Compelling Claims of Executions of the Innocent
in the Post-Furman Era
WILLIAM S. LOFQUIST AND TALIA R. HARMON
No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony,
mistaken honest testimony and human error remain too real. We have no
way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we
can be certain that there were some.
—THURGOOD MARSHALL (Furman v. Georgia, 1972, pp. 367–368)
With wrongful convictions firmly secure as a central issue in death penalty discourse, it is time to take the next logical step in the scholarly and political debates regarding wrongful convictions: identifying and examining compelling claims of innocence that resulted in execution rather than exoneration. Taking this step is difficult and controversial; difficult because the absence of legal recognition of error introduces an extra measure of uncertainty about the claims being made, controversial because what is at stake might be the most damning claim that can be made against the death penalty.
Although it is widely recognized in the abstract that some innocent individual or individuals have been executed in the post-Furman era1 (see van den Haag, 1990; Radelet & Bedau, 1998; Will, 2000), no single case has gained broad recognition as a “fatal error.” Bridging the gap between abstract recognition of the reality of fatal errors and identifying these errors—naming names, so to speak—requires scrutinizing all post-Furman executions in an effort to identify those cases in which there is a compelling claim that the executed defendant was “totally uninvolved in the capital offense of which they were convicted or were convicted of a capital offense that never occurred” (Radelet & Bedau, 1998, p. 106). This research undertakes this effort, identifying sixteen individuals executed despite compelling claims of