The long arm of the law may bring some people to justice, but there are many instances in history where the wrong person is sent to jail. For the unlucky ones, they might have already been executed before the court overturns their decision. Others have spent years in prison but were eventually released. Various circumstances could lead to a person being wrongfully convicted and the grief for the accused and the family knows no bounds. Still, for those released, freedom has become more important than vengeance.
Cameron Todd Willingham
Executed in 2004 for arson and the murder of his three daughters. Conviction unsustainable 2009.
In 2004 a fire burnt down Willingham’s house, killing his three daughters in the process. After the tragic loss of his children, Willingham was then arrested on suspicion of arson and the murder of his daughters. The motive: he was tired of taking care of his girls. Evidence including char marks in the form of puddles, multiple ignition points, the speed and heat of the flame as well as 20 other indications pointed to arson for the police. In trial, scientists argued against all the points and other witnesses and acquaintances of Willingham believed that, despite his prior run-ins with the law, he would never purposely kill his children. Willingham was found guilty and was executed in 2004. In 2009 the case was reopened, however, the Governor of Texas mysteriously reappointed four of the nine members of the Forensic Science Commission. Still, court changed the conviction to unsustainable in 2009.
Ellis Wayne Felker
Executed in 1996 for the murder and rape of Evelyn Joy Ludlum. Conviction inconclusive in 2000.
When Ludlum went missing in 1981, police immediately put Felker under surveillance for two weeks to monitor any suspicious behavior. He had been convicted of sodomy in 1977. During that time, they found the body of Ludlum raped and murdered by asphyxiation in a nearby creek. Several days later Felker was brought to court and found guilty. The gathering and offering of information was flawed. Previous autopsy reports found Ludlum to have died five days prior to the discovery of her body, which excluded Felker as a suspect since he was under surveillance at the time. Instead of admitting he could not have killed her, the police had another untrained technician redo the report and note the death as three days prior to the discovery. Felker’s lawyers also discovered withheld evidence during the trial that included DNA samples and a signed confession from another man (though the man was mentally retarded). Despite this, Felker was found guilty and executed in 1996, 15 years after his initial hearing. In 2000, the courts reopened the case for exoneration, and the DNA evidence came up inconclusive. The DNA would not be enough to fully exonerate Felker, but it allowed the case and conviction to be inconclusive.
Colin Campbell Ross
Executed 1922 for rape and murder of a 12-year old. Pardoned in 2008.
Ross was involved in one of the most famous cases in history, the Gun Alley Murder. Twelve-year-old Alma Tirtschke was sent to collect a package from her uncle. Her naked, dead body was found the next day in Gun Alley. Despite several witnesses testifying to Ross’s innocence, Ross was convicted of murder due to poor forensic research. Strands of hair were found in Ross’s home in his bed. While the scientist believed that the hair on the bed and Alma’s were the same, by his own admission, he stated the diameter of the hairs were different. Testimonies of others stated that Ross was at his saloon at the time of the murder. Unfortunately, public opinion was strongly in favor of Ross’s guilt and they wanted him dead. Upon his execution, an anonymous letter was sent to Ross’s lawyers, this letter is believed to be from the true killer. In 1998, Dr. Bentley Atchison found that the DNA on Ross’s bed did not match Alma’s. In 2008 Ross was finally pardoned for Alma’s murder.
Mahmood Hussein Mattan
Executed 1952 for the murder of a pawn shop owner. Pardoned in 1998.
In 1952 a pawn shop owner, Lily Volpert was found with her throat slit in her shop. Several hours later, Mattan was brought in on suspicion of murder. A pair of blood-flecked shoes and a testimony from Harold Clover, a Jamaican man who was also a suspect in the murder, was all that was needed to convict Mattan. During the trial, it was shown that the shoes were borrowed from Clover and that several witnesses who saw the perpetrator did not identify Mattan as the suspect. Despite this, Mattan was executed. In 1998, the court reopened the trial and dismissed the case as demonstrably flawed. The court rewarded Mattan’s family with 700,000 British pounds, the first ever case to award money for a posthumous pardon.
