The following is primarily from the Death Penalty Information Center.
As the issue of innocence became prominent for the American public, those who feared that the death penalty was being weakened reacted with attacks on the very notion of persons on death row being innocent. Critics asserted that people on the list of exonerated death row inmates were not really innocent, despite the removal of all charges against them. In light of these criticisms, it is important to clarify the meaning of innocence in our society and to restate the criteria for DPIC’s innocence list.
The people on DPIC’s list (now numbering 116) are entitled to the status of innocence conferred on them by our legal system. In this system, as in our society generally, a person who has been cleared of all charges is just as innocent as a person who has never been charged.
To argue that people who have been acquitted at trial are not “actually innocent” because a prosecutor holds some lingering belief in the person’s guilt is to turn suspicion into a permanent stigma. That goes against the most fundamental principle of our constitutional system. No one should have to prove his or her innocence. The status of innocence is a person’s full right unless the state has proven them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If we throw out that protection, we have abandoned one of this country’s most important founding principles.
For Inclusion on DPIC’s Innocence List:
Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-
a. Been acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, or
b. Had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution, or
c. Been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence.
- Demographic information of Innocence List – 59% Black, 17% Latino, 24% White
- Average time under wrongful conviction: approx. 8 years.
- Longest: 42 years – Clifford Williams, Jr. was exonerated and released in 2019 after 42 years in prison, including 4 years on Death Row. 21 years – James Richardson (Note – Frank Lee Smith died of cancer after 14 years on Florida’s Death Row. Months later, long-sought DNA testing cleared him)
- Usual compensation from state upon release: 1 pair of jeans, 1 t-shirt, and 1 bus ticket or equivalent (exonerated Florida Death Row survivors report that the cost for these items may be deducted from the former condemned prisoner’s commissary account funds – if they have any).
- 26 men apparently received no other compensation for their years spent on Florida’s Death Row for a crime they did not commit
1. David Keaton (Black) Florida Conviction 1971 Charges dropped 1973
On the basis of mistaken identification and coerced confessions, Keaton was sentenced to death for murdering an off duty deputy sheriff during a robbery. Charges were dropped and he was released after the actual killer was identified and convicted.
2. Wilbert Lee (Black) Florida Conviction 1963 Released 1975
3. Freddie Pitts (Black) Florida Conviction 1963 Released 1975
Although no physical evidence linked them to the deaths of two white men, Lee and Pitts’ guilty pleas, the testimony of an alleged eyewitness, and incompetent defense counsel led to their convictions. The men were sentenced to death but maintained their innocence. After their convictions, another man confessed to the crime, the eyewitness recanted her accusations, and the state Attorney General admitted that the state had unlawfully suppressed evidence. The men were granted a new trial but were again convicted and sentenced to death. They were released in 1975 when they received a full pardon from Governor Askew, who stated he was “sufficiently convinced that they were innocent.”
4. Delbert Tibbs (Black) Florida Conviction 1974 Conviction overturned 1977
Tibbs was sentenced to death for the rape of a sixteen-year-old white girl and the murder of her companion. Tibbs, a black theological student, was convicted by an all-white jury on the testimony of the female victim whose testimony was uncorroborated and inconsistent with her first description of her assailant. The conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because the verdict was not supported by the weight of the evidence, and the state decided not to retry the case. Tibbs’ former prosecutor said that the original investigation had been tainted from the beginning and that if there was a retrial, he would appear as a witness for Tibbs.
5. Anibal Jarramillo (Latino) Florida Conviction 1981 – Released 1982
Jarramillo was sentenced to death for two counts of first degree murder, despite the jury’s unanimous recommendation of life imprisonment. On appeal, his conviction was reversed when the Florida Supreme Court ruled the evidence used against him was not legally sufficient to support the conviction. Evidence suggests that the murderer may have been the victims’ roommate.
