10 Notorious Criminals Proven Innocent After Execution

The force of justice is designed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, providing a fair framework around which to live our lives. Yet, what happens when justice itself goes wrong and turns to injustice? Over the years countless individuals have been put to death for crimes against society, but we’d be naïve to assume they were all as guilty as their punishment suggests. Some have later been found innocent and pardoned, others await fair reconsideration from authorities unwilling to admit to their mistakes. As the old saying goes: ‘Who shall police the police?’

10. Colin Campbell Ross – executed 1922, pardoned 2008

The 1921 rape and murder of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke in Melbourne, Australia, would go down in history as the infamous Gun Alley Murder. A year later 30-year-old known robber, Colin Campbell Ross, was arrested and charged despite the testimony of several witnesses who placed him in his saloon while the crime was being committed. Despite this evidence Campbell was executed in 1922, in gruesome fashion – the new four-strand noose succeeded only in prolonging his death as he slowly strangled for minutes on the gallows. Years later a schoolteacher took up Campbell’s cause and demanded the case be reopened. In 2006 forensic analysis was done on hair found at the crime scene and in 2008, 86 years after his execution, Campbell was pardoned.

9. Timothy Evans – executed 1950, pardoned 1966

On 9 March 1950, Timothy Evans was hanged at London’s Pentonville prison for the murder of his wife, Beryl, and daughter, Geraldine. In what would become a landmark case for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain, Evans was later found innocent and posthumously pardoned – the reason: only years after Evans’ execution did it emerge that a lodger in the house was none other than notorious serial killer, John Christie. Christie confessed to the killings and after becoming a cause célèbre for death penalty abolitionists, Evans was eventually granted a posthumous pardon. His relatives later claimed it wasn’t enough.

8. Mahmood Hussein Mattan – executed 1952, overturned 1998

On the morning of September 3, 1952, young Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan was taken from his cell at Cardiff prison, marched to the gallows and hanged. Seven weeks earlier he had been found guilty of slitting the throat of shopkeeper Lily Volpert. Despite having several alibis supported by witnesses, Mattan was convicted due to flecks of blood on his shoes and the testimony of Harold Cover. Only later did it emerge that the shoes he wore were secondhand and Cover was a violent criminal who would later be jailed for life for the attempted murder of his own daughter. In 1998 the case was reopened and new evidence examined, resulting in Mattan’s conviction being overturned and his family being awarded £700,000 compensation – the first compensation award to the family of a person wrongfully executed in the UK.

7. Ellis Wayne Felker – executed 1996, conviction inconclusive 2000

When Georgian student, Evelyn Joy Ludlum, disappeared in 1981, convicted sex offender, Ellis Wayne Ludlum, was immediately put under surveillance – during which time Ludlum’s mutilated body was found, raped, in a creek. An autopsy subsequently revealed that Evelyn had been dead for five days, information that was later changed when police realised it would rule out Felker from the investigation. During the trial, attorneys discovered boxes of withheld evidence, including DNA evidence and a signed confession by another man, but the Georgia Supreme Court denied the admissibility of this evidence and refused to give Felker more time. He was executed by electric chair on November 15, 1996. In 2000, a Georgia judge ruled that DNA testing would be performed in the first-ever attempt by a court to exonerate an executed person in the United States. The results were ruled as inconclusive, but failed to confirm Felker’s guilt beyond doubt – scientific consensus now judges him to have been innocent.

6. William Marion – executed 1887, pardoned 1986

William Marion met Jack Cameron at a boarding house in Kansas in 1872, and the two quickly became firm friends, travelling and working together across the mid-west. During their travels they journeyed to Beatrice, Nebraska, to visit Marion’s in-laws – Marion returned alone a few days later wearing Cameron’s clothes and riding Cameron’s horses, before vanishing. A week later the body of a man was discovered with three bullet wounds to the head. Marion immediately became the prime suspect in the murder and after a ten-year manhunt was eventually apprehended in Kansas, convicted and hanged. Four years later alleged ‘victim’, Cameron, miraculously re-appeared looking for his friend and explaining he had ditched his clothes and horses with Marion and escaped to Mexico to avoid a shotgun marriage. 100 years after his execution Marion’s grandson, Elbert Marion, successfully petitioned the governor of Nebraska to pardon William Marion – making Marion one of several ‘murderers’ whose ‘victims’ have survived them.

