More than in any other state, the death penalty in Texas has served as an indelible feature of the criminal justice system throughout the state’s history.
Over the last 50 years, Texas has executed 573 people, the most of any state and more than the next six states combined. Texas deaths make up more than a third of all executions in the U.S. in the modern era. In 1982, Texas became the first state to execute a person by lethal injection, now the dominant method of execution. Depending on their take on the death penalty, historians have either attributed the frequent use of execution for the most serious crimes to the state’s legacy of frontier justice, or of lynching.
Proponents of the death penalty say it serves as a powerful tool, instilling fear in the hearts of would-be murderers. But opponents say that life in prison is as effective at deterring crime, that the death penalty is too costly and that it is administered unevenly across jurisdictions and along race and class lines.
In addition, significant questions remain about how to carry out the death penalty in a way that ensures only truly guilty people end up in the death chamber.
The legal system is set up to avoid punishing innocent people through an adversarial trial and appeals process. But despite the safeguards, 186 people have been exonerated nationwide after they were sentenced to death — about one for every eight executions that have occurred in the last 50 years. And the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks these statistics, estimates 10 people have been executed in Texas despite significant evidence being presented in court to support their innocence.
This list omits a number of others who were freed because of procedural missteps by police or prosecutors. It features people who were sentenced to death but were later freed or their charges were dismissed on the basis of their innocence or lack of lawfully obtained evidence against them.
These are the Texas death row inmates who narrowly escaped execution after fighting for their lives for years — or in some cases, decades.
CONVICTED: 1977 RELEASED: 1989
Randall Adams was convicted of murder in the 1976 shooting death of a Dallas police officer. His case, made famous in the Errol Morris documentary “A Thin Blue Line,” was marred by fabricated accusations and police misconduct. Key testimony at his death penalty trial came from a subsequently sanctioned psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, known as “Dr. Death,” who testified in more than 100 capital cases that the defendants were incurable sociopaths and he was absolutely certain they would kill again.
Police had initially centered their investigation on David Harris, then 16, who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation that ended in the shooting death of Officer Robert Wood. Officials brought Harris in for questioning after he bragged to friends about shooting a cop. Harris told police Adams had been in the passenger seat, and that Adams had fired the gun.
Several witnesses testified against Adams at trial, but the documentary filmmaker and Adams’ defense team discovered that at least one had lied on the stand. Adams spent more than a decade on death row before new evidence earned him a new trial. He was released in 1989. He died at age 61 in 2010.
CONVICTED: 1981 RELEASED: 1990
Clarence Brandley was framed for the 1980 rape and murder of 16-year-old Cheryl Fergeson at a high school north of Houston. Fergeson was a volleyball player from a visiting team. Brandley and a fellow custodian found the girl’s body in a loft area above the auditorium stage at Conroe High School.
When police brought Brandley in for questioning, a deputy made it clear Brandley was the only suspect.
Brandley, the school’s only Black janitor, was convicted of murder by an all-white jury.
Brandley was repeatedly denied a new trial despite exculpatory evidence that was kept from the defense and new witness testimony that surfaced after trial that pointed pointing to another janitor as the culprit. Among the evidence that failed to persuade judges were statements from witnesses who had testified against him recanting their testimony. Brandley’s defense team also presented evidence in pleadings that they had been coerced by investigators when they gave their original statements.
Just six days before his execution date, a state district judge granted him a stay. Eventually, the state dropped all the charges against him and Brandley was released in 1990. At that time, he was only the third person to be released from Texas death row, the Houston Chronicle reported.
He never received compensation from the state and died at the age of 66 in 2018. His story inspired the true crime book “White Lies” by Nick Davies.
CONVICTED: 1982 RELEASED: 1997
Ricardo Aldape Guerra
Ricardo Aldape Guerra was 22 when a Houston police officer pulled him over for reckless driving near Houston’s East End close to midnight on July 13, 1982. Roberto Carrasco Flores was a passenger in Aldape Guerra’s car.
Shortly after he initiated the traffic stop, Officer J.D. Harris sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Another driver in the area was killed by gunfire, and a second officer was later injured during a chase. Following the chase, Carrasco Flores died in a shootout with police. Harris’ gun was found within reach of Carrasco Flores’ body.
Police detained Aldape Guerra after they found him hiding under a horse trailer near the site of this final shootout. Despite physical evidence linking Carrasco Flores to the killings, Aldape Guerra was convicted of killing Harris based on eyewitness testimony that lawyers ultimately demonstrated had been coerced from intimidated residents of the mostly Hispanic community. Some residents who lived near the scene of the shooting named Aldape Guerra as the gunman only after interrogators forced them to lie face-down with guns pointed at their heads. Police threatened witnesses — who were not proficient in English — that if they failed to single out Aldape Guerra they would face legal consequences.
