• Unspeakable Times

Close Calls: Innocent Death Row Inmates Who Were Eventually Exonerated

Capital punishment is a hotly debate topic throughout the United States, in part due to the number of death row inmates who were exonerated. Since 1937, over 150 people have been exonerated, leading many people to believe that the justice system just isn't airtight enough to condemn people to death. With shaky evidence, unreliable witness testimony, and corruption within the police forces and the courts, it's hard to be completely sure whether a death sentence is the right answer.

Some of these released death row inmates were exonerated right before their last meals, with the message that they'd be freed coming within hours of their scheduled execution. Though the men and women on death row represent many different backgrounds, their stories all share a chilling through line: they were ultimately absolved of blame. The stories of these exonerated people on death row demonstrate that the justice system is not infallible, and that harsh sentences should never be handed out lightly.

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  • Clifford Henry Bowen Was Sent To Death Row Despite Having An Alibi

    Clifford Henry Bowen, a professional poker player with a history of burglary, was accused of killing three men in 1980 with a unique weapon: a gun loaded with silver-tipped, hollow-point bullets. Bowen matched the description of the killer, but his alibi placed him some 300 miles away at a rodeo where multiple witnesses saw him. But Bowen was still put on trial for the crime, with the prosecution going so far as to allege that Bowen took a private, late-night flight to an abandoned airfield to kill the men.

    Bowen was sentenced to death for the murder in 1981, and was in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary with three death sentences for two years before an important piece of information came to light: a police lieutenant from South Carolina rumored to be a hitman had a similar description and carried the unique weapon. He was also in town during the murders and had a motive to kill at least one of the men. The sentence was reversed due to the evidence that had been withheld, and Bowen was released in 1986.

  • Anthony Porter Was Saved Two Days Before Execution

    Anthony Porter was charged with the 1982 murder of two teenagers in a Chicago park. Witnesses gave inconsistent testimony about whether they'd seen him actually shoot the victims, or whether they had seen him leave the scene. The trial was riddled with problems as well: Porter's lawyer admitted to halting his investigations into the case, and an IQ test revealed that Porter may have had a mental handicap. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1983.

    The bungled trial eventually led to an appeal, and Porter was granted a stay of execution on the grounds of his inability to understand his punishment. The order came just 50 hours before he was due to be executed in 1998. The real killer was caught in 1999 and sentenced to 37 years in prison. Porter's case was a catalyst for Illinois ultimately abandoning capital punishment.

  • Johnny Ross Was The Youngest Man On Death Row

    Johnny Ross is the youngest man to have been placed on death row at just 16 years old. Accused of rape in Louisiana in 1975, Ross was sentenced to death. This harsh verdict was handed down after a 90-minute trial, and in spite of his claim that his confession had been signed on a blank sheet of paper after hours of beatings from the police.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center believed that Ross's case required more investigation, and found evidence that Ross's blood type did not match that of semen found in the victim. Ross was released in 1981 thanks to the SPLC's investigation.

  • A Dog Put Juan Ramos In Prison

    Juan Ramos, an immigrant from Cuba, was sentenced to death after being accused of raping and murdering a woman in 1982. The evidence came from a bloodhound, who, after being exposed to Ramos's scent, seemed to identify the same scent on the blouse and knife that belonged to the victim. However, these were the only two items with blood on them. The bloodhound was likely identifying the scent of the blood, rather than Ramos's scent.

    Still, Ramos was sentenced to death. But some investigative reporting by 20/20 eventually exposed the unreliability of dog-scent evidence. Ramos's sentence was overturned, and he was released in 1987. Other than the dog's response, there was no evidence linking Ramos to the crime.