25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated

Larry Holzwarth - September 3, 2019

Achieving justice through the execution of a miscreant is a longstanding action of civilized society. Unfortunately, achieving certainty of the guilt of said miscreant has not been quite so simple. Persons have been executed, often in a grisly manner, having been found guilty of crimes for which they were later exonerated, a moral burden carried by society throughout history. For instance, Captain William Kidd was hanged for piracy (twice, the rope broke on the first attempt) only for history to reveal upon examination of the evidence that he was likely not a pirate at all. By then he was long dead, and his name still carries the reputation of a buccaneer.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
William Kidd’s execution for piracy was botched, and he was likely innocent of the charges against him. Wikimedia

Less well-known victims of the death penalty, cleared of the crime after having already paid the ultimate penalty for it, came from around the globe, throughout every era during which executions were accepted by society. Some were undoubtedly guilty of other crimes, others innocent of any (at least against society), but all are, to paraphrase Thackeray, equal now. Here are just a few examples from a very long list of people executed for crimes for which they were later proved to have been entirely innocent.

As it is being read bear in mind that the University of Michigan completed a study indicating that 4% of residents on death row in the United States are innocent of the crime for which they are scheduled to be executed. The list will only grow longer.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
According to Voltaire, John Byng was executed to encourage other Admirals in the performance of their duty. Wikimedia

1. Admiral John Byng, Royal Navy

The execution of John Byng, a career naval officer who had served the Royal Navy from the age of thirteen (he was 52 when executed) was controversial at the time and generally regarded as unjust today. Voltaire satirized the execution in Candide, noting that it was necessary to shoot an Admiral from time to time to, “encourager les autres” (encourage the others). Voltaire’s comment described the essence of the death penalty; it does nothing to correct the behavior of the person executed but stands to provide consideration by others hoping to avoid a similar fate. Byng was executed (by firing squad) for failing to do his utmost in the face of the enemy. History long ago exonerated him.

Two decades after his execution the Articles of War (under which he was tried, convicted, and shot) were amended to allow judges greater leeway when considering similar actions by other officers, and alternative punishments besides death. Byng’s execution was described as the “worst legalistic crime” in the history of Great Britain, which has a long history of gruesome executions. Nonetheless, descendants’ efforts to clear their ancestors’ names of his crime continued to be unsuccessful into the 21st century. What was his crime? After the fleet under his command fought a battle which was inconclusive he opted to return to port in order to refit his ships, rather than fight to the death against the French attacking Minorca.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
There have been many causes of the Salem Witch Trials cited over the years, but chief among them has been religious hysteria. Wikimedia

2. The victims of religious hysteria at Salem, Massachusetts

Common sense, a notoriously uncommon virtue, would dictate that the victims executed by judicial fiat as the result of the Salem Witch Trials (they were hanged, rather than burned at the stake) were innocent of the crime of witchcraft. Or were they? One can practice witchcraft to one’s heart’s content; whether such practice actually harms alleged victims is immaterial. The subsequent historical study has revealed that none of the several victims of the Salem Witch Trials were practicing the so-called Dark Arts however, and whether one is prone to believe in witches, curses, and so forth doesn’t change the fact that Massachusetts eventually recognized its mistake, which claimed at least twenty lives.

Massachusetts did not exonerate its victims, at least not at first, instead of granting them pardons in 1711, as well as financial compensation to their families. Because the victims of the anti-religious hysteria were “guilty” of consorting with Satan they were not afforded Christian burial by the Christians who screamed for their heads. Eventually, following the issuance of pardons by the colony, some of the bodies of the executed were exhumed and reinterred in holy ground, to the satisfaction of their families. The Puritans established a day of fasting and prayer in admission of their error (January 15, 1697), and two and a half centuries later the Commonwealth issued a formal apology.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Socrates suggested his punishment should be a lifetime sinecure, but his accusers had other ideas. Wikimedia

3. Socrates was executed for being, essentially, smarter than everyone else

Officially Socrates – like so many men and women throughout history – was executed by the state for crimes which were against the realm of religion. His accusers found that he had corrupted the youth of the City of Athens, and in doing so exhibited a lack of belief in the gods and goddesses of Greek tradition. His true crime, if such it can be called, was his befuddling of his accusers through questions which they found it impossible to answer while maintaining any semblance of sentient intelligence. Regardless, according to Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ chief crime was “not believing in the gods of the state”. Socrates proposed that his punishment be a government salary and board for the rest of his life; his accusers offered the counterproposal of death by poisoning.