The prosecution relied largely on false evidence acquired through what the courts determined was gross police misconduct, including witness intimidation and suppression of evidence. A judge ruled Aldape Guerra had been denied the right to a fair trial and ordered his release.
Aldape Guerra finally left prison in 1997 after spending more than a decade incarcerated. He died in a car accident four months after his release.
CONVICTED: 1984 RELEASED: 1985
Justin Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of J.T. Lansford, a wealthy North Texas landowner. Cruz had been picking pecans on Lansford’s land to pay rent for a shack for Cruz and his wife on the property. The two had been living there for a short time when Lansford’s body was found in his own home, just after Christmas, with eight gunshot wounds, five of them fatal.
A man named Richard Williams told police Lansford had propositioned Cruz’s wife prior to the slaying. Williams said he was harvesting pecans at twilight on Lansford’s property on Christmas Eve when he saw Lansford arrive in his vehicle and enter the landowner’s home. Williams said he saw the house lights switch on, heard several gunshots and saw the lights turn off again.
He said he entered the darkened home and found Cruz standing over Lansford’s body, holding a rifle. Williams said that Cruz handed him the rifle and told him to finish him off. Williams said he then shot Lansford — who was already deceased — twice with the rifle, and then stole cash from his wallet.
Besides this statement from Williams, no other direct evidence linked Cruz to the crime, but a jury sentenced Cruz to death.
The court later decided that Williams had been an accomplice to the crime, and the law says that a man cannot be convicted of a crime on the basis of an accomplice’s testimony if there is no other corroborating evidence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Cruz’s conviction, acquitting him in 1985.
CONVICTED: 1984 RELEASED: 1993
Federico Macias was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of Robert and Naomi Haney, an El Paso couple, who were robbed and hacked to death in their home in 1983. Macias had worked for the Haneys as a handyman.
His appellate lawyers argued on appeal that his case was plagued by false witness testimony, a lying jailhouse informant and shoddy work from his defense team who had missed considerable evidence pointing to his innocence at trial.
Items stolen from the Haney residence had been found buried in the yard of one of the informants who testified Macias had killed the couple. The informant pleaded guilty to burglary, testified against Macias and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Almost 10 years later, a major New York law firm took on Macias’ habeas petition pro-bono. They found witnesses who had recanted their testimony, exculpatory evidence his lawyers failed to present and, most startlingly, evidence that Macias had been out of state at the time of the crime.
A judge ruled Macias was denied the right to an adequate legal defense and granted him a new trial. A grand jury declined to indict him a second time. Macias was released in June of 1993 after spending nearly a decade on death row.
CONVICTED: 1985 RELEASED: 1993
Muneer Deeb, a young Jordanian immigrant, was running a Waco gas station when he was named as the primary suspect in the slayings of two teenage girls, Raylene Rice and Jill Montgomery, who were found raped and fatally stabbed in a wooded area July 1982. A third teenager, Kenneth Franks, was also found – dead of stab wounds – at the scene.
Police believed Deeb was in love with Gayle Kelley, a woman who worked for him at the gas station and resembled Montgomery. The investigators’ theory was that when Kelley refused Deeb’s advances, he plotted to kill her and collect the insurance money, since he was her sole beneficiary. Officers charged Deeb under the theory that he had hired David Wayne Spence, Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Melendez to kill her to cash in on Kelley’s $20,000 life insurance policy. The prosecution argued that Montgomery’s slaying was a case of mistaken identity, and the hitmen fatally stabbed the other two teens because they’d witnessed the crime.
The only evidence against Deeb came from two jailhouse informants who backed the prosecution’s case that he had ordered the slaying of Kelley. One informant later recanted, and a Waco police officer discovered the initial investigator who pursued Deeb as a suspect had repeatedly convinced inmates to fabricate statements in exchange for prosecutors recommending a reduced sentence.
Deeb maintained his innocence and said Spence, one of the convicted hitmen, was innocent as well.
An appellate court overturned Deeb’s conviction and he was acquitted in 1993. Spence was executed in 1997, before DNA evidence could clear him of the crime.
Years later, the McLennan district attorney sought DNA analysis to determine whether a man named Benny Carroll was a match for DNA evidence linked to the slayings. The lab said yes. Carroll committed suicide in 1990. He was believed to be linked to multiple other, similar crimes.
Deeb died of cancer six years after he was released.
CONVICTED: 1987 RELEASED: 2004
Ernest Ray Willis
Ernest Ray Willis was convicted of killing two women, Elizabeth Beleu and Gail Allison, who died in what police initially believed was an intentional house fire in the early morning of June 11, 1986 in the tiny town of Iraan, Texas.