6. Anthony Brown (Black) Florida Conviction 1983 – Acquitted 1986
Brown was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death despite a jury recommendation of life imprisonment. At trial, the only evidence against Brown was a co-defendant who was sentenced to life for his part in the crime. At retrial, the co-defendant admitted that his testimony at the first trial had been perjured, and Brown was acquitted.
7. Joseph Green Brown (Black) Florida Conviction 1974 – Charges dropped 1987
Charges were dropped after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecution had knowingly allowed false testimony to be introduced at trial. Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on the testimony of Ronald Floyd, a co-conspirator who claimed he heard Brown confess to the murder. Floyd later retracted and admitted his testimony was lie. Brown came within 13 hours of execution when a new trial was ordered. Brown was released a year later when the state decided not to retry the case.
8. Anthony Ray Peek (Black) Florida Conviction 1978 – Acquitted 1987
Peek was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, despite witnesses who supported his alibi. His conviction was overturned when expert testimony concerning hair identification evidence was shown to be false. He was acquitted at his third retrial.
9. Juan Ramos (Latino) Florida Conviction 1983 – Acquitted 1987
Despite a jury recommendation of life in prison, Juan Ramos was sentenced to death for rape and murder. No physical evidence linked Ramos to the victim or the scene of the crime. The Florida Supreme Court granted Ramos a new trial because of the prosecution’s improper use of evidence. At retrial, Ramos was acquitted.
10. Willie Brown (Black) Florida Conviction 1983 – Released 1988 AND
11. Larry Troy (Black) Florida Conviction 1983 – Released 1988
Brown and Troy were sentenced to death after being accused of fatally stabbing a fellow prisoner. The main witness against them was Frank Wise, who’s original statements exonerated the men. Pending retrial, the charges against the men were dropped when Wise admitted that he had perjured himself.
12. Robert Cox (White) Florida Conviction 1988 – Released 1989
Cox was convicted and sentenced to death, despite evidence that Cox did not know the victim and no one testified that they had been seen together. In 1989, Cox was released by a unanimous decision of the Florida Supreme Court that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction.
13. James Richardson (Black) Florida Conviction 1968 – Released 1989
Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death for the poisoning of one of his children. The prosecution argued that Richardson committed the crime to obtain insurance money, despite the fact that no such policy existed. The primary witnesses against Richardson were two jail-house snitches whom Richardson was said to have confessed to. Post-conviction investigation found that the neighbor who was caring for Richardson’s children had a prior homicide conviction, and the defense provided affidavits from people to whom he had confessed. Richardson’s conviction was overturned after further investigation by then-Dade County State Attorney General Janet Reno, which resulted in a new hearing.
14. Bradley P. Scott (White) Florida Conviction 1988 – Released 1991
Scott was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His arrest came ten years after the crime, when the evidence corroborating his alibi had been lost. Scott was convicted on the testimony of witnesses whose identifications had been plagued with inconsistencies. On appeal, he was released by the Florida Supreme Court, which found that the evidence used to convict Scott was not sufficient to support a finding of guilt.
15. Andrew Golden (White) Florida Conviction 1991 – Released 1994
Golden, a high school teacher in Florida, was convicted of murdering his wife. His conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 1993. The court held that the state had failed to prove that the victim’s death was anything but an accident. Golden was released into the waiting arms of his sons on January 6, 1994.
