Wednesday 9 April 2014

EXECUTING  INNOCENT  PEOPLE                             


Back in the mid-1970s, I was commissioned to write a lengthy article for an international business magazine on the subject of capital punishment. I agreed to do it on one condition, the condition being that the publisher was to send a copy of the magazine to every member of both the Canadian parliament and senate. This they did. One of the members of parliament quoted something I said in my article in his speech which was;


“There can never be a more horrible form of injustice than executing someone for a murder he or she never committed.”


Prior to his speech, I was asked by the Director of Ontario Legal Aid who had responded to a request from another member of parliament if I could find a particular case where a man who was hanged was represented at his trial and two appeals by a lawyer who had earlier been declared insane. I did more than that. I investigated the murder itself and discovered that the police years later told the aunt of the little girl who was murdered that the wrong man had been hanged.


Several months after I was quoted in Parliament, (1976) the members of parliament abolished capital punishment. To this day, it has never been re-instated.


In 1980, I addressed the United Nations Sixth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Caracas on the subject of capital punishment. Nine countries had brought in a resolution asking the member nations to place a moratorium on capital punishment for five years so that the nations could consider an alternative sentence.


I am an abolitionist when it comes to capital punishment because of the danger of executing innocent people but on the day I was to address the Congress, I was the last speaker to speak on that subject so I asked the representatives of the more than 100 nations present to vote against the proposed moratorium. I said that if capital punishment was still on the books, the nations would work harder to come up with an alternative such as natural life in prison. The nine countries that earlier brought forth the resolution for the moratorium withdrew their resolution the very next day.

As the years progressed, many of the States in the USA abolished capital punishment in their States and replaced the punishment for murders as life in prison without the opportunity for parole.


A few days later, I was a guest on a television show broadcasted all over Canada in which the studio was filled with lawyers, social workers, police and parole officers and I advocated the death penalty for anyone convicted of murder while committing a terrorist act. I still feel the same way but the evidence against them better be solid. In Canada, we don’t execute terrorists who commit murder however the US has done so in one occasion when Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma bombing—and rightly so.

I shudder when I consider just how many innocent persons convicted of murders they didn’t commit are executed for those crimes. I am not talking about a few, (which is bad enough); I am talking about far more than a few. Wrongful executions have been documented in the US Justice System and I will tell you about some of those where seemingly innocent men were sent to their deaths despite not having committed for the crime they were said to have committed. I will tell you about eight who were executed. What follows in part are particulars about their convictions and executions of these eight innocent persons.


In August of 1989 Troy Davis, a black man was convicted of the murder of Mark MacPhail, a local off-duty police officer in Savannah Georgia. The crime occurred in a Burger King parking lot where Mark MacPhail was working as a security officer while off duty. There was an altercation between Davis and his two friends, Darrell Collins and Redd Coles, and Walter Young, a homeless man. When MacPhail came to check on the situation he was shot in the chest and face.  

The next evening, Coles went to the police and told them that Davis had been the one that had shot MacPhail. A few days later Davis, who was out of town, was taken back to Savannah and charged with the police officer’s murder.


Davis was indicted for murder and assault. He pleaded not guilty. During the trial, multiple witnesses stated that he had beaten the homeless man and shot the officer as well as shooting another person earlier in the evening while driving to the Burger King. Cole was one of the people testifying against Davis, despite the fact that there was evidence that he had the same type of gun used in the crimes, though he stated that he had given the gun to another person that night.  

The jury found Davis guilty of murder and they gave him the death penalty. The case went through both state and federal appeals. Multiple witnesses came forward and presented affidavits admitting that they felt bullied by the police running the investigation and were forced to give false testimony against Davis. The case went before the US Supreme Court in 2011. The appeal was rejected however and the execution was carried out on the evening of September 21, 2011.

Was he guilty or innocent? We will never know however I am wondering why those affidavits were ignored by the appeal courts. In my opinion, he should have been reprieved and sentence to natural life in prison.

Johnny Frank Garrett

On October 31st, 1981, Johnny Frank Garrett was accused of both raping and murdering Sister Tadea Benz, a 76-year-old nun. 

 Garrett, then 17, had admitted guilt to the crime when examined by a forensic psychiatrist brought in by his defense team. During the interview the doctor said that she found him to have both severe brain damage as well as multiple personalities, only one of which confessed to the crime. Garrett later stated that he did not confess anything and there were no tapes made of the interview.  (That is most unfortunate) 

His mother pleaded with the state of Texas to exonerate her son with the DNA evidence that they had. Texas had refused to do so. Johnny Frank Garrett was executed on February 11th 1992. He protested his innocence from the time of his conviction.

