10 People Who Were Wrongfully Executed
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Nick Roffey
The law is not always fair and just. For this list, we're looking at people put to death as a result of shoddy police work, false testimonies, and/or flawed forensic evidence. Our countdown includes Claude Jones, Carlos DeLuna, George Stinney, and more.
Top 10 People Who Were WRONGFULLY Executed
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the top 10 people who were wrongfully executed.
For this list, we're looking at people put to death as a result of shoddy police work, false testimonies, and/or flawed forensic evidence. They don’t need to have been officially exonerated, provided the case against them was obviously flawed and shouldn’t have resulted in a conviction.
#10: Claude Jones
Forensic evidence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A good example is microscopic hair analysis, the reliability of which we now know has been way overstated. But back in 1990, Claude Jones was convicted for armed robbery and murder based on a single strand of hair found at the crime scene, as well as testimony from erstwhile friend, Timothy Jordan. After Governor W. Bush denied requests for DNA analysis, Jones was killed by lethal injection. Timothy Jordan later admitted he had only testified for leniency in another case, and a 2010 DNA test showed that the hair actually belonged to the victim.
#9: David Wayne Spence
Obsessed with finding the killer of three murdered teenagers in Waco, Texas, police officer Truman Simons came up with a theory. He believed that the owner of a local gas station had hired local roofer David Wayne Spence to kill his employee, a woman who happened to look like one of the victims. Simons’ only “evidence” consisted of bite marks - the analysis of which has since been discredited - and testimonies given in exchange for prison privileges and lenient sentences. Nonetheless, Spence was convicted and in 1997 killed by lethal injection. Even the police who led the initial investigation have suggested that Spence was innocent.
#8: Ruben Cantu
Ruben Cantu was put to death in 1993 by lethal injection, executed for capital murder. Police claimed that Cantu had robbed and shot two San Antonio workmen. However, the survivor of the attack, Juan Moreno, only identified Cantu as the killer after pressure from police, and has since recanted. Meanwhile another man, David Garza, who claimed to have witnessed Cantu leaving the scene, has since admitted he himself committed the robbery, with an accomplice who was not Cantu committing the shootings. Cantu claimed that he was being framed for another incident, in which he shot and wounded an off-duty, plainclothes police officer.
#7: Carlos DeLuna
In 1989, Carlos DeLuna was put to death by lethal injection for stabbing to death gas station attendant Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi, Texas. But DeLuna claimed to have witnessed another Hispanic man, Carlos Hernandez, killing Lopez. An investigation published in 2012 by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review revealed good grounds to believe him. Although eyewitnesses Kevan Baker and George Aguirre identified DeLuna as the killer, Baker’s description better fit Hernandez. A career criminal, Hernandez carried a lock-blade knife just like the one used to kill Lopez, and according to witnesses boasted about murdering Lopez and letting DeLuna take the fall.
What’s in a name? A lot, in cases like Chaska’s. In 1862, starving Dakota bands rose up against white settlers after a series of broken promises. After defeating the bands, the Army hung 38 tribesmen in a single day - the largest mass execution in American history. Chaska, or We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, had abducted a white woman and her children during the conflict, but also defended them from harm, for which he received a pardon from none other than Abraham Lincoln . . . However, he may have been confused with another man, Chaskey-don, and was hung with the rest anyway. The woman he abducted suspected that this wasn’t really accidental - and that Chaska was executed due to her positive testimony and rumors they were lovers.
#5: Joe Arridy
While in prison, 23-year old Joe Arridy liked to play with a toy train given to him by the warden. With an IQ of 46, he was said to have the mental capacity of a young child. In fact, he smiled when he was brought to the gas chamber. Arridy was put to death in the Colorado State Penitentiary in 1939 for violating and murdering a teenager in Pueblo. However, evidence suggests that he wasn’t in Pueblo at the time, and that his “confession” was coerced by police. The authorities also executed another man, Frank Aguilar, for the same crime; Aguilar said he’d never even seen Arridy before. Only in 2011 did Arridy receive a posthumous pardon.
#4: Jesse Tafero
The execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990 is notorious for two reasons. One: the flawed trial that resulted in his conviction. And two: his botched execution. Tafero had been executed after Walter Rhodes claimed Tafero and his wife Sunny Jacobs killed two police officers. However, on more than one occasion, Rhodes later admitted he had shot them himself, something gunpowder evidence from the investigation backed up. Jacobs’ sentence was commuted to life, but Tafero was put to death in an electric chair fondly nicknamed Old Sparky. Because the execution team used the wrong kind of sponge, he caught fire, and it took three tries and seven minutes for Tafero to die.
#3: Timothy Evans
In 1950, Timothy Evans was hung for the murder of his wife and one year old daughter. Evans had gone to the police claiming he killed his wife during a botched medical procedure at their home in Notting Hill, London. But he later admitted he and his wife had asked downstairs neighbor John Christie to perform it, since abortions were illegal. Christie told Evans his wife’s death had been accidental . . . but in a new twist, police found both wife and daughter strangled. During the trial, Evans claimed Christie must have killed them, but to no avail. It later came out that Christie was a serial killer, and police had missed obvious evidence.
#2: George Stinney
In 1944, an all-white jury took just ten minutes to convict 14-year-old African-American George Stinney of the murder of two white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina. Police claimed Stinney had confessed, but there was no signed confession, and the prosecution presented two versions of the confession that were markedly different. The boy was rushed to execution just 83 days after his arrest. In 2014, a circuit court judge vacated Stinney’s conviction - stating he had not received a fair trial, and that his execution had constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
#1: Cameron Todd Willingham
Even seconds before death, Texan man Cameron Todd Willingham maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 1992 of murdering his own children in a house fire, and in 2004 put to death by lethal injection. But the case against him was based on suspect testimonies and flawed science. Psychologist Tim Gregory argued that Willingham’s Led Zeppelin poster showed an interest in “Satanic activities.” In exchange for a reduced sentence, jailhouse informant Johnny Webb claimed Willingham had confessed. Webb later recanted, and numerous fire experts have agreed there was no evidence of arson.