Exonerations. 159 individuals have been exonerated from death row – that is, found to be innocent and released – since 1973. In other words, for every 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free. The most recent being Rodricus Crawford in 2017.
The exonerees provide further evidence that we have made severe mistakes in the sentencing and application of the death penalty.
To learn more about exonerated men and women, visit the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence Database or Witness to Innocence.
Also visit The National Registry of Exonerations (a project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School & Michigan State University College of Law).
Four of Missouri’s death row inmates have been exonerated. In these cases, there is a disturbing pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and false witness testimony.
- Clarence Richard Dexter. Missouri Conviction: 1991, Charges Dismissed: 1999
Dexter was accused in 1990 of murdering his wife of 22 years. Police overlooked significant evidence that the murder occurred in the course of a botched robbery and quickly decided that Dexter must have committed the crime. Dexter’s trial lawyer was in poor health and under federal investigation for tax fraud and failed to challenge blood evidence presented at trial. The conviction was overturned in 1997 because of prosecutorial misconduct. The state’s blood expert admitted that his previous findings overstated the case against Dexter. On the eve of Dexter’s retrial in June, 1999, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Dexter was freed.
- Eric Clemmons. Missouri Conviction: 1987, Acquitted: 2000
In 1983, Eric Clemmons started a 50-year prison sentence for killing a man in St. Louis during a fight. In 1987, he was accused of stabbing Henry Johnson, a fellow inmate, to death. A jury convicted Clemmons of the murder and a Judge sentenced him to die. It was later determined that a police captain withheld exculpatory evidence and presented false testimony at trial. Armed with new evidence proving his innocence in the stabbing of Johnson and a new attorney, Clemmons filed a federal appeal with the same federal court that had previously rejected his appeal. The three-judge panel reversed their opinion and ordered a new trial.20 When all the new evidence was presented at re-trial, a circuit court jury acquitted Clemmons in 3 hours on February 18, 2000. Clemmons remains incarcerated on other charges, which he is also challenging.
- Joseph Amrine. Missouri Conviction: 1986, Charges Dismissed: 2003
Joseph Amrine, 46, was released from jail in June 2003 after the Missouri Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, overturned his conviction and death sentence. Amrine was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow prison inmate, Gary Barber, and spent seventeen years of his life on Missouri’s death row.
Amrine maintained his innocence since the alleged incident, and investigators were never able to find any physical evidence linking Amrine to the crime. Amrine was convicted mainly because of the testimony of fellow inmates, three of whom later recanted their testimony, admitting that they lied in exchange for protection. Six other prisoners testified that Amrine had been playing cards elsewhere in the prison when Barber was fatally stabbed. The Missouri Supreme Court originally ordered Amrine released in April of 2003, citing the alarming fact that there was not credible evidence to uphold the conviction or the death sentence.22 Amrine’s release was postponed, however, when Prosecutor Bill Tracket filed amended murder charges against Amrine in order to conduct DNA tests on blood stains found on the pants Amrine wore the day of Barber’s death. DNA tests were inconclusive and on July 28, 2003, prosecutor Bill Tackett announced that he would not seek a new trial of Amrine and that he would be released.
Arthur Benson, one of Amrine’s lawyers, said that he is in the initial stages of planning a civil case seeking compensation for the years Amrine spent behind bars for the prison killing. Sean O’Brien, another of Amrine’s attorneys, expressed his relief and disappointment, “It’s been a long time coming and we worked harder than we should have had to exonerate somebody.”
- Reginald Griffin. Missouri conviction: 1983, Charges Dismissed: 2013
Missouri dismissed all charges related to his death sentence on October 25.25 Griffin had been sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction was overturned in 2011 by the Missouri Supreme Court26 because the state had withheld critical evidence. Griffin’s conviction relied on the testimony of two jailhouse informants who received benefits in exchange for their testimony. Prosecutors withheld evidence that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, immediately after the stabbing. Both of Griffin’s co-defendants consistently said the third person involved in the crime was Smith, not Griffin.
Cyndy Short, the current lead attorney for Griffin, said, “Reggie and his family are overjoyed. This has been a massive weight upon them all for three decades.”
In overturning Griffin’s conviction, the Missouri Supreme Court said, “There is no physical evidence connecting Griffin to the weapon found in the gymnasium. There is no physical evidence demonstrating any contact between Griffin and Bausley. Instead, Griffin’s continued incarceration for Bausley’s murder is premised on the recanted testimony of inmate Curtis and the impeached testimony of deceased inmate Mozee. Overlaying the entire case is the revelation that the State failed to disclose evidence that tended to implicate Smith, impeach Curtis and Mozee, and bolster the trial testimony of inmate Rogers, who maintained that the inmate fleeing the crime scene was not Griffin.”
It is hard to deal with wrongful executions and tell how many of the 1,000+ people executed since 1976 may have been innocent. Innocence post-execution is difficult in part because Courts do not generally consider claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients’ lives can still be saved. However, as found through the DPIC, some cases with strong evidence of innocence include:
- Carlos DeLuna Texas – Conviction: 1983, Executed: 1989
- Ruben Cantu Texas – Convicted: 1985, Executed: 1993
- Larry Griffin Missouri – Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1995
- Joseph O’Dell Virginia – Conviction: 1986, Executed: 1997
- David Spence Texas – Conviction: 1984, Executed: 1997
- Leo Jones Florida – Conviction: 1981, Executed: 1998
- Gary Graham Texas – Conviction: 1981, Executed: 2000
- Claude Jones Texas – Conviction: 1989, Executed: 2000
- Cameron Willingham Texas – Conviction: 1992, Executed: 2004
- Troy Davis Georgia – Conviction: 1991, Executed: 2011
- Lester Bower Texas – Conviction: 1984, Executed: 2015
- Brian Terrell Georgia Convicted 1995 Executed 2015
- Richard Masterson Texas – Conviction: 2002, Executed: 2016
- The National Registry of Exonerations, 2016 2015 set a record for exonerations in the United States—149 that we know of so far, in 29 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts and Guam. This record continues a trend: the rate of exonerations has been increasing rapidly for several years. The 149 defendants who were exonerated in 2015 had served on average about 14-and-a-half years in prison.
- Death Penalty Information Center Innocence
- The NCADP Innocence Page
- The Innocence Project