History exonerated Socrates, as though he ever really needed exoneration, and his execution and death are icons of martyrdom in the name of philosophy. His only crime was creating fear in the minds of those who held greater secular power. Plato – from whom most knowledge of Socrates is derived – and Aristotle largely drowned his voice in the centuries since, and most of what is commonly known of him are based on legend. He remains the father of western philosophical thought, in the sense that philosophy is divided into pre-Socratic and post-Socratic.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Colonial Rhode Island once executed a man based in part on evidence which appeared in a dream. Wikimedia

4. Thomas Cornell Jr. was executed based on spectral evidence

In 1673 Thomas Cornell Jr. was accused of murdering his mother in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Cornell was the son of Thomas Cornell, the patriarch of a family whose descendants include Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, Amelia Earhart, Richard Nixon, and strangely enough, Lizzie Borden, as well as several other notable American and Canadian politicians. Rebecca Briggs Cornell, Thomas Jr’s widowed mother who held her late husband’s fortune and property, was found dead on February 8, 1673, burnt to a cinder. The body lay before a fireplace. Speculation was that an ember caught her dress afire, either before or after death, and the event was called an “unhappie accident”.

When the late woman’s brother began to experience dreams in which his sister appeared, complaining of her being burned to death, he reported them to the authorities. The body was exhumed, and a wound was discovered which had been earlier missed. Thomas was accused of murder (the estate was used as the motive) and the spectral evidence of the late woman’s brother’s dream was introduced at trial, helping to convict him. Thomas was convicted and hanged for murdering his mother. Among the witnesses at his execution was his pregnant wife Sarah, who named their child Innocent when she was born, in honor of its father.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Bishop Jean-Louis Lebfevre de Cheverus attempted to intercede in the execution of Daley and Halligan, to no avail. Wikimedia

5. Dominic Daley and James Halligan had a fair trial which lasted almost five minutes

Marcus Lyon was a Massachusetts farmer who was found dead on the road near Wilbraham in November 1805. Two Irishmen, James Halligan and Dominic Daley were reported to have been in the area at the time of the murder, and on November 12 they were arrested and turned over to a jailer in Northampton, charged with murder and highway robbery. The evidence against them consisted of their being strangers to the area where the crime was committed, and Irish immigrants to boot. For the next five months, they languished in the Northampton jail, denied either bail or consultation with an attorney. Their only outside contact was with the Catholic bishop of Boston.

Being Irish, Catholic, and itinerant was evidence enough for the good people of Northampton when the two were brought to trial in June 1806. Finally allowed to consult with an attorney just two days before their court appearance, they had little to offer in their defense and were convicted in a trial which lasted just under five minutes, with scarcely time for a jury to vote. Though the evidence was later determined to be so thin as to be hardly worthy of consideration, the two were executed by hanging, with over 15,000 enthusiastic witnesses crowding Northampton for the event on June 5, 1806. The pair were exonerated via gubernatorial proclamation on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1984.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
The execution of three women and an infant for heresy led them to be dubbed the Guernsey Martyrs. Wikimedia

6. The infant child of Perotine Massey

Perotine Massey, her sister Guillemine Gilbert, and their mother, Catherine Cauches (sometimes spelled Gawches) were imprisoned in Castle Cornet on the west coast of the Channel Island of Guernsey in 1556. They were charged with possession of stolen property, specifically a wine goblet. At their trial they were found not guilty of the offense, the court has determined that a key witness lied. But unfortunately for the three women, it was learned that they had been, “disobedient to the commandments and ordinances of the church” and were thus guilty of heresy. The religious edicts imposed by Queen Mary required that they be made to suffer death, in the form of strangling and burning, and though Perotine was pregnant and near her time of delivery she was not to be spared.

At their execution, with all three being killed in the same fire, Perotine collapsed in the flames before “the belly of the woman burst asunder” and her baby was subsequently rescued from the fire by a witness, William House. On the advice of the executioner, Helier Gosselin, the baby was returned to the fire to be burned to death alongside its mother. According to eyewitness accounts, the child was a fully formed male. Thus, according to John Foxe in his 1563 Book of Martyrs, “the baby born of one of them being taken up and cast into the fire again, four being executed, though only three had been condemned”. The executioner was later imprisoned and then pardoned by Elizabeth I.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
The Campden Wonder occurred in the Cotswolds, a picturesque and popular tourist region today. Wikimedia

7. The Campden Wonder executions were of “murderers” whose victim wasn’t dead

In 1660, William Harrison decided to go for a walk near the small town of Charingworth, Gloucestershire. When he failed to return in a timely fashion, concerned locals searched for him, finding only some items of clothing which were torn as if by a sharp blade. They were also stained with blood, but nobody or other evidence of a crime was found. The 70-year-old Harrison had been seen in the village of Ebrington, evidently unharmed, but from there his travels were unknown. Eventually, servants of the Harrison family, John Perry, Richard Perry, and their mother Joan, were found to be guilty of murdering their master, a crime to which John Perry confessed. John’s confession was that he had personally been innocent of the crime, committed by his brother and mother.