16. Robert Hayes (Black) Florida Conviction 1991 – Released 1997
Hayes was convicted of the rape and murder of a co-worker based partly on faulty DNA evidence. The Florida Supreme Court threw out Hayes’s conviction and the DNA evidence in 1995. The victim had been found clutching hairs probably from her assailant. The hairs were from a white man, whereas Hayes is black. Hayes was acquitted at a
17. Joseph Nahume Green (Black) Florida Convicted 1993 – Acquitted 2000
Joseph Nahume Green was acquitted on March 16, 2000 of the murder of Judith Miscally. Circuit Judge Robert P. Cates entered a not guilty verdict for Green, citing the lack of any witnesses or evidence tying Green to the murder. Green, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted largely upon the testimony of the state’s only eye witness, Lonnie Thompson. In 1996, Green’s conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, which held that Thompson’s testimony was often inconsistent and contradictory, and that he not been fit to testify during Green’s trial. (St. Petersburg Times, 3/17/00)
18. Frank Lee Smith (Black) Florida Convicted 1985 – Cleared 2000
Frank Lee Smith, who had been convicted of a 1985 rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, and who died of cancer in January 2000 while still on death row, was cleared of these charges by DNA testing, according to an aide to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. After the trial, the chief eyewitness recanted her testimony. Nevertheless, Smith was scheduled for execution in 1990, but received a stay. Prosecutor Carolyn McCann was told by the FBI lab which conducted the DNA tests that: “He has been excluded. He didn’t do it.” Another man, who is currently in a psychiatric facility, is now the main suspect. (Washington Post, 12/15/00 (AP))
19. Joaquin Martinez (Latino) Florida Convicted 1997 – Acquitted 2001
Former Death Row inmate Joaquin Martinez was acquitted of all charges at his retrial for a 1995 murder in Florida. Martinez’s earlier conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because of improper statements by a police detective at trial. The prosecution did not seek the death penalty in Martinez’s second trial after key prosecution witnesses changed their stories and recanted their testimony. An audio tape of alleged incriminating statements by Martinez, which was used at the first trial, was ruled inadmissible at retrial because it was inaudible. The new jury, however, heard evidence that the transcript of the inaudible tape had been prepared by the victim’s father, who was the manager of the sheriff’s office evidence room at the time of the murder and who had offered a $10,000 reward in the case. Both the Pope and the King of Spain had tried to intervene on behalf of Martinez, who is a Spanish national. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar welcomed the verdict, saying: “I’m very happy that this Spaniard was declared not guilty. I’ve always been against the death penalty and I always will be.” (Tampa Bay Tribune (AP) 6/6/01).
20. Juan Roberto Melendez (Latino) Florida Conviction 1984 Released 2002
Juan Roberto Melendez spent nearly 18 years on Florida’s Death Row before being exonerated of the crime for which he was sentenced to death. Melendez, who was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Puerto Rico, was sentenced to die in 1984 for the murder of Delbert Baker. In December 2001, Florida Circuit Court Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned Melendez’s capital murder conviction after determining that prosecutors in his original trial withheld critical evidence, thereby undermining confidence in the original verdict. The judge noted that no physical evidence linked Melendez to the crime. The state had used the testimony of two witnesses whose credibility was later challenged with new evidence. (Associated Press, 12/5/01) Following the reversal of the conviction, prosecutors announced the state’s decision to abandon charges against Melendez. (Associated Press, 1/3/02)
21. Rudolph Holton (Black) Florida Conviction 1987 Released 2003
Florida death row inmate Rudolph Holton was released on January 24, 2003, making him the 103rd person exonerated and freed from death row nationwide since 1973. Holton’s conviction for murder was overturned in 2001 and prosecutors announced today that the state was dropping all charges against Holton, who had spent 16 years on death row. Crucial evidence had been withheld from the defense that pointed to another perpetrator.
22. John Robert Ballard (White) Conviction 2003 – Aquitted 2006
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of Death Row inmate John Robert Ballard and ordered his acquittal in the 1999 murders of two of his acquaintances. The court concluded that the evidence against Ballard was so weak that the trial judge should have dismissed the case immediately. At Ballard.s trial, only 9 of the 12 jurors recommended a death sentence. The judge decided to sentence Ballard to death, commenting, .You have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to live at all.. After serving three years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Ballard was freed and became the 22th person to be exonerated and released from Florida’s Death Row since 1972.
