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Following on from my blog - Executed & Convicted Murderers Who Were Innocent (UK) - which looked into the most high-profile miscarriages of justice in the UK which helped change the British legal system for good - here's the US version. Obviously many of us know about the Steve Avery case as documented in the series Making of a Murderer, where he was wrongfully tried for murder (twice)... but he wasn't the first, and he won't be the last. Unfortunately, so vast and corrupt is the US legal system that it's almost impossible to list everyone who has been wrongfully convicted - and even executed - for murder in the USA, so what follows is a list of some of the more infamous ones... broken down into a two-parter.
Anthony Charles Graves – INNOCENT & CONVICTED - In 1992, Anthony Charles was charged with the murder of Bobbie Davis and five members of his family in Somerville (Texas), even though there was no physical evidence that he was at the crime-scene, he had no motive to kill, no history of violence, three independent witnesses had placed him somewhere entirely different at the time of the murder and the only testimony which implicated him in the crimes was by Robert Earl Carter, the murderer himself. Carter was executed in 2000.
Graves was twice scheduled to die by lethal injection, but his case was overturned when Carter’s lawyer - District Attorney Charles Sebesta – finally decided to share a key piece of evidence; Carter’s confession that he had acted alone. Found entirely innocent, the charges were dropped against Graves, and after 18 years on Death Row he was released and awarded $1.4 million in compensation. District Attorney Charles Sebesta was found guilty of concealing evidence and false testimony… and was disbarred.
Cameron Todd Willingham – INNOCENT & EXECUTED - On 23rd December 1991, the Willingham family home was destroyed by fire, although Cameron Willingham managed to escape with minor burns, his three daughters - Amber Louise Kuykendall (aged 2) and twins Karmon Diane Willingham & Kameron Marie Willingham (aged 1) – all died, whilst their mother was out shopping for Christmas presents. Investigators concluded that the fire had been started deliberately to cover-up any evidence of child abuse or to dispose of his unwanted children. Although his wife Stacey protested that "our kids were spoiled rotten", he was not an abusive man and had not motive to kill their kids, Willingham was convicted of murder and executed.
So flimsy was the evidence that the prosecutor brought in a psychologist - James Grigson – to interpret Willingham’s mental state based on his tattoo (a skull & serpent) and the Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin posters in his room. After his death, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that evidence against him was badly misinterpreted, that no combustible material was used to start the fire, and that the fire itself… was an accident.
Carlos DeLuna – INNOCENT & EXECUTED – On the 4th February 1983, 24 year old gas-station attendant Wanda Lopez was stabbed to death as the store was robbed by a “Hispanic” assailant in Corpus Christi (Texas). Identified at the scene by two eye-witnesses - Kevan Baker and George Aguirre – who at the same time was seen jogging a block away by John & Julie Arsuaga, Police put out an alert for her killer and arrested Carlos DeLuna who “fitted the description”.
Although he protested his innocence, DeLuna was found guilty and sentenced to death. In May 2012, an investigation by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review concluded that there were too many discrepancies in the evidence; what the “killer” and the “jogger” (DeLuna) were wearing, that the killer had a beard and De Luna didn’t, that the crime-scene was bloody even though no blood was found on DeLuna’s clothes at all, and – worse still – a local man had confessed to the crime many times; his name was Carlos Hernandez, and he looked just like DeLuna.
Darryl Hunt - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - In 1984, 19 year old Darryl Hunt was convicted of the rape and murder of local copy-editor Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem (North Carolina). Although there was no physical evidence that that linked Hunt to the crime, the scene or the victim, Hunt (an African-American) was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison, based almost entirely on the witness testimony of a hotel employee who “swore under oath” that he had seen Hunt enter a bathroom and leave behind some bloody hand-towels.
In 1994, thanks to advances in DNA testing, Hunt was found not guilty, but it wasn’t until 2003 (19 ½ years into his sentence) that he was exonerated and freed when DNA found the true culprit, Willard E. Brown who confessed to killing Sykes. Darryl Hunt went on to become a champion and advocate for the Innocence Project – which assists those who have been wrongly incarcerated – but died on 13th March 2016 of a self-inflicted gunshot, after a long battle with stage 5 cancer.