Perry claimed the body would be found in a pond, though it wasn’t, and the three were convicted of murder and hanged in Gloucestershire, Joan being executed first as a defense against her casting a spell over her sons’ execution (she was suspected of witchcraft as well as murder). Many months later the allegedly dead Harrison returned to Charingworth, very much alive, though his tale of his whereabouts strained credulity. He claimed to have been sold into slavery, to a Turkish master, though the value of a 70-year-old slave seems questionable. Clearly, there had been no murder, and thus the execution of the two Perry’s and their mother for that crime was wrongful, though they were never officially pardoned by the errant courts.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Francois-Marie Arouet – Voltaire – made the Calas case a national campaign against torture and capital punishment. Wikimedia

8. The case of Marc-Antoine Calas

Marc-Antoine Calas may have been murdered, or he may have committed suicide, but his father, Jean Calas, a Toulouse shopkeeper in his sixties, was convicted of the crime of killing his son. He was suspected of being one of several conspirators in the crime, and his sentence reflected the fact that the authorities had little evidence of murder. He was sentenced to be questioned while under torture before being executed, the logical French assuming that he would confess to the conspiracy and his role in it under the pain inflicted by his interrogators. The torture, which was of different methods, one of which being what later became known as waterboarding, failed to extract the desired confession.

Voltaire became involved in the case following Calas’s death by strangulation, urging his widow to appeal the verdict, and using his influence to create public outrage. Three years after the execution, in 1763, the French government reopened the case. The following year a new trial was ordered, despite Calas being long dead, and in 1765 the original verdict was overturned, Calas was retried, and the verdict was not guilty. The lead prosecutor in the Calas case, who had obtained the conviction and supervised the torture, attempted to commit suicide by defenestration. Failing in his first attempt, he succeeded in his second. How Marc-Antoine Calas died remains a subject of speculation and debate among mystery buffs.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Executions were commonly held in public in America well into the 19th century. Wikimedia

9. John Gordon was pardoned 150 years after being hanged for the crime of murder

John Gordon holds the distinction of being the last person (to date) to be executed by the State of Rhode Island, hanged on February 14, 1845. A native of Ireland, Gordon was convicted of the murder of Amasa Sprague, a wealthy and influential textile manufacturer. Sprague had used his influence to cause Nicholas Gordon, brother of John, to lose his license to sell liquor, after several incidents in which employees of his mill had become intoxicated at Gordon’s establishment. Nicholas, John, and another brother, William, were charged with beating Sprague to death. The brothers were Irish Catholic immigrants, a fact noted by at least one judge at their trials, which were held individually.

John was convicted of the crime (his brothers were not) and sentenced to death. He appealed, and Judge Job Durfee, who had presided at the original trial also heard the appeal (he also heard the cases of the two brothers who were not convicted). In his instructions to the jury, Durfee directed that they “give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses”. Despite the evidence being contradictory Gordon was found guilty. After John Gordon was hanged Rhode Island abolished the death penalty, later reinstituted it, and again abolished it in 1984. In the 21st century, the state’s General Assembly urged the governor to pardon Gordon via legislation in both houses, and he was pardoned in 2011.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
A man posed in an electric chair, the means of execution used on Thomas and Meeks Griffin. Wikimedia

10. The Griffin brothers and the murder of John Lewis

John Lewis, according to local lore, was a Confederate Army veteran who was killed by gunshot in his South Carolina home in 1913. Two nearby farmers, Thomas Griffin and younger brother Meeks Griffin, were charged with the crime of murder. The two men were in their twenties and among the wealthiest in the rural community, a fact which did not sit well with some of their white neighbors, who resented successful black men. The case was further muddied by evidence that Lewis, white and in his seventies, had been involved in an affair with 22-year-old Anna Davis, who was black, married, and employed by Lewis. A local petty criminal named John Stevenson accused the brothers of the killing, later recanting and explaining that he had done so because he believed the Griffins had enough money to “afford a lawyer and beat the rap”.

