“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.”
– Sandra Day O’Connor, Retired Supreme Court Justice
Innocent Lives at Risk
- Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and released from death row.1
- The problem of innocent people being sentenced to death is not isolated to a few states or a particular period of time. Death row exonerations have occurred in 26 different states, with well over 50% occurring since 1993.
- A 2009 Galluppoll revealed that 59% of the respondents believed innocent individuals have been executed in the last five years.2
- In September 2009, a New Yorker article presented compelling evidence that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004. The man put to death, Cameron Todd Willingham, allegedly killed his three children in an arson fire. Leading arson experts now say, however, that all signs suggest that the fire was accidental.3
- Nationally, one person is exonerated for approximately every nine who are executed (as of March 2011, 138 exonerations and 1248 executions since 1973). The leading factors of wrongful convictions include: (1) eyewitness error, (2) junk science, (3) snitch testimony, (4) false confession, and (5) government misconduct.4
- The average length of imprisonment for death row exonerees is 9.8 years.5
- In 2004, a Universityof Michigan study found that death row inmates represent one quarter of one percent of the prison population but 22% of the exonerated.6
Wrongful Convictions in Connecticut
- The problem of wrongful convictions in Connecticutfirst made national headlines in the highly publicized Peter Reilly case. Reilly was convicted of the 1973 murder of his mother Barbara Gibbons. After eight hours of police interrogation, the 18 year-old Reilly falsely confessed to the crime. He later was exonerated in 1976.7
- Founded in 2005, the Connecticut Innocence Project has helped to overturn several wrongful convictions in recent years. Its first success was using DNA testing to free James Tillman, who spent over 16 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.8
- In 2009 and 2010 alone, DNA evidence helped to reveal four wrongful murder convictions in Connecticut. The men released – Miguel Roman, Kenneth Ireland, George Gould, and Ronald Taylor – collectively spent over 70 years in prison for murders they did not commit.
- Since the Reilly case, at least eight people in Connecticut have been wrongfully convicted of the crimes of rape, murder, or both before being found innocent.
Case Study: Kenneth Ireland
- After spending 21 years in prison, Kenneth Ireland was exonerated of rape and murder in 2009. In 1989, a jury found Kenneth Ireland guilty of the 1986 rape and murder of Barbara Pelkey. Irelandwas 16-years old when the crime was committed.9
- Since rape and murder together normally qualify as a capital crime, Ireland would have been eligible for the death penalty had he been two years older at the time of the crime.
- The Connecticut Innocence Project began reviewing Ireland’s case in 2007, and two years later obtained permission from the Wallingford Police Department to retest evidence, which demonstrated Ireland’s innocence.
- Lieutenant Marc Mikulski of the Wallingford Police Department said the mere suggestion that the wrong man might have been in prison all those years “kind of makes the hair on the back of your head stand up.”10
DNA Does Not Solve the Problem
Though DNA is an important new technology that has led to 17 of the 138 death row exonerations, the majority of murder cases lack testable biological evidence. Moreover, DNA testing is only as accurate as the human beings conducting the tests. Crime lab scandals in Oklahoma, Texas, Maryland, and Washington State have revealed that DNA and other forensic evidence can be misread, compromised, or even tainted.11
Case Study: Ray Krone, the 100th death row exoneree since 1973
Ray Krone was sentenced to death for rape and murder in Arizona, even though DNA found on the victim did not match him. The state argued against having the DNA submitted to the database, since the jury found him guilty even without physical evidence. A decade later, a crime lab worker ran the DNA through a database on his own, without a court order, and uncovered the identity of the real killer. After 10 years on death row, Krone was finally freed on April 8, 2002.12
- Death row exoneration list maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), (list as of June 23, 2010).
- David Grann, “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?” The New Yorker, September 7, 2009.
- Samuel R. Gross, Kristen Jacoby, Daniel J. Matheson, Nicholas Montgomery, and Sujata Patil, Exonerations in the United States, 1989 through 2003, University of Michigan, 2004.
- Donald S. Connery, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, 2010.
- The Innocence Project, “Know the Cases: James Tillman.”
- The Innocence Project, “Know the Cases: Kenneth Ireland.”
- Hartford Courant, “DNA Clears Accused Killer after 21 Years,” August 6, 2009.
- Chicago Tribune Series, “Forensics Under the Microscope,” October 17-21, 2004.