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.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

  • Randall Dale Adams's Trial Inspired 'The Thin Blue Line'

    The case of Randall Dale Adams inspired the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line. Adams was accused of killing a police officer in 1976, after witnesses, including a teenager with whom Adams had spent the day, identified him as the killer.

    Adams's attempts to appeal were overturned, and it wasn't until three days before his scheduled execution that the Supreme Court ordered a stay. Apparently, jurors who had felt uneasy about the death penalty were excluded during selection for his trial. His sentence was changed to life in prison, until further evidence clearing him of the crime was revealed. Adams was released in 1989, one year after the film was released.

  • Anthony Hinton Served 30 Years For A Crime He Didn't Commit

    Anthony Hinton was one of the longest-serving prisoners on death row, having served 30 years for a crime he didn't commit. He was sentenced for the 1985 murders of two local fast food restaurant managers in Birmingham, AL. Hinton was charged with the two killings because the weapon supposedly used to commit them belonged to his mother, but firearms examiners could not verify that claim. His lawyer also hired an examiner without qualifications, setting Hinton's case back even further.

    Thankfully, Hinton's sentence was overturned in light of all that went wrong with his trial. He was subsequently freed in 2015.

  • Sabrina Butler Was Forced To Confess To Killing Her Son

    Sabrina Butler was 18 years old when she was sentenced to death for the murder of her 9-month-old son in 1989. Butler said that her son had stopped breathing and that she had attempted to resuscitate him, leaving bruises on his chest that were later used as evidence of abuse. According to Butler, police yelled that she had murdered her son for three hours, rather than letting her describe what had happened.

    It took seven years before Butler was cleared of the charges. Her son had died from a kidney condition, not murder or abuse, meaning Butler had spent years in isolation on death row for a crime that had not taken place at all.

  • James Edward Creamer Was Sent To Death Row By A Hypnotized Witness

    James Edward Creamer, along with six other individuals, was convicted for the murder of two doctors during a robbery in 1971. Creamer was sentenced to death after the chief witness, Deborah Ann Kidd, said that he was the shooter. She first claimed that she'd been on drugs and was unable to remember anything about witnessing the crime, but under hypnosis, she named Creamer as the culprit.

    Later evidence showed that Kidd was not only romantically linked to one of the detectives on the case but that, under hypnosis, she had also claimed to be the murderer herself. The real killer confessed, and Creamer and the six other people were released in 1975.

  • 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.