By then it was too late, the Griffin brothers had been convicted of murder on Stevenson’s testimony and the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Both brothers were executed in South Carolina’s electric chair. Before they went to their deaths, more than 100 influential white South Carolinians, including the local sheriff and the foreman of the jury at their trial petitioned the governor to intercede. He did not. In 2009, following a campaign coordinated by radio host Tom Joyner, the conviction was overturned and the Griffin brothers were pardoned. Legal scholars agreed that there was nothing in the way of evidence linking the brothers to the crime for which they were convicted and executed, and who murdered John Lewis became a subject of speculation a century after the crime occurred.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
One headline describing Marion’s execution read “Jack Marion Hustled Hence With Hemp”. Wikimedia

11. William Jackson Marion and the non-murder of John Cameron

William Jackson Marion – called Jack by all – and his friend John Cameron departed Liberty, Nebraska in 1871, bound west to work on America’s booming railroads. Jack returned in 1872, without John, and when locals began to harbor suspicion that he had murdered his friend, he again left town. In 1873 a body was found, which some identified as being Cameron (from clothing) but by then Marion’s whereabouts were unknown. When he was found he was in the unfortunate situation of being in a Kansas jail, awaiting sentencing for theft. He was taken back to Nebraska, indicted, tried and convicted of murdering Cameron, and sentenced to death.

He was tried twice for the same offense after Nebraska’s Supreme Court intervened, but after the second conviction and subsequent appeals, he was hanged for the murder in Nebraska in March 1887. Four years later Cameron reappeared, explaining that he had fled to Mexico and traveled through other remote regions, including Alaska, primarily because he was afraid he had been about to be served with a paternity suit. His being alive exonerated Marion, and he further exonerated him by explaining that Jack had been in possession of Cameron’s horses when he returned to Nebraska – cited as evidence in the murder trial – by producing the bill of sale by which he had purchased the animals. Nebraska exonerated Marion in 1987.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
A rare view of the United States Supreme Court in session (1937). Its intercession failed to save Ed Johnson. Wikimedia

12. Ed Johnson and the rape of Nevada Taylor

Nevada Taylor was a white woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee who filed a complaint of rape with local police, though she claimed that she did not have a good description of her assailant, unsure even if he had been black or white. Another witness claimed to have seen Ed Johnson near the scene of the rape, and Taylor subsequently identified him as the rapist. Johnson, who was black, was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed on the basis of his rights being violated for several reasons, obtained a stay of execution and a hearing by the US Supreme Court.

The stay of execution was enough to incite a riot in Chattanooga, and Johnson was removed from the jail and hanged by a mob from a nearby bridge. Following the lynching, the Supreme Court charged the sheriff and several of his deputies, as well as members of the lynch mob, with contempt of court. The sheriff, Joseph Shipp, was tried before the Supreme Court, the only criminal trial ever heard before that body. Johnson’s conviction for the rape of Nevada Taylor was later overturned by the Hamilton County, Tennessee criminal court.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Leo Frank convicted. Wikimedia.

13. Leo Frank was lynched after his sentence was commuted

Leo Frank was convicted in a 1913 trial of the murder of a 13-year-old girl, an employee in the factory which he supervised. On April 27, 1913, the body of Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. She had been strangled sometime the preceding day. Several employees of the company were suspected of committing the crime, and several were arrested, but it was Leo Frank, the factory superintendent, who was indicted for the murder. Another employee, a janitor named Conley, claimed to have been complicit in the murder and turned state’s evidence against Frank. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

Several appeals were made by Frank and his lawyers, but to no avail, and in 1915 their final appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied. By that time additional evidence, including some available at the time of the trial but not introduced in court was presented to Georgia’s governor, and he commuted the death sentence to one of life in prison. National coverage of the case was heavily critical of the conviction and of Georgia’s evident antisemitism. After the sentence was commuted, a mob broke into Frank’s cell, took the prisoner hostage, and hanged him in Marietta, Georgia, the hometown of Mary Phagan. Though Frank was not exonerated, in 1986 he was officially pardoned by the state, though the consensus by then was that Conley, not Frank, had murdered the girl.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Sacco and Vanzetti handcuffed to each other as they sit in the Dedham, Massachusetts Court House. Wikimedia

14. The case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

Sacco and Vanzetti roll off the American tongue as if they were one name. Their murder trial and subsequent executions were an international sensation in the 1920s. Both anarchists were convicted of two murders during an armed robbery which occurred in 1920. After being sentenced to death in 1921, appeals and public outcry over the case lasted until 1927, when both were executed in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts. Throughout the decade they inspired bomb threats, riots, peaceful demonstrations, literary debates, and even divided the opinions of the Supreme Court. One soon-to-be Associate Justice wrote an article calling for their release in Atlantic Monthly Magazine.