David McCallum & Willie Stuckey – INNOCENT & CONVICTED - In 1985, 20 year old Nathan Blenner from Queens (New York) was kidnapped during a botched car-jacking outside of his home by two black youths, one of whom shot Blenner in the head, killing him instantly. Although just 16 years old at the time, David McCallum & Willie Stuckley were arrested, confessed to the crimes (statements they would later retract and claim they’d been coerced into making by the Police) and were sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. In 2014, following advances in DNA testing and fingerprint analysis which proved they were innocent, McCallum & Stuckey were exonerated. Sadly Stuckley died of a heart-attack in prison in 2001. McCallum was released having served 29 years in prison.
David Wayne Spence - INNOCENT & EXECUTED - On the 13th July 1982, Jill Montgomery (17); Raylene Rice (17) and Kenneth Franks (18) were found raped, tortured and murdered by Lake Waco, as part of what is believed to be a botched life-insurance scam, when the three Texas teenagers were mistaken for someone else. Believing that known criminal and drug-abuser David Spence had been hired as a hit-man, the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence consisted of mostly of his criminal past, bite marks (which "appeared" to be similar to Spence’s dental records) and accusations from six fellow inmates, two of whom later retracted their statements admitting they’d been bribed with cigarettes, alcohol and conjugal visits in exchange for the accusations.
Ramon Salinas, the investigation’s original homicide detective gave a sworn deposition to the court stating “Nothing from the investigation ever led us to any evidence that he was involved” as well as a former Waco Police lieutenant stating "I do not think David Spence committed this offense". Spence was executed on 3rd April 1997. His final statement was to his (alleged) victim’s parents – “I want you to understand I speak the truth when I say I didn’t kill your kids. Honestly I have not killed anyone. I wish you could get the rage from your hearts and you could see the truth and get rid of the hatred” and lastly to his own children; in which he said “I love you all – (names of children) – Corey, Steve (garbled) – This is very important. I love ya’ll and I miss ya’ll. O.K., now I’m finished”.
Freddie Pitts & Wilbert Lee - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 1st August 1963, two black men Freddie Pitts & Wilbert Lee (as above, I am stating their skin-colour solely because it’s pertinent to the case) wanted to use the toilet at a Mo-Jo gas station in Port St Joe (Florida), but as it was for “whites only”, an argument ensued with two white men named Grover Floyd Jr & Jesse Burkett, and Pitts & Lee were arrested. Three days later, those two white gas station attendants were found shot to death. After a violent arrest, threats, beatings and a lengthy interrogation by the Police, Pitts & Lee pleaded guilty to the murder (a confession they’d later recant), and even though Curtis Adams Jnr confessed to the murders (a statement he refused to repeat on the witness stand), the all-white jury found them guilty and they were sentenced to death just three weeks later. Pitts & Lee were imprisoned for 12 years before Reubin Askew (Florida’s Governor) pardoned them on 20th September 1975. Read more.
Gary Gauger - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 9th April 1993, Gary Gauger awoke to discover that his parents – Morris & Ruth Gauger – had been murdered at their farm-house in Richmond (Illinois), whilst he was asleep. Police suspected Gary of his parent’s murder, and although there was no evidence to prove this, Police interrogated him for 21 hours during which they lied that "they had found bloody clothes in my bedroom; they found a bloody knife in my pocket", and having shown him horrific photos of his butchered parents, Gary confessed to their murders, believing the Police’s theory that (as he had no memory of the crime) "I must have done it in a blackout".
And even though his weak confession was the only evidence against him, Gary Gauger was found guilty and sentenced to death. After two years and nine months on Death Row, Gary Gauger was found innocent when during Police surveillance a motorcycle gang admitted to the murders, and released in March 1996. Read more.
Part two of Executed & Convicted Murderers Who Were Innocent - USA will be released soon.
If you "enjoyed" this blog post try; Odds of a US Presidential Assassination, Killer Couples Part 1 & Part 2, Famous British Serial Killers - Where Are They Now? Serial Killers & Murderers Who Were Never Caught, London's Deadliest & Often Forgotten Disasters, Killers Born During a Full Moon, Killer's Star Signs, Serial Killers Who Were On TV, Celebrities Who Have Killed, London's Railway of Death, Serial Killers as Kids and the World's Weirdest Death Rituals
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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