23. Herman Lindsey (Black) Conviction 2006 . Acquitted 2009
Herman Lindsey spent more than 3 years on Florida.s notorious Death Row. On July 9, 2009, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously (7.0) that Herman Lindsey be acquitted and released from Death Row. He became the 23rd exonerated Florida Death Row survivor and the 133rd person to be exonerated from U.S. Death Rows since the Death Penalty was reinstated.
24. Seth Penalver (White) Conviction 1999 . Acquitted 2012
December 21, 2012, after a new trial ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, a unanimous jury (12.0) in Broward County acquitted Seth Penalver of all charges relating to the 1994 crimes for which he had been previously convicted and sentenced to death. The next day, Penalver, 39, was released. He had been incarcerated 18 years, including time spent on Death Row. He became the 142nd person exonerated from U.S. Death Rows since the Death Penalty was reinstated.
25. Carl Dausch (White) Conviction 2011, Acquitted 2014
June 12, 2014, the Supreme Court of Florida (6-1) overturned the convictions and death sentence of Carl Dausch because the state presented insufficient evidence of his guilt at trial. The Court directed that he be acquitted of all offenses, stating, “[T]he record lacks sufficient evidence of the perpetrator’s identity.”
26. Derral Hodgkins (White) Conviction 2013, Acquitted 2015
On October 12, 2015, the Circuit Court for Pasco County, Florida, entered a judgment of acquittal and the Florida Department of Corrections released Derral Hodgkins from custody after the Florida Supreme Court denied the prosecution’s motion to reconsider its June 18, 2015 decision acquitting Hodges of all charges in the stabbing death of his former girlfriend. The trial judge had imposed a death sentence for the conviction following a 7-5 vote by the jury to recommend death.
27. Ralph (Ron) Wright, Jr. (Black) Conviction 2014, Acquitted 2017
The Florida Supreme Court directed that Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. be acquitted of the murder charges for which he was sentenced to death in 2014, making him the 159th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973. On May 11, 2017, the court unanimously vacated Wright’s convictions for the murders of his ex-girlfriend and their son, ruling that the “purely circumstantial” evidence against him was insufficient to convict. A majority of the court joined a concurring opinion by Justice Charles Canady holding that “no rational trier of fact could have found … beyond a reasonable doubt” that Wright was the killer. Prosecutors accused Wright of murdering Paula O’Conner—a white woman with whom he had an affair—and their 15-month-old son Alijah supposedly to “avoid a child support obligation and … maintain a ‘bachelor lifestyle.'” The court noted that “none of the evidence presented at trial directly tied Wright to the murders” and that the victim’s young-adult daughter, who had a volatile relationship with the victim, also had a financial motive, having received more than $500,000 in life insurance benefits as a result of her mother’s and half-brother’s deaths. Much of the state’s case relied on the presence of a black military glove in the home of the murder victims. While Wright, a member of the Air Force, had access to that type of glove, “the State could not prove that Wright ever wore the glove, that he left it on Paula’s couch, that it came from MacDill [the base where Wright was stationed], or that it was even used in the murders.” DNA tests by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported the results as inconclusive, but independent analysis by the DNA Diagnostic Center and Bode, the private labs hired by the defense and prosecution, respectively, excluded Wright as a contributor of the DNA found on the glove. The DNA analysis did not test for the presence of the victim’s daughter, whom police did not investigate. Wright was convicted of the murders, and the trial court sentenced him to death after a bare 7-5 majority of the jury voted to recommend the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court later declared death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations to be unconstitutional. Wright is the 27th person to be exonerated from death row in Florida. Nineteen of the 21 exoneration cases from Florida in which the jury vote is known have involved a non-unanimous jury recommendation of a death sentence or a judicial override of a jury recommendation of life.