The case was clouded at the time and remains clouded nearly a century later, with opinions for or against their guilt argued forcefully by legal scholars, fans of the case, and mystery buffs. In the mid-1970s Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis ordered an independent judicial review of the entire case, and subsequent to its completion proclaimed that Sacco and Vanzetti had been subjected to unfair trials and convictions. He announced that “disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Dukakis did not pardon either of them, however, nor have they been officially exonerated for the crimes for which they were convicted. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti is still one of contention among fans of historic crime drama.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
The New York Daily News called Joe Arridy “the happiest man on death row.” New York Daily News

15. Joseph Arridy and the murder of Dorothy Drain

Dorothy Drain was a fifteen-year-old girl when she was attacked, along with her twelve-year-old sister Barbara, while sleeping in her Pueblo, Colorado home. Both were struck repeatedly with what police believed to have been a hatchet; Dorothy was also raped. Barbara survived the attack, Dorothy did not. On August 26, 1936, twelve days after the murder, Joseph Arridy was arrested for vagrancy in Wyoming. After it was learned that he had passed through Pueblo on a train days earlier, he was questioned alone by Laramie County Sheriff George Carroll. Carroll claimed that Arridy confessed to the crime in Pueblo. Carroll contacted Pueblo authorities, only to learn that they already had another suspect in custody, who had confessed to the crime.

The other suspect, Frank Aguilar, confessed to the crime and claimed to have never met Arridy, who in turn claimed that he had been to the crime scene with Aguilar. Arridy gave several different confessions, with different details each time. He was later determined to have the mental capacity of a six-year-old and was unable to distinguish right from wrong. There was also no physical evidence which pointed to his guilt. Arridy was executed for the murder in 1939, two years after Aguilar was executed for the same crime (Aguilar had been fired by the Drain sisters’ father shortly before the assault). In 2011 after reviewing all of the evidence regarding the case, Governor Bill Ritter, a former prosecutor, granted Arridy a full and unconditional pardon. Ritter found that Arridy had likely not even been in Pueblo at the time of the murder.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Hudspeth went to the gallows though his alleged victim was later reported to be alive back in Kansas. Library of Congress

16. The case of Andrew Hudspeth, also referred to as Charles Hudspeth

George Watkins and his wife Rebecca relocated from Kansas to Arkansas in 1886, settling near Yellville in Marion County. Rebecca soon began an affair with a neighbor, Charles Hudspeth, who was smitten by Mrs. Watkins to the point that they decided to do away with her husband. According to Rebecca’s later testimony, it was Charles who suggested murder, he claimed that the idea had originated with Rebecca. In any case, George and Charles left the farm on which both lived on a journey by wagon to Yellville. That evening only Charles returned. After local authorities grew suspicious over the missing Mr. Watkins, Rebecca and Charles were arrested, and Rebecca helpfully made Charles’ murderous plans known.

There was no physical evidence, but Rebecca’s testimony was sufficient to convict Charles Hudspeth of murder, for which he was sentenced to death. After appeals, he was tried again, convicted again, and sentenced to death again. He was hanged for the murder in December 1892, six years after Mr. Watkins vanished during his journey to Yellville. The following spring, in June of 1893, one of Hudspeth’s lawyers discovered George Watkins, alive and well and living in Kansas, where he had gone after learning of the affair between his wife and Hudspeth. The lawyer, W. F. Pace, cited his discovery as proof that his client had been wrongfully convicted through the testimony of a vengeful woman, but whether Watkins was really still alive remains disputed by students of the case. If he had been murdered his body was never found.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
George Kelly was executed for murder based on perjured testimony at his trial. Liverpool Echo

17. The Cameo Cinema robbery and murder in 1949

On March 19, 1949, the manager of Liverpool’s Cameo Cinema and another employee were counting the cash from the evening’s attendance when they were robbed, with both being fatally shot. Liverpool police began an investigation which soon received an offer of assistance from a local prostitute and her pimp, who were willing to provide the names of the murderer and his accomplice in exchange for immunity for their own transgressions. The names provided to the police were Charles Connolly and George Kelly, both of Liverpool, both in their twenties, and both well-known to the police for minor crimes. Both men had alibis for the time of the crime in the Cameo, but that did not dissuade the police from charging them with the double murder.

