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