5. Cameron Todd Willingham – executed 2004, conviction unsustainable 2009

On the night of December 23, 1991, an uncontrollable blaze engulfed the Willingham’s house in Corsicana, Texas, claiming the lives of one-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron Willingham, as well as two-year-old Amber Louise Kuykendall Willingham. Subsequently, Willingham was arrested and charged with the murder of his three daughters. The trial hinged on whether the fire had been deliberately started using some form of liquid accelerant – a claim police supported with evidence including char patterns in the floor in the shape of ‘puddles’, multiple starting points for the fire, and the fact that the fire had burned ‘fast and hot’. Willingham was found guilty – despite expert objections from scientists who rebutted all twenty of the police’s indications that an accelerant had been used – and rejected a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, insisting he was innocent. Since Willingham’s death, persistent doubts have arisen, and general scientific consensus has been that the fire was not an act of arson. The Texas Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to discuss the case in 2009, but two days before the meeting Texas Governor Rick Perry mysteriously replaced the chair of the commission and two other members.

4. George Kelly – executed 1950, quashed 2003

In March 1950 out of work laborer, George Kelly, was convicted of shooting dead 44-year-old Leonard Thomas during a robbery at the Cameo Cinema in Liverpool, UK. The crime would become the focus of one of the most intense police investigations in English history, with over 65,000 people questioned. There were, however, no suspects until the police received a letter from an anonymous writer offering to name those involved in exchange for immunity. The informant named Kelly as the robber and an accomplice, Charles Connolly, as the lookout. With the eyes of the nation upon him, Connolly admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 10 years in prison; Kelly denied any wrongdoing and, after the then longest criminal trial in English history, was convicted and executed. In 2003 the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed Kelly’s conviction, ruling that it was based on the prosecution’s concealment of a statement that another man, Donald Johnson, had confessed to the crime months before. In 2004, Mr. Kelly’s daughter, Catherine, finally oversaw his reburial alongside other family members.

3. Charles Hudspeth – executed 1892, victim ‘found’ 1893

In 1886, George Watkins and his wife, Rebecca, moved from Kansas to Marion County, Arkansas, where Rebecca subsequently became romantically involved with a local man, Charles Hudspeth. Nearly a year later, George Watkins disappeared and Hudspeth was arrested and charged with his murder. Based on Rebecca’s testimony that Hudspeth had murdered Watkins in order to clear the way for them to be married, he was convicted and sentenced to death by Arkansas’ Supreme Court, and was hanged at Harrison, Arkansas, on December 30, 1892. Yet in another case of a ‘victim’ mysteriously reappearing after their ‘murder’, Watkins’s lawyer found him alive and well a year later, living in Kansas – a clear case of wrongful execution the US government has failed to address.

2. Derek Bentley – executed 1953, quashed 1998

On Sunday 2 November 1952, Derek Bentley and his friend 16 year-old Christopher Craig, prowled the streets of London intending to commit a burglary. After two unsuccessful attempts they climbed on to the roof of a warehouse in Croydon, only to be seen by a young girl, whose mother immediately phoned for the police. Bentley was immediately detained, without resisting arrest, but Craig made off discharging his pistol at the police. At some point Bentley, standing by in cuffs, uttered the now infamous words, ‘let him have it, Craig!’ – moments later Craig shot PC Sidney Miles through the head, killing him. The pair were tried for murder under the principle of ‘joint enterprise’ and found guilty; Craig was sentenced to jail, being a minor, but Bentley, who hadn’t possessed or fired a gun, was sentenced to death – his conviction resting on whether or not ‘let him have it’ was an instruction to shoot or to hand over the weapon. Bentley was hanged in January, 1953. Following the execution there a wave of public outrage resulted in a long campaign, led by Bentley’s sister Iris, to secure a posthumous pardon for him – a campaign which proved partially successful in 1993, with a Royal pardon, and fully succeeded in 1998 as a panel quashed Bentley’s conviction.

1. Thomas & Meeks Griffin, executed 1915, pardoned 2009

Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed in 1915 for the murder of 73-year-old John Q Lewis, a Confederate veteran living in Blackstock, South Carolina. Prominent and respected black farmers in Chester County, they doggedly denied the accusations, forcing a wave of prominent figures to come to their defense including Blackstock’s mayor, a sheriff, two trial jurors and the grand jury foreman. Despite their popular support the pair were found guilty of murder based on the accusations of another man, John ‘Monk’ Stevenson, who was known to be a small-time thief. Stevenson, who had been found in possession of the victim’s pistol, was sentenced to life in prison in exchange for testifying against the brothers. Over 90 years later the brothers’ great-nephew, talk-show host Tom Joyner, petitioned the state for a pardon, which was successfully passed by a vote of 7-0, finally clearing their names in 2009. Todd Shaw, political science and African American studies professor at the University of South Carolina, summed up the case succinctly when he stated: “There are more stories out there to be told, and possibly many more injustices to be righted.”

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