Kelly was first to be tried and he was convicted, despite minimal evidence and a strong alibi. Connolly then entered a plea of guilty in order to avoid the death penalty imposed upon Kelly. Kelly was executed in Liverpool’s Walton Prison in March 1950; Connolly was released from prison in 1957. After decades of subsequent investigations by various entities dedicated to justice, both Connolly’s and Kelly’s convictions were set aside, and both men were cleared, despite Connolly’s entry of a guilty plea (which he made only to avoid the death penalty after Kelly had been convicted). Who actually committed the attempted robbery and double murder at the Cameo Cinema has never been determined.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Harry Gleeson was executed for the murder of Moll McCarthy, a crime which he didn’t commit. Irish Times

18. The Murder of Mary McCarthy and the framing of Harry Gleeson

Mary McCarthy, also known as Moll McCarthy, and also known as Mary Carthy, was the mother of seven children, fathered by at least six different men, who lived in a rundown cottage near a farm owned by John Ceasar. Moll survived by providing sexual services in exchange for what she needed, and as her property had no well, she drew water from the Ceasar farm. One worker on the farm was Harry Gleeson, Ceasar’s nephew, and it was he who reported discovering the dead body of Moll McCarthy in one of his uncle’s fields. She had been shot twice in the face. Gleeson discovered the body on November 21, 1940, by the end of the month he was arrested for the crime of murder.

The authorities claimed that Harry had fathered one of Moll’s children, recently deceased, and killed its mother to avoid being branded as associating with an immoral woman. Gleeson denied both the paternity and the murder but was convicted on February 27, 1941, and sentenced to death. He was executed in April. By the beginning of the 21st century, enough evidence of police misconduct had been unearthed that the case was widely questioned, and in 2015 Gleeson was officially pardoned of the crime, which was considered to have been based on “unconvincing circumstantial evidence”. Numerous theories about who killed Moll McCarthy, and why, have surfaced, but none has been determined to be certain.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Gun Alley, where the body of Alma Tirtschke was found, leading to an unwarranted execution. Wikimedia

19. The Gun Alley murder in 1921

Alma Tirtschke was a 12-year-old Australian schoolgirl who was raped and murdered in Melbourne in 1921, after having been last seen alive near a saloon. Alma had been engaged on a family errand when she was accosted, raped, and murdered. Eventually, the police, who relied on informers to build a case against a suspect, arrested Colin Campbell Ross, the owner of the Australian Wine Saloon, located near the alley where Alma’s naked body had been found. Reliance on informers continued during Ross’ trial, including one prisoner, previously convicted of perjury, testifying that Ross had confided his guilt in the case to him while awaiting trial. The prosecution contended that Ross had served the 12-year-old wine for three hours in the saloon, after which he raped and murdered the girl.

Ross was convicted and sentenced to death, and after appeals failed to obtain another trial for him he was executed by hanging in April 1922. The trial had been the first in Australia to rely on forensic evidence presented by human hair, but the court misinterpreted the evidence. Subsequent study of the physical evidence and the conduct of the court revealed substantial flaws in the government’s case, and in 2008 Ross was officially pardoned by the Australian state of Victoria. To date, it remains the only example of a pardon being issued in Australia for a person executed by the state. Speculation over who actually murdered Alma Tirtschke continues nearly a century later.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Derek Bentley was executed for saying, “let him have it Chris” while committing a crime. Wikimedia

20. What did “let him have it, Chris” mean?

Derek Bentley was convicted of the murder of a police offer, though he did not fire the fatal shot, and was hanged for the crime in 1953. Bentley had been participating in a burglary with Christopher Craig, who had armed himself with a Webley revolver and carried extra ammunition in case it was needed. They were seen by a witness who called the police, and the police arrived and attempted to take both Bentley and Craig into custody. When one police officer ordered Craig to surrender his drawn weapon, Bentley was heard to say “let him have it, Chris”. Craig fired at least two shots, wounding one officer and killing another, before jumping from a roof and breaking his back.