Executed in 1950 for the murder of a 44-year old. Exonerated in 2003.
Perhaps one of the largest investigations organized in the UK, the cameo case investigated over 65,000 people. A botched robbery of a cinema left the cinema manager and another worker murdered. Police investigation led nowhere until they received an anonymous letter that would finger the suspects if granted immunity. The letter pointed out Charles Connolly as lookout and Kelly as the shooter. There was no physical evidence and witness testimony was so shaky that the first trial led to a hung jury. Ten years later, Connolly crumbled under the pressure and admitted to his crime and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Kelly insisted upon his innocence and was executed in 1950. In 2003, England’s Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the conviction because prosecutors concealed evidence that another man , Daniel Johnson, had come forward to confess to the murders months earlier.
Convicted in 1974 for kidnapping, burglary and the rape of a 9-year old. Exonerated 2010.
After over three decades in jail, Bain was finally released after recent DNA evidence proved that he had not committed the crime he had been convicted of in 1974. The 9-year old boy, at the time, had described the perpetrator as a man with bushy sideburns and a mustache and had identified Bain as the attacker. Despite testimony from his sister that Bain had been at home that night, he was still convicted. In 2000, Florida passed a statute that allowed cases to be reopened for DNA testing. After the fifth handwritten motion, Bain was finally allowed to appeal the court and have another hearing. Bain’s concern is now concentrated on spending time with his ailing mother.
Convicted 1981 for the rape of an 11-year old and an attack on 12-year old boy. Exonerated 2010.
Similar to Bain’s case, Towler was released after DNA evidence proved that he was not the assailant. His arrest occurred 12 days after the incident. He was initially stopped for a traffic violation, but police believed that he matched the sketch of the perpetrator. The two children had been coaxed into the wood to see a dead deer that the attacker had found. Despite being in jail for 29 years, Towler does not plan on suing the court for the allowed $1.2 million compensation. Instead, his first action was to have a pizza party. Raymond Towler is a musician and artist.
Convicted in 1982 for the murder of a McDonald’s security office. Exonerated 2008.
One hopes that when they are convicted of a murder, that the defending attorneys truly believe that their client is innocent. Unfortunately, even if the attorneys know that their client is guilty, they are required by law to defend them to the best of their ability. In Logan’s case, the defending attorneys of another man knew that he was an innocent man because their client had secretly confessed to them. Three witnesses identified Logan as the killer and he was almost sent to his death, except for two people in the jury who voted against the death penalty. Logan was released 26 years later after the death of Andrew Wilson, the real killer. The attorneys defending Wilson made an agreement that if he died, they would bring forward all the information needed to release Logan. Despite all the hard time in prison, Logan holds no hard feelings.
Michael Anthony Green
Convicted in 1983 for rape. Pardoned in 2010.
Surely, being convicted wrongly and sent to jail would make any man angry. Green is no exception and his anger fueled his study of law. A young female in 1983 hand wrongly pointed to Green as the sole attacker in her case. 27 years later, DNA tests show that Green indeed was not one of the four attackers. According to Green, a week earlier the female had said that Green was not the culprit, and her decision to choose him could have been caused by pressure from law enforcement. The four guilty men could not be tried due to statute of limitations.
Convicted in 1991 for murdering a prostitute. Pardoned in 2007.
Jacquetta Thomas was found battered to death in a hotel room in 1991. Taylor just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and in 2007, the North Carolina courts agreed. Taylor had maintained his story that he and his friends had come upon the body while on drugs and did not report it. Unlike many of the previous cases, Taylor’s case did not involve DNA, but a review of the actual trial process. According to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the witnesses were unreliable – several described scenarios that could not have happened – and that the stains on the truck were found not to be human blood. Taylor’s is the first case the North Carolina Commission overturned upon it’s decision to reopen past crimes for DNA analysis.