In my opinion, a man who suffers from multiple personalities is a very mentally sick man and should never be executed for the crime of murder that is committed by one of those personalities. Garrett should have been placed in an insane asylum for the rest of his life if he really killed the nun. 

Twelve years later, cold case DNA testing found Leoncio Perez Rueda guilty of the rape and murder of Narnie Bryson, another elderly victim that was killed four months before Sister Benz was killed.  Was it he who committed the murder of the elderly nun? Both cases had similar evidence, including white t shirts and curly brown hairs found on both scenes. Rueda confessed to the crime against Bryson and also confessed to killing a nun later. It was also caught on camera that Rueda stated that it was indeed his shirt found at the site of Sister Benz' murder. The innocent man died for a murder he didn’t commit.

Ellis Wayne Felker 

This man was convicted for the murder of Evelyn Ludlum in 1981. Her last known whereabouts were visiting Felker at his leather shop in the hopes of receiving a job with him. Felker was put under surveillance for two weeks, after Ludlum's abandoned car was found and a datebook noted that he was her last point of contact. 

Her body was found shortly afterward in a creek, raped, and murdered by asphyxiation. When an autopsy was originally performed it was determined that Ludlum had been dead for 5 days when she was found. This eliminated Felker as a suspect as he was under surveillance during this time. The findings were changed however when another autopsy was ordered and it was found that Ludlum could not have been dead for more than 3 days, since she was found in running water though, the exact time of death could not be determined. 

Felker was convicted of the murder and rape and later sentenced to death. In September 1996 Felker's attorneys received evidence that had been withheld unlawfully by the prosecution during the trial. The DA in charged swore under oath that such evidence did not exist. Included in the evidence were possible DNA samples and a signed confession that was made by another suspect who was mentally retarded. 

In spite of all the evidence and doubts of guilt, the Supreme Court of Georgia refused to have a new trial and proceeded with Felker’s execution later that year after the Summer Olympics since they were held in Atlanta at the time.


Admittedly, the DNA samples may have been those of someone else but they could have also been that of Felker. And the confession of a mentally ill person is highly suspect. However, these two aspects should have been enough for the governor of the State to give Felker a reprieve and keep him in prison for the rest of his life in no convincing evidence exonerating him didn’t surface.

Timothy Evans 

This man was charged with the murder of both his wife and their daughter at their home in London, England in November 1949. He was tried in January 1950 where he was sentenced to death by hanging. During the trial it came down to his word against his neighbor, John Christie. Christie stated that Evans and his wife often quarreled and he also refused to abort her unborn child. The other evidence that was used for conviction was that Evans had changed his story multiple times during his interviews with the police. This was later found to be caused by unlawful instigation and violence used by the police during the interviews. The trial only lasted 3 days after which Evans was found guilty and later he was hanged. 

Three years later it was uncovered that Christie was in fact a serial killer and he had in fact been the one who had killed both Evans' wife and daughter. Evans was granted a pardon posthumously. It was this case that prompted the United Kingdom to abolish capital punishment.

Derek Bentley

Derek Bentley, a teenager from Britain, was accused and convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a police officer during a robbery attempt.

In November 1952 the 19-year-old Bentley and 16-year-old friend, Christopher Craig set forth to rob a local warehouse. While scaling the building, a girl from the neighborhood saw them and had her father call the police. The police confronted the boys on the roof of the building. One of the officers caught Bentley and held him down while another officer went after Craig. Craig opened fire and killed the officer.

During the trial both boys were convicted of murder, even though there was doubt and ballistic proof that Craig could have hit the officer if he was aiming for him. Since Craig was underage, he was sentenced to imprisonment, which he served for 10 years. Bentley, being an adult in the eyes of the court, was sentenced to death by hanging. There was an appeal after the trial to convince the court to lower the charges due to Bentley mental incapacity. This was overruled and the sentence was carried out in January 1953. Nowadays, westernized countries don’t execute prisoners who are suffering from a mental illness at the time that the murder was committed.

There was an effort to get the conviction overturned and a posthumous pardon for Bentley. Finally, in 1998, the English court granted the pardon due to misleading evidence committed at the trial. Unfortunately by that time, all of Bentley's relatives were dead. Christopher Craig accepted the pardon in their stead. Now there is irony for you especially if it was Craig who fired the fatal shot.

Cameron Todd Willingham 

This man was charged with the arson deaths of his three daughters when the house they were living in burned down in 1991 in Texas.  

During the trial there were multiple conflicting pieces of evidence that could either prove that the fire was started by a liquid acceleration or by faulty electronics. There was much debate between the various fire authorities. Throw in the fact that there were various witnesses testifying either for or against him.

In the end Willingham was convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to death. After 12 years of appeals, he was executed by lethal injection.

