The Death Penalty in the USA:

Were 23 innocent people executed in the 20th Century?

Copyright © 2001 by Hugo S. Cunningham

first posted y10509
change 2009/1026
minor change 2009/1028

Michael L. Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance E. Putnam, In Spite of Innocence: Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases, Northeastern University Press, Boston MA, 1992; cloth, 399 pp.

General observations:

    (1) Under a barrage of scholarly criticism, Radelet et al. have backed off their original assertion that all these 23 were actually innocent. Their new position is that since all the cases were troubling in some way, there is a good chance that one or more might be innocent.

    (2) The most common retort of death-penalty supporters is that even though there may have been problems with the death penalty in the early 1900s, those problems were resolved by the time the death penalty was revived in the 1970s. For that reason, Radelet et al. put special emphasis on the James Adams case, the only one of the 23 to arise since 1970. Reading what they had to say, however, I found it quite likely that Adams was guilty as charged.


Other more recent doubtful cases are discussed below.

The 23 "innocents" cited by Radelet et al.

nameraceState date (of alleged crime?) chargeadditional remark
Adams, JamesBFL 1974 murder. Executed in 1984 had criminal record
Anderson, William Henry BFL 1945 Rape of white woman. Was it consensual?
I (HSC) oppose execution for simple rape.
Appelgate, Everett WNY 1936 Murder Convicted with girlfriend, who was clearly guilty
Bambrick, Thomas WNY 1915 Murder Refused to "squeal" on guilty party?
Becker, Charles WNY 1912 murder A detective. Was he framed by gamblers?
Cirofici, Frank "Dago" WNY 1912 murder (See Becker case)
Collins, Roosevelt
aka "Roosevelt Wilson"
BAL 1945 Rape. Was it consensual?
I (HSC) oppose execution for simple rape.
Dawson, Sie BFL 1960 Murder Retarded, forced into unsubstantiated confession
Garner, Vance BAL 1905 Murder Companion admitted to crime
Grzechowiak, Stephen WNY 1929 Murder Another party, guilty (and convicted?) said others did it.
Hauptmann, Bruno Richard WNJ 1935 kidnap-murder (Lindbergh) (see below)
Hill, Joe
aka Joseph Hillstrom
WUT 1915 Murder x 2 Framed for union activity?
Lauble, Harold
aka George Brandon
WNJ 1920 Murder shaky?
Mays, Maurice F. BTN 1919 Murder Later confession by another rejected
McGee, Willie BMS 1945 rape, executed 1951 Consensual? Coerced confession
I (HSC) oppose execution for simple rape.
Rybarczyk, Max WNY 1929 Murder See Grzechowiak
Sacco, Nicola WMA 15 Apr 1920? Murder (in robbery?), executed 1927 (See below)
Sanders, Albert BAL 1917 Murder Another party, guilty (and convicted?) said Sanders was innocent.
Sberna, Charles WNY 1938 Murder of police officer Co-defendant (convicted?) said Sberna was innocent.
Shumway, R. Mead WNY 1907 Murder Victim's husband(?) later confessed.
Tucker, Charles Louis WMA 1905 ?
Vanzetti, Bartolomeo WMA 1921 Murder (in robbery?) See Sacco
Wing, George Chew As? 1937 ?


    Hauptmann -- Revisionists have long questioned the conviction of Hauptmann for the Lindbergh kidnaping. They have not, however, been able to explain why kidnap-ransom banknotes were found in Hauptmann's possession.

    Sacco and Vanzetti -- It has been an article of faith on the Left that they were innocent, framed for their Left-Anarchist beliefs. In answer,
    (1) Left-anarchism at that time was a very violent philosophy, justifying assassinations and robberies.
    (2) A substantial number of historians have reexamined the case and convinced themselves that at least one of the two was unquestionably guilty. It is possible the other one was not, but refused to disclose exculpatory evidence (for himself) that made his partner's guilt more clear.

    James Adams (pp. 5-10) --
    Crime: Murder and robbery at home of Edgar Brown, 12 Nov. 1973.
    R, B, & P seek to draw suspicion to Vivian Nickerson, a friend who had access to Adams's car. Adams's car(?) was seen at the scene of the crime.

More recent doubts

(mostly from sources other than Radelet, Bedau, and Putnam)

    Texas: Cameron Todd Willingham, executed 2004 February
      See above.

    Texas, : Claude Jones, executed 2000 December
    Publicized 2010, November 12, Friday.

      In November 1989, Allen Hilzendager was shot to death by one of three robbers while working at a liquor store in San Jacinto County, Texas. On 7 December 2000, Claude Jones was executed as one of the three, based on (1) testimony of an alleged accomplice and (2) pre-DNA microscopic "analysis" of a small hair found at the scene. Supposedly, the hair had qualities that matched defendant Hilzendager but no one else known to be at the scene.

      The Innocence Project today released DNA test results proving that crucial hair evidence found at the scene of a murder, the only physical evidence linking the accused Claude Jones to the crime, did not belong to Jones. Although he always maintained his innocence, Jones was executed for murdering Allen Hilzendager on December 7, 2000. George Bush, who was awaiting a decision from the Florida Supreme Court on whether the presidential election recount would continue, denied Jones’ request for a 30 day stay of execution to do DNA test on the hair sample. The memo from the General Counsel’s office that recommended against the stay did not tell Bush that Jones was seeking a DNA test of the hair. Evidence that the hair “matched” Jones was critical to the prosecution’s case at trial and proved to be the key factor in a narrow 3-2 decision by the Texas Court of Appeals finding there was sufficient corroboration of the accomplice who testified against Jones to uphold the murder conviction.

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