Convicted in 1985 for rape and murder. Pardoned in 1995.
In 1985, ten-year old Jeanine Nicarico was found blindfolded, raped and dead in her home. That same night Cruz was arrested for the crime. There was no physical evidence that Cruz had committed the crime, but despite this fact, he was sentenced to death by legal injection. However, the court ordered a second trial due to prosecutorial error, which ended in the same verdict. That case was overturned in 1994 and in 1995 the third trial proved Cruz not guiltywhen a police officer who had provided important evidence admitted that he had lied under oath. New DNA evidence also proved Cruz’s innocence and the confession of Brian Dugan, the true culprit had in fact come years earlier.
Convicted in 1999 for armed robbery and three counts of kidnapping. Released in 2010.
Another freed man in North Carolina was released after the Duke students at Wrongful Convictions Clinic provided evidence that the prosecutors had withheld evidence during trial. Massey was convicted of robbing a woman and her two children. When questioned by prosecutors about Massey, the woman admitted that she was not sure Massey was the man responsible. This evidence was withheld from the defense attorneys and would have provided enough reasonable doubt to have let Massey go in 1999. Duke students had brought up enough evidence to prove that Massey was not at the scene of the crime, though Massey still has not been pardoned.
Convicted in 1987 for rape. Released in 1997.
Cotton, like Green, was incorrectly identified as an assailant. Twice in the same week, an assailant broke into an apartment, raped a young woman and took money from her belongings. Cotton was brought in for questioning several hours later. Cotton was convicted of one account of rape and one account of burglary. One of the young girls had identified Cotton as her attacker and a flashlight similar to the attackers and matching rubber composition on the bottom of Cotton’s shoes seemed to point to his guilt. A convict already in prison had also confessed to the crimes that the court had convicted Cotton of, but it was thrown out. After many appeals and briefs, a DNA test was compiled and proved once and for all that Cotton had not been the rapist. The DNA matched the man who had previously confessed to the crime. There is now a book entitled Picking Cotton covering the case and the victim, Jennifer Thompson, and Cotton travel together to speak about the criminal justice system.
Convicted in 2004 for bioterrorism and later mail and wire fraud. Released 2008.
Stephen Kurtz was arrested in his home while working on his latest art installation. Kurtz is a founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, a company that brings together theater, science and art. His arrest took place when his wife died of heart failure and he had called 911. Police officers deemed his materials, genetically modified harmless bacteria and several petri dishes, as suspicious materials and notified the FBI who arrested Kurtz for bioterrorism. A grand jury denounced the claim of bioterrorism but did indict Kurtz on mail and wire fraud. 2008 trials viewed these indictments as insufficient and dismissed the case. A documentary Strange Culture goes more in-depth with Kurtz’s work and trial.
Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter
Convicted in 1966 for multiple homicides. Case dismissed 1988.
Perhaps one of the more famous cases of being wrongfully charged, Rubin Carter was a famous boxer that was arrested for the murder of several men. Several witnesses matched Carter’s car to the scene of the crime, but there was a lack of physical evidence like fingerprints. Police also lacked facilities to conduct paraffin tests on Carter and John Artis. None of the witnesses could identify either men, though police officers discovered a .32 caliber pistol round and .12 gauge shotgun shells, both used in the shooting. Other witnesses identified both men at a nearby bar, though identification of Carter’s car by two woman at the scene of the crime and ammunition led the jury to believe in their guilt. After two appeals, the court finally agreed to a habeas corpus in 1985 and judged that the Artis and Carter had not received a fair trial due to a racially charged prosecution and withholding evidence of an importance witness’ problematic polygraph test. In 1988, the motion to dismiss the indictment was granted and all charges were dropped. Denzel Washington portrayed Carter in the movie The Hurricane and Carter is also the focal point of the famous Bob Dylan song “Hurricane”.