The case is still receiving attention due to the fact that there may be evidence that Governor Rick Perry might have influenced conviction by firing the original forensic scientist who argued against conviction.

This brings to mind a case in Canada where a man’s house was burned down. The cause was an electrical fire. No one was killed or injured in that fire. The fire chief concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical short. After the insurance company, Pilot Insurance was sued for trying to cheat the family out of their full insurance benefits,  it tried to imply that the fire was deliberately set. The jury evidently believed that the insurance company knew from the outset that its arson defence was contrived and unsustainable.  The family was given a tremendous amount of money for being framed by the insurance company. If someone had died in the fire and Canada still had capital punishment then, that innocent home owner could have been hanged if the man was charged with murder and was convicted by a jury that accepted the insurance company’s version of the fire.  This just goes to show that people will go to great lengths to frame innocent people of crimes they didn’t commit.


This man and his partner, Sonia Jacobs, were convicted for the killings of two police officers in 1976. 

The crime occurred on the morning of February 20th when the two officers spotted a car pulled over on the side of the road. When the police looked inside the car, they discovered Tafero, Jacobs, her two children and Walter Rhoades all sleeping inside. 

When they awoke the occupants the officers had them all come out of the car. It was then that, according to Rhodes, Tafero shot and killed both officers. They fled the scene only to be pulled over at a blockade. After a search of everyone's person, the murder weapon was found stuck in Tafero’s waistband. It was found that Jacobs was the one that had purchased the gun, as Jesse Tafero was a previously convicted felon. He had previously served 7 years on a 25 year sentence for robbery. 

During the trial Rhodes testified that Tafero was the lone shooter, a statement that he would change multiple times throughout the years. All three of them were found guilty and sentenced. Rhodes was given 3 consecutive life sentences while Jacobs and Tafero both received the death penalty.

Jesse Tafero was executed in the chair
in May 1990 in one of the worst execution botches in history. The person in charge had used a synthetic sponge instead of a sea sponge which caused a six inch flame to leap from the top of his head. It took 13 minutes for the execution to kill him. 

In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court commuted Jacobs' sentence to life in prison after her lawyers uncovered a polygraph test suggesting that Rhodes, the prosecution's chief witness, might have lied. The next year, Rhodes recanted, saying he and not Jacobs or Tafero had pulled the trigger. (He later changed his story again and again.) The case grew even more wobbly when a jailhouse snitch said she, too, had lied against Jacobs at trial. 


Nowadays, courts are very leery about accepting the testimony of prison snitches. Many innocent persons have been convicted of crimes on the testimony of these snitches who claim that the accused persons confessed their crimes to them.


This man was convicted of the murder of 19 year-old Quintin Moss. The victim was a drug dealer who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

While there were only a few eye witnesses, the conviction was based almost solely on the testimony of Robert Fitzgerald, a career criminal. The jury pronounced Griffin guilty, and he was executed by lethal injection in 1995 after a failed appeal process.

In 2005 though an investigation was reopened by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, it was found that there were crucial pieces of evidence withheld during the trial. These included the fact that Griffin was left-handed, even though Fitzgerald testified that the gun was shot by someone right-handed. Also, there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence the Griffin ever even held the murder weapon and an alibi witness that could put Griffin in a different place at the time of the murder wasn’t called to give evidence. The investigation concluded with Griffin was an innocent man when he was executed.

The prosecutor denied there was a plea bargain in exchange for Robert Fitzgerald's testimony but Fitzgerald was released from custody having had his sentence reduced to time served for credit card fraud charges on the day that Griffin was convicted. Fitzgerald later recanted his in-court identification of Griffin. 

He also had ineffective assistance by an incompetent lawyer. During the trial, his lawyer (if you still want to call him that) failed to present relevant evidence that Griffin was left-handed, his inadequately investigated alibi defense collapsed in court, he failed to discover and utilize information undermining Fitzgerald's credibility and he made no preparation for the penalty phase. 


It is hard to believe that the appeal courts didn’t take all of this into consideration when they refused to order a new trial.


Whenever I see that classic statute of Justice with the blindfold over her eyes and the sword in her hand, I invariably think of her using that sword to stab justice in the back.

Innocent people are executed because of ineffective defence lawyers, crooked prosecutors and stupid judges. This is why I feel that persons convicted of murder should be sent to prison for the rest of their lives and not be executed. If they are innocent, they can be released and compensated.

One man in Canada served 24 years in prison before it was discovered that it was another man who committed the murder. He was released and given $10 million dollars in compensation.

If you still think persons convicted of murder are deserving of death, picture yourself witnessing the death of a loved one when you know that the condemned person was in bed with you the night of the murder was committed many miles away. You will change your mind real quick after that.

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