28. Clemente Aguirre (Latino) Conviction 2006, Charges Dropped 2018
With newly discovered confessions and DNA evidence pointing to the prosecution’s chief witness as the actual killer, prosecutors dropped all charges against Clemente Javier Aguirre in a Seminole County, Florida courtroom on November 5, 2018. The dismissal of the charges made Aguirre the 164th wrongfully convicted death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973 and the 28th in Florida. The announcement that prosecutors were dropping all charges against Aguirre came after jury selection for his retrial had already begun. The Florida Supreme Courtunanimously overturned his conviction in 2016. “Mr. Aguirre was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Joshua Dubin, one of Aguirre’s attorneys. “While we are overjoyed that his ordeal is finally over, the case of Clemente Aguirre should serve as a chilling cautionary tale about how dangerous it is when there is a rush to judgment in a capital case.”
Aguirre was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 for the murder of two neighbors: an elderly woman and her adult daughter. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he had discovered the women only after they had been killed. He did not report the murders to authorities, he said, because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared deportation. Evidence has increasingly pointed to the victims’ daughter and granddaughter, Samantha Williams, as the likely perpetrator, and an affidavit filed last week undermined Williams’s alibi. DNA testing had revealed Williams’s blood in several locations at the crime scene but had found none of Aguirre’s blood. Williams also has reportedly confessed to the crime on at least five occasions. A sworn affidavit from the wife of Mark Van Sandt, Williams’s boyfriend at the time of the crime and her key alibi witness, says that Van Sandt told his wife he saw Williams crawling out of his bedroom window on the night of the murders. Prosecutors said that they dropped charges “based upon new evidence that materially affects the credibility of a critical State witness.”
29. Clifford Williams, Jr. (Black) conviction 1976, Charges Dismissed 2019
Forty-two years after he and his nephew were wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida and he was sentenced to death, Clifford Williams, Jr. has been exonerated. Submitting a report from its Conviction Integrity Unit that found “no credible evidence of guilt and … credible evidence of innocence,” Duval County prosecutors asked a Jacksonville trial court to dismiss all charges against Williams, now 76 years old, and his nephew, Nathan Myers, now 61. Williams is the 165th former death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973.
Williams and Myers were tried and convicted in 1976 for the murder of Jeanette Williams and the wounding of her girlfriend, Nina Marshall. Marshall told police that two men had entered their bedroom at night and fired shots from the foot of the bed. She identified Williams and Myers as the shooters. However, the physical evidence — never presented by defense counsel — revealed that the bullets had been fired from outside, through the bedroom window, and had come from a single gun. Defense counsel also ignored forty alibi witnesses whom Williams and Myers had indicated would be able to testify that they had been next door at a birthday party at the time the shooting occurred. The defense presented no witnesses. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. In the second trial, which lasted two days, prosecutors argued, without presenting any supporting evidence, that the men committed the murder because Jeannette Williams supposedly owed them a $50 drug debt. The jury convicted Williams and Myers but recommended that they be sentenced to life. Judge Cliff Shepard — a notoriously harsh trial judge — overrode the jury’s sentencing recommendation for Williams and sentenced him to death. Shepard accepted the life recommendation for 18-year-old Myers.
Prosecutors began reinvestigating the case after newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson created the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the state in 2018. The unit issued its report, authored by Conviction Integrity Review Director Shelley Thibodeau, in February. The report noted that no physical evidence linked Williams or Myers to the shooting and that “the physical and scientific evidence actually contradicts [Marshall’s] testimony about what happened.” The report also found that another man, Nathaniel Lawson, had confessed to several people that he had committed the killings and that a 1976 police report noted his presence near the crime scene around the time of the murder. Thibodeau concluded that “[t]he culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants.”
Williams had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get anyone interested in the case, and responded emotionally after the hearing. “My mother died while I was on death row,” he told Florida Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi. Through tears, he said, “I just wanted to get out and see my kids. There wasn’t nobody but them.”
Twenty-nine wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners have been exonerated in Florida, the most in the nation. In 21 of the 23 Florida exonerations for which the jury’s sentencing vote is known, judges imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. Florida now requires a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.
HOW MANY MORE?
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
P.O. Box 82943
Tampa, FL 33682