By Steve Huff
Here's a list of 10 people who were wrongly convicted of murder and later exonerated in the United States.
SUSAN JEAN KING
KENTUCKY -- In 2008 Kentuckian Susan King was confronted with a choice: life in prison if she was convicted of murder, or 10 years if she took a manslaughter plea. Even though the barely 100-pound, one-legged King insisted she had no part in the 1996 murder of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden, in which Breeden’s assailant threw him from a bridge into the Kentucky River, she took the manslaughter plea.
In 2012 Richard Jarrell Jr. was under interrogation by Louisville police for a different crime when he confessed to three murders. One of his victims, said Jarrell, was Kyle Breeden. A detective passed news of Breeden’s confession to the Innocence Project.
It took 2 more years but in July, 2014, the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed King’s conviction. “In our minds,” King lawyer Linda Smith said to reporter Andrew Wolfson, “this is a complete exoneration.”
FLORIDA -- In 1974 Delbert Tibbs was a theology student hitchhiking across the South when he was arrested and convicted of murdering a 27-year-old man and raping the man's teen companion. As the Innocence Project noted in a commemoration of Tibbs’s life after the 74-year-old passed away in 2013, his conviction “was based on the testimony and misidentification of the female victim which was uncorroborated and inconsistent with her first description of her assailant, as well as on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said that Tibbs had confessed to the crime.”
Tibbs endured two years on death row and an additional year in prison before Florida’s Supreme Court concluded the evidence never supported the case against him and overturned the verdict and dropped his case. Tibbs would go on to be a published poet and lifelong anti-death penalty advocate.
ILLINOIS -- In 1978 Paula Gray was one of a group of defendants -- the "Ford Heights Four" -- convicted of rape and murder. The group had been tried for killing Lawrence Lionberg and gang raping then killing Carol Schmal. Gray, who had a mild intellectual disability, had recanted testimony she’d given that aided prosecuting the men wrongly arrested with her, but she ended up sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In 1996 DNA evidence exonerated the entire group and put the remaining real killers behind bars. Gray would eventually win $4 million from a civil lawsuit against Cook County, Illinois.
OHIO -- Ajamu, born Ronnie Bridgeman, had been imprisoned in the 1970s for taking part in a vicious attack on Cleveland-area salesman Harold Franks. Ajamu would spend decades behind bars before being paroled in 2003.
A journalist’s investigation in 2011 showed how weak the case against Ajamu was and eventually, a man who had claimed he’d witnessed the crime when he was 12, recanted his testimony. After clearing the charges against Ajamu in 2014, judge Pamela Barker stepped down from her bench and hugged Ajamu.
COLORADO -- Robert Dewey was convicted in 1996 for the 1994 rape and murder of Jacie Taylor, age 19. The Innocence Project took up his case in 2007 and in 2009 new forensic tests determined DNA found on the victim matched a different man whose profile was already in the CODIS DNA database.
Dewey’s conviction was vacated in 2012.
MICHAEL ROY TONEY
TEXAS -- In 1999 Michael Roy Toney was convicted of a bombing that killed three members of the Blount family during a 1985 Thanksgiving celebration at a Texas mobile home park. Toney, who wasn’t aware of the crime until 1997, was convicted by false testimony and his defense hampered after Tarrant County prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.
Toney’s case was dropped and he was freed in September of 2009. Sadly, he died in a car wreck one month later.
OKLAHOMA -- Along with his friend Dennis Fritz, Ron Williamson was convicted in Oklahoma for the rape and murder of Debbie Carter. Carter had been killed in 1982, and in 1988 Williamson, who had a history of psychiatric problems, and Fritz were arrested based on hearsay that Carter had told someone she found the duo unnerving. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison and Williamson was sent to death row.
The case against the men began unraveling in 1995. After a new trial in 1999, DNA tests led to both men being fully exonerated and freed. They settled a civil suit against the State of Oklahoma for an unknown amount of money. Ron Williamson died in 2004, reportedly from cirrhosis of the liver. Their case inspired John Grisham’s nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.
EARL WASHINGTON JR.
VIRGINIA -- Earl Washington Jr. was 22 years old when he was arrested in Virginia for the rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19. Washington, who had had a subnormal I.Q., according to expert Dr. Ruth Luckasson, allegedly confessed after two straight days of interrogations. He would go on to give five confessions, four of which were dismissed by the Virginia Commonwealth based on their inconsistencies. Washington was convicted and sentenced to death in 1984.
After years of legal wrangling delayed his execution, DNA testing led to the inescapable conclusion Washington had not committed the murder. The governor of Virginia granted him a complete pardon in October of 2000. Seven years later the state settled a lawsuit and awarded Washington $1.9 million.
ANTHONY RAY HINTON
ALABAMA -- Alabama sent Anthony Ray Hinton to death row for a pair of homicides in 1985. He stayed there for the next three decades, sometimes in solitary confinement. He’d been convicted of killing two restaurant workers while robbing two Birmingham fast-food outlets. Ballistic evidence led to his conviction.
Hinton insisted on his innocence all along, and finally, in 2015, new ballistics tests proved he was telling the truth. He was set free in April 2015. After his release, Hinton spoke to reporters about his captors, saying in part, “I got news for them: Everybody who played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”
ARIZONA -- In 1990, German-born Debra Milke was convicted of conspiring with two men to murder her son Christopher, allegedly for insurance money. Milke would end up spending the next 22 years on Arizona’s death row.
In 2013 the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed Milke’s case. The court determined that in part due to questionable behavior on the part of the detective who pursued her, Milke had not received a fair trial. “The Constitution requires a fair trial,” wrote Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”
Arizona challenged the appeals court decision in Arizona’s Supreme Court, but in March 2015 the Supreme Court denied the state’s appeal and any remaining charges against Debra Milke were dropped.
SOURCES: USA Today/Louisville Courier-Journal, The Innocence Project, The National Registry of Exonerations, The Washington Post, The Innocence Project, Dallas Justice, PBS, The National Registry of Exonerations, The Guardian, CNN