Controversial death penalty cases

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Historic Death Penalty Cases


The U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty in 1972, but it was reinstated just four years later after the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia. Several historic cases have shaped the active conversation on capital punishment -- here is a look at four of them.

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: How drug shortages will shape the death penalty debate

Cameron Todd Willingham

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by allegedly setting his house on fire in 1991. Willingham maintained his innocence at his trial despite the fact that a guilty plea would spare him from the death penalty.

New techniques for investigating fires were developed during the time Willingham sat on death row. A fire inspector reviewed the case and reported that he didn't believe the evidence pointed fairly to arson. Despite this, Willingham was executed in February 2004.

In 2009, a formal review of the case by the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that the evidence used in the case was merely personal opinion not based on scientific evidence and the fire marshal's declaration of arson was unfounded.

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Controversial Death Penalty Cases
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Mugshot of Cameron Todd Willingham

(Photo credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Death row inmate Troy Davis appears in this undated file photo provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections. (Georgia Department of Corrections/MCT via Getty Images)
Anne MacPhail pauses for a moment after learning at 10:55 p.m., on September 21, 2011, that the U.S. Supreme Court had denied a stay of execution for Troy Davis, who was convicted in the 1989 murder of her son Mark MacPhail. Davis was executed shortly after in Jackson, Georgia. (Robin Trimarchi/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/MCT via Getty Images)

Mugshot of Kelly Renee Gissendaner

(Photo credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)

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Napoleon Beazley

A football player and president of his high school class, Napoleon Beazley was sentenced to death for shooting a 63-year-old man in the head during a carjacking.

Beazley was 17 when he committed the crime. He had no prior criminal record. He also was too young to vote, too young to drink, and too young to serve in the military.

His capital murder trial began in January 1995. And in May 2002, having exhausted every possible appeal, Beazley was executed. He was 25 years old. According to The Espy File, 22 juveniles were executed between 1976 and 2005. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juveniles is unconstitutional.

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: Texas to execute man who fatally shot Dallas police officer

Troy Davis

Troy Davis was convicted for the murder of off-duty Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989. Davis spent more than two decades on death row, maintaining his innocence the entire time.

Prosecutors found no murder weapon, the case against him included no physical evidence and consisted entirely of witness testimony -- testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. All but two of the state's non-police witnesses from the trial recanted or contradicted their testimony.

Pope Benedict XVI, Amnesty International, President Jimmy Carter and nearly a million other Davis supporters signed a petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons for clemency. Davis was executed by lethal injection on September 21st, 2011.

SEE MORE DEATH PENALTY COVERAGE: Looking at the pros and cons in the death penalty debate

Kelly Renee Gissendaner

During his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis made a plea to save death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner.

Gissendaner was sentenced to death for plotting the 1997 murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, who was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

The victim's family was split on whether Gissendaner should live or die: her children asked the parole board to spare their mother, but her husband's relatives said she did not deserve clemency. Gissendanger became the fifth woman to be executed in the nation in the past decade.

Today, capital punishment is legal in 31 states. Japan is the only other industrial democracy where the death penalty is legal. The U.N continues to push for abolishment of the death penalty worldwide.

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Seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse, convinced that 'The Lord is Still with Me,' is Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who won a million-to-one chance of a reprieve from death when the electric chair failed to kill him, or even hurt him, at his scheduled execution on May 3. Sentenced to die for the murder of a St. Martinville druggist a year ago, Francis was strapped in the chair. The current was applied. The doomed man squirmed and jumped. But when the current was shut off, he was unharmed. 'It tickled a little,' he said. The state will try again to carry out the execution on Thursday May 9th.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

This is John Wayne Gacy's police arrest photo from Dec. 21, 1978. Following intensive research, investigation and surveillance, Gacy was arrested by the Des Plaines (Ill.) Police Department on Thursday, Dec. 21, 1978. After being charged with and serving time for 33 murders, Gacy was executed in 1994 by lethal injection. Today, Monday, Nov. 23, 1998, technicians began preliminary work on a possible excavation at an apartment building on Chicago's Northwest Side in search of as many as four more possible victims of the mass murderer. The apartment building at one time, was the home of Gacy's mother, and Gacy had done some construction work there. The information regarding the location was recently released from a retired Chicago police officer who said he had seen Gacy carrying a shovel near the area at about 3 a.m. one day in 1975. The former officer reportedly thought little of the Gacy sighting until three years later, when Gacy was charged with 33 murders. The apartment building is about four miles away from Gacy's house.

(Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle)

A portrait of mass murderer Ted Bundy, responsible for a string of murders in Washington state, Utah, and Florida in the 1970s. He was executed in in Florida on January 24, 1989. His actual victim count remains unknown.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Aileen Wuornos is shown in this undated photograph from the Florida Department of Corrections. Wournos was executed by lethal injection October 9, 2002 in Florida for murdering six men when she was a prostitute.

(Photo by Florida DOC/Getty Images)

Admitted mass-slayer Charles Starkweather is shown entering court for the second day of his trial for murder. Starkweather admitted killing 11 people and was executed in Nebraska on June 25, 1959. 

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is shown being escorted from the Noble County Courthouse as he is transported to Oklahoma City for arraignment in this April 22, 1995 file photo. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed after being sentenced to death for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime that took 168 lives and shook a complacent America to the core.

(Jim Bourg / Reuters)

Gary Gilmore, responsible for the shooting deaths of two men, was executed in Utah on January 17, 1977.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Media witnesses to the firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor examine the chair in which Taylor sat as he was shot to death at 12:03 a.m. Mountain time January 26 at the Unita State Penitentiary in Utah. The execution of Taylor was the first by firing squad in the United States since the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

(POOL New / Reuters)

Stanley 'Tookie Williams' was responsible for several murders and other crimes and was executed in California on December 13, 2005. Williams helped found the Crips gang, but was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang efforts. He authored such books as 'Life in Prison,' encouraging kids to stay out of gangs, and his memoir 'Blue Rage, Black Redemption'.'

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Teresa Lewis, convicted of murdering her husband and stepson, was executed in Virginia on September 23, 2010. She was the first woman executed in the state in nearly 100 years.

(REUTERS/Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout)

William Bonin (left), a 33-year-old truck driver and registered sex offender, was accused of the 'torture' murders of at least 13 and possibly 21 young males, suspected victims of the so called 'Freeway Killer. He was executed in California on February 23, 1996.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also said Vernon Butts (right) was an accomplice in at least six of the 21 murders.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for Boston Marathon bombing, was sentenced to death on May 15, 2015.

(Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in a mass shooting at the U.S. Army post in Fort Hood, Texas, was sentenced to death on August 28, 2013.

(Ho New / Reuters)

Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted murderer and sex offender, was sentenced to death on August 27, 2008.

 (Photo provided by Kootenai County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images)

Coy Wesbrook was executed in 2016. He fatally shot five people in 1997 with a hunting rifle in a killing spree launched when he found his ex-wife having sex with other men.

(REUTERS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters)

Dylann Roof, the man convicted of murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston was condemned to death by a federal jury on January 10, 2017.

(REUTERS/Charleston County Sheriff's Office/Handout)

Death row inmate Ricky Gray is shown in this undated photo released in Washington, DC, U.S. in 2016. Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Christopher Wilkins, 48, Texas death row inmate convicted of killing two people in a revenge plot after one had tricked him in a $20 drug deal, is shown in this undated photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S.. Courtesy Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
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