Did “let him have it, Chris” refer to surrendering the weapon, or was it a Bogart-like admonition to shoot the officer? The court decided it was the latter and Bentley was convicted of murdering a police officer, sentenced to death, and hanged in 1953. Craig, who indisputably pulled the trigger, served ten years in prison and was released. In 1993 Bentley was granted a Royal Pardon, but his murder conviction remained. In 1998 it too was quashed. Craig issued a statement welcoming Bentley’s pardon and apologizing to his family when the conviction was overturned. By then he was 62 years of age. Bentley had been 19 when he was hanged for the murder committed by Craig.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
George Stinney was executed by the State of South Carolina at the age of 14. Wikimedia

21. George Stinney was the youngest person ever legally executed in the United States

In 1944, over a period of just three months, George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old boy, was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed in the state of South Carolina. Stinney, who was black, was convicted of the murder of two white girls. His trial, before an all-white jury, lasted but one day. After the boy was arrested, the evidence against him consisted of his being seen in the company of the girls before they were killed, he was not allowed to be visited by his parents, denied immediate legal counsel, and was interrogated by police officers who convinced him to confess. His confession was later used to convict him, unimpeached by his attorneys.

Seven decades later the conviction was thrown out by another South Carolina judge, who did not exonerate Stinney, but instead condemned the actions of the system which had killed him. Still, the judge pointed out that the issue of guilt or innocence was not decided. Transcripts of Stinney’s original trial have disappeared if they ever existed at all. In overturning the conviction of George Stinney the system was found lacking, and the execution of a fourteen-year-old child was determined to be “cruel and unusual punishment”. But the question of Stinney’s guilt was not addressed, other than the judge commenting that he “may well have committed this crime”.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
After the restoration of the monarchy the executioners of Charles I faced execution themselves. Wikimedia

22. Charles Stuart, King of England as Charles I

Regicide – the killing of a king – is a relatively common event in history, though nearly always controversial, none more so than the trial and execution of Charles I of Great Britain. The British prosecutors took pains to maintain an air of legality when they tried the king for treason. By the third day of his trial, Charles was not allowed to sit in the court which tried him, relegated to his cell while witnesses testified against him. On January 26, 1649, he was found guilty and sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, despite his continuing protestations that the court had no legal basis upon which to try him. He was beheaded in London less than a week later, on January 30, 1649, ending for a time the monarchy in Great Britain.

After his beheading Charles head was reattached to his body before he was buried at Westminster. Just over a decade later, the head of state in the form of a king was likewise restored, though absent the absolute power of a monarch. Whether Charles was exonerated of the crime for which he was executed depends on the political views of the assessor, to some he remains a martyr, to others he was a tyrant of criminal stature. He was described as a gracious prince by some, an incompetent monarch by others. The restoration of the monarchy led to the trial and execution of many of those who called for the killing of the king, including the exhumation of those who had already died, to be ceremonially hanged and beheaded.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Leschi is memorialized throughout the region, including with Leschi Park, seen here in 1907. Wikimedia

23. Chief Leschi was hanged for the murder of men considered casualties of war

Leschi was a Chief of the Puyallup and Nisqually Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-nineteenth century. In his capacity as a leader of both tribes, he signed a treaty with representatives of the territorial government of Washington in which he agreed to cede the lands along Puget Sound in exchange for reservations granted his people in perpetuity. The lands granted to the Nisqually were deemed unsuitable, the soil was too rocky to support crops and isolated from the Nisqually River, the source of the salmon which was a significant part of the tribe’s diet. Leschi’s protests fell upon deaf ears, and when American miners trespassed on the reservation land (in violation of the treaty) he led war parties in attacks which became known as the Yakima War.

Leschi was charged with the murder of casualties killed during the Yakima War, and at his first trial, the jury failed to deliver a verdict after receiving instructions from the judge that casualties of war could not be considered victims of murder. He was convicted at a second trial, despite evidence which indicated that he did not personally participate in the killing of the two victims for which he was charged with killing. He was hanged in February 1858. In 2004 the Washington legislature exonerated Leschi, finding he had been wrongly charged and convicted. In December of that year, Leschi was retried in absentia by a specially appointed court and exonerated.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
Chinese police band of the 1950s. China’s modern police force nonetheless has misidentified criminals and victims, leading to wrongful convictions and executions. Wikimedia

24. A Chinese woman believed dead showed up after a man was executed for her murder

Wrongful executions are of course not limited to the western world. A dismembered female body was discovered in China and through the use of forensic science, the police identified it as being the remains of Shi Xiaorong, who had been reported missing for some time. Further use of forensics allowed police to believe that they had identified her killer, and led to the arrest of Teng Xingshan. Teng was charged with rape, murder, and robbery and tried by the Huaihua People’s Court. Convicted of all the crimes charged, Teng was executed on January 28, 1989.

