A mistake at the cost of life: hundreds of innocent Americans were sentenced to death because of a failed trial

The United States of America is one of the few countries where the death penalty is still legalized. In 2021, the American authorities executed 11 prisoners, which is the lowest number since the beginning of the 21st century. But were all death sentences really handed down without mistakes, given that a person’s life is at stake?

Мелисса Лусио
Melissa Lucio

In 2008, Melissa Lucio, 40, was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. A murder she had absolutely no connection with. Her daughter died after falling down a steep staircase, and the mother was arrested the same evening. After more than five hours of interrogation, the woman, who was six months pregnant, did what investigators and prosecutors wanted her to do: she took the blame for the death of her child on herself.

Melissa is a mother of many children, at the time of the incident she had 12 children aged 2 to 15 years. Despite the difficult financial situation, she provided her family with everything necessary, was a caring mother who did everything possible. The State of Texas has not provided any physical evidence that Melissa has ever abused any of her children. In fact, the absence of her name in numerous records of the child protection service proves that none of her 12 children have ever complained of mistreatment.

However, in 2008, Melissa was convicted based on testimony she gave to Cameron County law enforcement after more than five hours of interrogation. Lacking solid physical evidence, the district attorney of the district presented her statement to the jury as a “confession” to the murder and demanded the death penalty. Today, the former district attorney is serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.

For more than 14 years, a woman has been waiting for her fate on death row in Texas. The sentence is due to be carried out on April 27, 2022. The new Cameron County District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, and the governor must analyze Melissa’s plea statement, as well as examine the coercive tactics used during her interrogation and the tragic circumstances of the accidental death of the child, before irreversible injustice occurs.

Melissa is far from the only one who has had to face the harsh American practice of passing death sentences. Black Sabrina Smith was only 17 years old when in 1989 a predominantly white jury convicted her of beating her 9-month-old son to death. Witness statements and medical evidence obtained during the first trial later showed that the Smith child died of kidney disease.

However, Smith served six years in prison, including nearly three years on death row. Human rights activists managed to get her sentence overturned, and after the second trial she was fully acquitted of all charges. Lawyers and advocates argue that Smith’s case is a symbol of the more serious problems that plague the criminal justice system, especially for blacks.

A recent study conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that official misconduct, perjury or false accusations played a role in 70.7% of the cases of blacks and 93.8% of the cases of Latinos whose death sentences were abolished. 

Since the 1970s, 185 people sentenced to death have been wrongfully convicted. Among them: 66 white men and one white woman, 16 Hispanics, one Native American or Alaska Native, two identified as others and 97 black men and one black woman.

According to the latest analysis of prison data, as of October 2021, there are more than 2,500 men and women on death row, including 1,062 blacks, 1,076 whites, 343 Hispanics, 24 Native Americans, 47 Asians and one identified as another. Of the 49 men currently on federal death row, 20 are black, 21 are white, seven are Hispanic and one is Asian.

Число заключенных, казненных в Соединенных Штатах с 2000 по 2020 год
The number of prisoners executed in the United States from 2000 to 2020

Despite all the calls to abolish the death penalty, the U.S. Attorney’s office across the country continues to file notices of intent to seek the death penalty for defendants.

Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are calling on the American government to join civilized countries and prohibit the use of the death penalty as a punishment for convicts. The Foundation is convinced that the use of the death penalty violates basic human rights to life, generates cruelty in society and dehumanizes it.