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4 Prisoners Facing Executions or Serving Extreme Jail Sentences Who Very Well May Be Innocent

Recent evidence shows that an executed Texas man was innocent. There are others who still might avoid that fate.

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According to Protess:

Around 9:30 p.m. on September 15, 1978, Donald Lundahl, a white security guard, was sitting in his car in the far south Chicago suburb of Harvey when he was murdered at close range by a shotgun blast. Later that evening, one of the Harvey police officers who was called to investigate the murder noticed an African-American youth, Anthony McKinney, running down the street near the crime scene. The officer arrested Anthony, even though he possessed no weapon, signs of blood spatter or other physical evidence that would have predictably linked him to the brutal homicide.

Anthony, an 18-year-old Harvey resident with no history of violent crime, professed his innocence and explained that he was running from gang-bangers when the officer saw him. Lacking any direct evidence against Anthony, the Harvey police released him, though he remained a prime suspect. The authorities soon began questioning others about the crime, including another Harvey teenager, Wayne Phillips. Phillips eventually told police that he was an eyewitness to the murder, claiming that -- from 50 yards away -- he saw Anthony point the shotgun at Lundahl and declare, "Your money or your life." Anthony then was re-arrested, and, after a lengthy interrogation, signed a confession (typed by police) admitting the crime and saying the motive was robbery.

Prosecutors in the case sought the death penalty, but McKinney was sentenced to natural life in prison.

Decades later, McKinney's brother, Michael, got in touch with Northwester's Innocence Project, convincing them to take up the case. Journalism students re-interviewed original witnesses, discovering that they had been beaten and coerced by the police into giving false testimony. One man, Dennis Pettis, was 15 years old the night he and Wayne Phillips were picked up for questioning by two police officers, who he identified as McCarthy and Morrison.

In a sworn affidavit dated October 2005, Pettis said that the officers put the two boys in separate rooms. "I told them that I did not see the murder and did not know anything about it," he said. "But they told me that Wayne said that he had seen the murder and that I was with him and saw the murder, too."

The officers tried to get Pettis to implicate Anthony McKinney, telling him that his friend already had. "McCarthy and Morrison also told me that if I didn't give Anthony McKinney up, Anthony would give me up." The officers also also implied that "if I went along with their story, I would get the reward money that the police department was offering for information on the murder." When he still did not say what they wanted him to say, Pettis says "McCarty and Morrison started to beat me up."

"They hit me, punched me, kicked me, and tried to intimidate me They implied that they were going to kill me if I said anything different from what they were telling me to say."

Pettis finally said he wrote down what he was told "because I wanted to leave that room alive."

"What I wrote down was not true, but I signed it because I wanted to go home."

Pettit testified before the grand jury -- "I was scared of what McCarthy and Morrison would do to me if I didn't go along with their story" -- but he skipped town before the trial. ("I did not want to lie again and I was scared of what McCarty and Morrison would do to me if I told the truth.") Three weeks after his interrogation, Pettis left home to live with an aunt on the West side of Chicago. He stayed for seven years.