Four years later the reliability of the police’s use of forensics was called into question when it was learned that the dead woman was not Shi Xiaorong, as had been believed. The real Shi returned, having been detained in Shandong against her will by kidnappers, according to the story she told authorities. Although Shi was obviously still alive, and thus had not been robbed, raped, and murdered by Teng, it took years before Chinese authorities admitted that the again unknown victim had not been killed by Teng either. In 2005 Teng was exonerated.

25 Executions of People Who Were Later Exonerated
The Russian serial killer Chikatilo known as the Butcher of Rostov. among whom’s victims was one man wrongly convicted for one of his murders. Wikimedia

25. Russian police enhanced interrogation led to the execution of an innocent man in 1983

In 1978, a nine-year-old girl was raped and murdered in the mining town of Shakhty, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia. Police suspicion centered upon Aleksandr Kravchenko based upon his previous conviction for a similar crime. He committed this crime during his teenage years. Several witnesses supported Kravenchko’s alibi, placing him far from the scene of the crime. Russian police interrogated several of the witnesses individually. After the interrogation was completed, their memories of Kravchenko’s whereabouts changed. They charged him with murder. Soon after they tried, convicted, and executed him.

In 1994, Russian authorities executed a serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo. He became known as the Butcher of Rostov. Chikatilo committed the murders and mutilations of 52 women (some say 56, the number of killings he confessed) over a period of twelve years. One of his many victims, and the first documented by Russian authorities: nine-year-old Yakena Zakotnova. The very victim of the crime Kravchenko suffered execution for. They convicted Kravchenko based upon a confession and the testimony of witnesses. All of which were obtained by police using enhanced interrogation techniques. Both Kravchenko and Chikatilo were executed by the usual Russian method of shooting.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Sad Fate of Admiral Byng”. Chris Durbin, Naval History Magazine. August, 2019

“A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials”. Jess Blumberg, Smithsonian.com. October 23, 2007

“The Trial and Death of Socrates”. Freedom and Citizenship, Columbia University. Online

“The Case of Thomas Cornell: Did He Murder His Own Mother?” Bictor Martinez, St. Mary’s University Online

“Proceedings on the Trial of Dominic Daley and James Halligan”. Supreme Judicial Court, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 1806. Online

“The account of the three Guernsey martyrs burned at the stake, from an edition of ‘Acts and Monuments’ by John Foxe”.

“The Campden Wonder”. Cotswolds,info. Online

“Broken on the Wheel”. Ken Armstrong, The Paris Review. March13, 2015

“The Hanging and Redemption of John Gordon”. Paul F. Caranci. 2013

“South Carolina pardons black brothers convicted of 1913 killing”. Alex Spillius, The Telegraph. October 18, 2009

“Man Hanged in Beatrice in 1887; Pardoned by then-Gov. Kerrey nearly a century later”. Anna Bauman, Omaha World-Herald. Aug 20, 2018

“Lynching Victim Is Cleared of Rape, 100 Years Later”. Emily Yellin, The New York Times. February 27, 2000

“Did Leo Frank Kill Mary Phagan? 106 years later we might finally find out for sure”. Steve Oney, Atlanta Magazine. May 31, 2019

“The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti”. Felix Frankfurter, The Atlantic. March, 1927

“Justice Story: The Happiest Man on Death Row”. Mara Bovsun, New York Daily News. April 28, 2019

“Prosecutors don’t always need a body as evidence”. Daniel Malloy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 8, 2009

“George Kelly Exonerated 53 Years After Being Hung By The Neck Until Dead”. Hans Sherrer, Forejustice.org. June 14, 2003

“Ireland’s Most Infamous Murder: 11 Facts about the killing of Moll McCarthy and execution of innocent man Harry Gleeson”. Staff, The Irish Post. May 11, 2015

“True Crime: Gun Alley Murder”. Video, Australian Broadcasting Company. ABC.net

“Bentley case is referred to the appeal court after 44 year campaign”. Rachel Donnelly, The Irish Times. November 7, 1997

“In 1944, George Stinney was young, black, and sentenced to die”. Deanna Pan, Jennifer Berry Hawes, The Post and Courier (Charleston SC). March 25, 2018

“Did King Charles I Deserve To Be Executed?” Yesterday, UKTV. Online

“Leschi: Justice In Our Time”. Washington State History Museum. Online

“Woman allegedly ‘murdered’ reappears after ‘killer’ reappears”. Asia News. June 17, 2005. Online

“The Red Ripper: Inside the Mind of Russia’s Most Brutal Serial Killer”. Peter Conradi. 1992