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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.

The tragic unraveling of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham -- the Texas man executed in 2004 for killing his own daughters by supposedly setting fire to his house -- seems to have crossed a major threshold in the debate over the death penalty in the past several weeks. For the first time in recent memory, there is devastating proof that an innocent man was put to death in this country.

Such a revelation, one might think, would give pause to even the most enthusiastic death penalty supporter. Yet Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has signed off on more than 200 executions, including Willingham's, is only focused on protecting his political career. The governor, who faces a hotly contested primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson next year, is going to great lengths to cover up evidence of Willingham's innocence -- particularly proof that he had this evidence in his hands before he signed off on his murder. At the same time, he continues to defend the death penalty in Texas as perfectly fine: "Our process works and I don’t see anything out there that would merit calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty,” he said last week.

Meanwhile, Texas is gearing up to execute another prisoner tomorrow, a man named Reginald Blanton, who has a very strong innocence claim of his own. (Read about his case here.)

Cruel and unusual though it might seem, for a person to be sentenced to die for a crime he or she did not commit is hardly a unique phenomenon in this country. In the past 35 years, no fewer than 138 people have been released from death row after proof of their innocence was discovered -- including eight this year alone. How many may have been executed before their innocence was known is unclear. As Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times last year, "we know almost nothing about the number of innocent people in prison."

Beyond death row, innocent men and women have languished in prison for decades, serving life sentences for crimes they didn't commit. Some have been exonerated. But many remain scattered in prison cells across the country, insisting on their innocence. These are prisoners whose cases, when examined up close, are often full of holes: a lack of physical evidence, unreliable -- or recanted -- witness testimony, false confessions, and more. Racism, crooked and lazy cops, untrustworthy jailhouse snitches, and the political aspirations of prosecutors who use them are just a few factors fueling wrongful convictions.

The list below could be much, much longer. But here are just four cases where innocent people appear to have been wrongfully convicted of terrible crimes. Some of them were sentenced to multiple life sentences. Others were sentenced to death. All of them remain behind bars.

Rodney Reed

In April of 1996, a 19-year-old woman named Stacey Stites was murdered in Texas, her body discovered in a wooded area just outside the city of Bastrop. Stites's body was partly clothed; she had evidently been strangled to death. DNA taken from semen found inside her body was matched to an African American man from Bastrop. His name was Rodney Reed.

At trial, the prosecution accused Reed of assaulting Stites while she was on her way to work, early in the morning. According to a 2002 report in the Austin Chronicle, "Prosecutors successfully argued that at some point on Stites' early morning drive ... Reed accosted Stites and forced his way into the truck -- while apparently on foot and without the aid of any weapon -- and raped, sodomized, and strangled her with the braided leather belt she was wearing, then dumped her body and abandoned the truck "