Appellate lawyers found that during his trial Willis had been needlessly drugged with antipsychotics by jailers, which rendered him unable to work with his attorneys. The prosecution seized on his emotionless demeanor during trial, characterizing him as an emotionless “satanic demon.” He was convicted and sentenced to death.
Years after the trial, another death row inmate confessed to setting the fire, raising doubt about Willis’ involvement. After the new Pecos County District Attorney reopened the case, arson experts found the house had electrical problems that could have caused the fire and ruled the cause was “undetermined.”
Willis spent 17 years on death row before a federal judge threw out his conviction. The judge found vital evidence in the case was based on faulty science and that Willis had had ineffective representation at trial.
The charges were dismissed and Willis was released in 2004. He was awarded $429,000 in state compensation.
Following his release, Willis used his compensation to start a truck hauling business he ran with his wife, Verilyn.
He had plans to write a book on the story of his wrongful conviction with a Texas Monthly writer who had covered his case. He died after suffering from myriad health issues before he could finish the project, Texas Monthly reported.
He died in January 2021 at age 75.
CONVICTED: 1994 RELEASED: 2008
Three days later, police noticed a car near where Estell’s body was found, and they jotted down the license plate number. The car belonged to Michael Blair, who had previously been convicted of sexually abusing a child, and police quickly homed in on him as a suspect. Blair returned to the scene in his car again three additional days later, and police stopped him.
While searching the vehicle, police found a flyer distributed during the search for Estell when she went missing. They brought Blair into the police station.
Throughout a 10-hour interrogation, Blair said he had the flyer because he had been one of dozens of volunteers who assisted in the search for the missing girl before her body was found. He said he had come – out of lingering concern for the tragedy – to see where police had found her body. He repeatedly denied any involvement with the crime.
Although no one testified they had seen Blair and Estell together, three witnesses told police they saw Blair in the park where the soccer field was on the day of the murder. Two acknowledged they had seen Blair’s face on television as a suspect in the case before going to police with the information.
The prosecution’s case hinged on the eyewitness testimony, as well as forensic analysis of hair and fibers found on Estell, on Blair and in Blair’s car. The jury deliberated for 27 minutes before delivering a guilty verdict, and Blair was then sentenced to death. The case ultimately led to the passage of “Ashley’s Law” signed by Gov. George W. Bush, which expanded the use of mandatory registration for people convicted of child sex abuse.
After DNA analysis became more advanced, in 2001, testing on hair samples from the crime scene and evidence taken from beneath Estell’s fingernails concluded that Blair could not have been the person who’d left the trace evidence linked to the assailant. Collin County prosecutors dropped charges against him in 2008.
This discovery led to Blair’s release from death row, but he did not walk free. While on death row, he confessed and ultimately pleaded guilty to other sexual assaults involving children. He is serving four life sentences for those offenses.
CONVICTED: 1994 RELEASED: 2010
On August 18, 1992, firefighters in the tiny town of Sommerville, northwest of Brenham, discovered six bodies while responding to a call about a burning building. The victims were a 45-year-old woman, her daughter and four of her grandchildren. Each victim had been shot or stabbed multiple times. Whoever committed the crime had poured gasoline around the house and on their bodies and lit the place on fire.
At one of the funerals several days later, police noticed that Robert Carter, the father of one of the slain children, was wearing bandages and had visible burns on his body. Authorities arrested him, and he confessed to the murders, adding that his accomplice had been Anthony Graves, his wife’s cousin.
Police quickly arrested Graves and charged him with the murders. On the basis of Carter’s testimony and a knife Graves owned that investigators believed matched the victims’ stab wounds, Graves was convicted and sentenced to death along with Carter.
Carter later recanted his testimony, saying repeatedly that he’d lied about Graves’ participation. Graves appealed again and again. Each time the courts upheld his sentence and denied his requests for a new trial. Twice the state set an execution date, but he prevailed in motions and the courts spared his life. At his own execution, Carter reiterated in his last words that he had been the sole killer in the small town slayings. He indicated that Graves had nothing to do with the murders and was not present.
Graves and his lawyers continued to fight his conviction, ultimately demonstrating in court that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence that Graves’ defense should have seen. The appeals court threw out his conviction and indicated that he would have to face retrial.
This spurred the local district attorney to re-investigate the case, which ultimately led prosecutors to determine that Graves was innocent. The charges were dismissed in October 2010 and Graves became a free man that day. The prosecutor from his 1994 trial was disbarred in 2016 for misconduct in Graves’ case.
