It's frustrating to be wrongfully accused of anything, but I can't imagine sitting on trial, hearing the judge read a guilty verdict, knowing all the while that you're innocent. With sayings like “Justice prevails” and “The truth will set you free,” it's a total letdown of the system when someone is wrongfully convicted—especially when that conviction carries with it a life-altering sentence.
However, thanks to DNA and the tireless work of organizations like The Innocence Project, some of those wrongfully convicted have been set free. While it won't return the years lost, freedom and the understanding that you are innocent are at least small consolation to the tortures endured. We're all familiar with cases like Amanda Knox—recently featured in a new Netflix documentary—and the West Memphis Three, but below are 5 other notable examples of wrongful convictions that were eventually overturned. The scariest part of reading through these is the idea that it could happen to anyone.
It’s tough to lose a child. It’s even tougher to lose a child to murder. It must be unbearable to lose seven children to murder … and then be wrongfully convicted of that crime. In 1968, James Joseph Richardson and his wife had gone to work the orange groves about 16 miles away from their home in Arcadia, FL—leaving a neighbor, Bessie Reece, to babysit the children. After eating lunch at home, the three school-aged children returned to class, where teachers noticed they looked ill. Upon sending them to the hospital, someone from the school went to check on the other kids and found them sick as well. Eventually, all seven kids would die—cause of death: poison.
Despite no physical evidence tying James to the murder, he was convicted of all seven deaths and sentenced to die. Throughout the years, Bessie Reece confessed to the murders several times; the inmate who claimed Richardson confessed recanted his story, claiming he had been offered a lighter sentence to corroborate; and attorney and author Mark Lane took up the case and presented compelling evidence to his client’s innocence. Despite all of this, it took nearly 22 years to get the case retried—but Richardson was finally freed at age 53.
Tragedy + time ≠ comedy—James Lee Woodard can attest to that. On New Year’s Eve, 1980, Woodard’s then girlfriend Beverly Ann Jones was sexually assaulted and strangled to death. The next day, the 26-year-old Woodard was charged with her death.
Despite the prosecution’s key witness—a neighbor who claimed to have seen him arguing with Jones the night of the murder at 3:30 a.m. from a few hundred feet away—being unreliable, at best, and Woodard having several alibi witnesses testifying to his whereabouts that night, James was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence from day one, continuously writing letters for help, requesting appeals, and filing applications to reopen evidence. Eventually, 26 years later, his pleas were heard—the Innocence Project of Texas, in cooperation with the Dallas DA’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, took his case. Woodard was released in 2008, after serving almost 28 years in prison.
In 1984, then 19-year-old Darryl Hunt was arrested and convicted of the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, NC. Hunt’s girlfriend provided an alibi, but when she was arrested on outstanding larceny charges, she later told police that he had confessed to killing her. Despite recanting this false information before the trial, the prosecution used it anyway, ultimately securing a conviction.
On appeal, the conviction was overturned due to the wrongful admission of the interrogation. Upon retrial, Hunt was offered a sentence of time served if he would admit guilt. Maintaining his innocence, he was retried and convicted again to life in prison.
However, in 1994, Hunt’s legal team filed for DNA testing. The sample from the victim’s body did not match Hunt’s DNA. Unfortunately, Hunt’s appeals would be denied for 10 years under the claims that the new evidence did not prove innocence. Finally, in 2004, 19 years after being wrongfully convicted and 10 years after DNA proved it, that same DNA profile matched another convicted murderer who later confessed to the crime. Hunt was set free in 2005 and went on to found the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice.
Kirk Bloodsworth’s case is important because he was the first person ever to be sent to death row and later exonerated. After a 9-year-old girl had been found strangled, sexually assaulted, and beaten with a rock, Bloodsworth was arrested and charged with the murder, despite the witnesses being unable to identify him in a lineup and looking nothing like the original description of the perpetrator. With no physical evidence tying him to the crime, he was still convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death.
Due to misinformation and a failure to provide the defense with the information that there might've been a second witness, Bloodsworth’s conviction was overturned and he was retried and sentenced to two life terms. DNA evidence later exonerated him and he was released in 1993, after 9 years served.
Kids say the darnedest things—that is, unless you’re Cassandra Ann Kennedy, the 11-year-old who falsely accused her father of sexually abusing her on three separate occasions. A product of divorce, Cassandra decided—allegedly after hearing about a friend’s step-father going to jail for sex crimes—that she wanted to make her father “go away” because “he was drinking and smoking marijuana.” She testified and gave detailed descriptions of being sexually assaulted in the bathroom, using stuffed animals to describe what had happened.
However, 11 years later, Cassandra apparently had a change of heart and told police that her claims of rape were false. Her new testimony was deemed credible, and a new trial acquitted the wronged father of all charges. He was released and taken off the sexual predators list. As of now, Cassandra has not been prosecuted for her false claims leading to the wrongful imprisonment of her father.