The state granted Graves $1,457,000 compensation for the 18 years he’d spent behind bars as an innocent man. Graves now lives in Houston and is an advocate for criminal justice reform. He works for the Harris County Public Defender’s Office as a community liaison.
CONVICTED: 1999 RELEASED: 2009
Several members of a Lake Worth family had left to go to a convenience store on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. One person who stayed behind heard a knock on the door, but did not see anyone when she looked out the window. Upon their return, the family members found a briefcase at the front doorstep. When they opened it, the briefcase exploded, killing three of them.
Police could find no motive for the bombing, although a neighbor later told them the bomb may have been intended for him since he worked in illegal weapon sales.
In 1997, a jailhouse informant told police that Michael Toney, a 31-year-old awaiting a hearing for a 1993 burglary, had told him that he’d placed the bomb at the home. The informant later recanted, and said he and Toney had made up the story, not thinking Toney would be charged, in hopes that it would help the informant leave jail sooner.
But police pressed forward with capital murder charges against Toney despite the informant’s recantation. They questioned a friend of Toney’s and Toney’s ex wife, each of whom initially said they had no information about the bombing. When pressed in police interviews, they both went on to state that Toney was involved.
Toney was sentenced to death in 1999.
His initial appeals failed, but his lawyers later demonstrated that prosecutors had withheld 14 pieces of exculpatory evidence at trial. Based on this new evidence, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out Toney’s conviction. The case was handed over to the Texas attorney general, who dropped the charges.
CONVICTED: 2001 RELEASED: 2009
The naked bodies of four teenage girls, each with a gunshot wound to the head, were found by firefighters in a burning Austin yogurt shop after closing time in December 1991. The brutal slayings became one of the infamous unsolved crimes in Central Texas, prompting several documentaries and national news investigations in the decades that followed.
A week after the murders, a teenager was found with a gun at a mall near the yogurt shop, the caliber matching what was used in the killings. Police questioned the boy and three of his friends, including Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott. They were initially thought to be promising suspects because of the gun and because they shared information about the slayings that police thought was not available to the public.
But the gun was not a match for the shootings, and after police questioned more than 60 local teenagers, they realized information about the crime scene had spread out of control.
None of the four were arrested or charged, and the investigation stalled. Years later, in 1998, police began reinvestigating the cold case, and suspicion of the four rekindled.
Investigators interrogated Scott for hours over several days. He denied his involvement for many hours, but ultimately said he participated in the slayings. Police then apprehended Springsteen, and he also confessed – under lengthy questioning – to aiding in the killings.
Both men later recanted and said police had coerced them into giving false confessions.
Police charged Scott and Springsteen with capital murder in separate trials, but cases against the other two alleged perpetrators were dismissed prior to their trial dates for lack of evidence.
The prosecution’s main evidence against Scott and Springsteen were their confessions, as well each man’s confessions implicating the other. Springsteen was sent to death row in 2001, while Scott was given a life sentence the following year.
State appellate judges ordered the lower court to retry the cases in 2006, based on the finding that the prosecutors had improperly submitted Scott’s confession during Springsteen’s trial and Springsteen’s confession during Scott’s trial. This violated each man’s constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses, the court said.
CONVICTED: 2005 RELEASED: 2015
A Houston police officer and store clerk were shot and killed during a morning robbery in April 2003 at Ace America’s Cash Express in Houston. Alfred Dewayne Brown, 21, was among three suspects arrested the following day.
Elijah Joubert, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime, pointed the finger at Brown, saying he’d been the one who fatally shot the officer. An employee at a neighboring furniture store said he was “85 percent” confident he’d seen Brown at the store, and Brown’s ex-girlfriend also told officials she’d seen him with Joubert that day.
Brown told police he was sleeping at his girlfriend’s apartment at the time of the crime, an alibi that his girlfriend, Ericka Dockery, initially corroborated. She stated Brown had been at her home when the crime occurred. She had been at work, she said, and Brown had called her from her apartment’s landline that morning. Police said they could not find phone records corroborating that phone call.
After intense questioning by the prosecutor and the grand jury foreman — who happened to be a Houston police officer — Dockery recanted her story, eliminating Brown’s alibi. She testified to the grand jury that Brown had told her he’d participated in the crime. Subsequent reporting by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the foreman and prosecutor had threatened Dockery that she would be charged with perjury and could be imprisoned if she didn’t change her story.
After Brown served nearly a decade on death row, a Houston police investigator found the phone records in his own garage that corroborated Brown’s alibi. After further investigation, the Harris County District Attorney dropped the charges in 2015, and Brown was freed from death row.
The National Registry of Exonerations; Death Penalty Information Center; The Innocence Project; Houston Chronicle; San Antonio Express-News; Texas Monthly