When the Innocent Plead Guilty

The 29 individuals listed below pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit— usually seeking to avoid the potential for a long sentence (or a death sentence). They served a combined total of more than 150 years in prison before they were exonerated:

Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon pled guilty to a 1979 Mississippi rape and murder they didn’t commit. After the two men were threatened with the death penalty, they testified against a third innocent defendant, Larry Ruffin, and received life sentences. DNA testing obtained by Innocence Project New Orleans led to the three men’s exonerations in 2010. Sadly, Dixon and Ruffin died before their names were cleared.

Larry Bostic served three years in Florida prison after pleading guilty to a rape he did not commit. He has said he was threatened with a life sentence and coerced to pled guilty by the prosecutor and his court-appointed attorney.

Marcellius Bradford served more than six years in Illinois prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He pled guilty and testified against his co-defendants in exchange for a 12-year sentence. Bradford later said he was threatened with a life sentence and coerced to pled guilty and testify. When DNA testing freed Bradford and his three co-defendants in 2001, it also implicated the two men who actually committed the crime.

Keith Brown falsely confessed and pled guilty to a North Carolina rape in 1993. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison but was freed after DNA proved his innocence in 1997.

John Dixon pled guilty to a rape he didn’t commit and spent 10 years in New Jersey prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. After pleading guilty, he asked the judge to withdraw his plea and hold a trial, but the motion was denied and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Anthony Gray falsely confessed to a Maryland rape after interrogating officers told him that two other men had implicated him. He would plead guilty and serve seven years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence.

Eugene Henton served 18 months in Texas prison for a 1984 sexual assault he didn’t commit. He pled guilty in exchange for an 18-month sentence and was freed after serving his sentence. Once free, Henton continued to seek DNA testing in his case and finally obtained the tests that proved his innocence in 2006.

Dwayne Jackson served nearly four years in Nevada prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. He pled guilty after DNA tests allegedly tied him to a robbery. In 2010, a database hit from another crime revealed that the sample had been switched at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Crime Lab, and the evidence from the crime scene actually excluded Jackson.

Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson spent ten years in North Carolina prisons for murder they did not commit. Kagonyera and Wilcoxson pled guilty in order to avoid life sentences. In 2011, newly tested DNA evidence proved their innocence.

William Kelly pled guilty to third-degree murder for allegedly killing a 25-year-old woman in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. He served two years in prison before DNA testing linked another man to the killing, as well as other murders, clearing Kelly. He was freed in 1993.

Michael Marshall pled guilty in 2008 to stealing a truck in Georgia after he was identified by an eyewitness. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but was freed in December 2009 after DNA testing obtained by the Georgia Innocence Project proved his innocence and pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator.

Christopher Ochoa falsely confessed and pled guilty to murder in Texas that he didn’t commit. He testified against his co-defendant to avoid a possible death sentence, and served nearly 12 years in prison before DNA testing led to his exoneration – and also identified the real perpetrator in the case.

James Ochoa pled guilty to a 2005 California carjacking he didn’t commit to avoid a possible sentence of 25 years to life if convicted at trial. Ten months after his conviction, DNA testing proved his innocence and implicated the real perpetrator of the crime.

Steven Phillips was convicted of a string of sexual assaults in Texas in 1982 and 1983 that DNA now shows he didn’t commit. After a jury convicted him of two crimes based on eyewitness misidentification, Phillips pled guilty to nine additional crimes to avoid what amounted to a life sentence. DNA testing finally led to his exoneration – and pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator – 25 years later.

Shainne Sharp and Robert Lee Veal pled guilty to first-degree murder in 1992 and accepted 20-year sentences in order to avoid harsher sentences. The 15-year-old Veal confessed without the presence of his parents or counsel, and Sharp confessed after 21 hours in custody; the two confessions were contradictory. In 2011, the State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against Veal, Sharp, and the three other men wrongly convicted of the Chicago-area murder: Jonathan Barr, Robert Taylor, and James Harden.

Vincent Thames pled guilty to a 1994 Chicago rape and murder in exchange for 30 years in prison, after seeing three other men—Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson, and Michael Saunders—tried and sentenced to 40 years each for the same crime. In 2011, all four of their convictions were vacated after DNA evidence implicated another man.

Jerry Frank Townsend, a man with severe mental disabilities, falsely confessed and pled guilty to six murders and one rape in Florida in the 1970s and was sentenced to life in prison. He served nearly 22 years before DNA testing led to his exoneration.

David Vasquez
served four years in prison for a 1984 Virginia murder he didn’t commit. Vasquez, who is borderline mentally impaired, allegedly made a false admissions of guilt during a police interrogation and pled guilty in exchange for a 35-year sentence. He was exonerated in 1989. 

A Texas jury wrongfully convicted Patrick Waller of aggravated robbery in December 1992 and sentenced him to life in prison. In order to avoid additional prison time, he then pled guilty to two aggravated kidnapping charges related to the same incident in exchange for a sentence to be served concurrently.

John Kenneth Watkins was exonerated in 2010 when DNA testing obtained by the Arizona Justice Project proved his innocence of a 1993 rape. After four hours of police interrogations, Watkins confessed to a rape he did not commit. He then pled guilty to avoid a potential long sentence and served six years in prison before he was finally cleared.

Arthur Lee Whitfield
was charged with two Norfolk, Virginia, rapes in 1981. He was misidentified by both victims and after being convicted of the first rape he pled guilty to the second in exchange for a lighter sentence. He served more than 22 years before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his freedom.

Thomas Winslow and five others – Joseph White, Ada Taylor, Debra Sheldon, Kathy Gonzalez and James Dean – were convicted in Nebraska in 1989 of a murder they didn’t commit. Five of the six defendants – all except White – pled guilty to the crime. Taylor, Sheldon, Gonzalez and Dean falsely confessed and testified against White at his trial.  The six defendants were exonerated when DNA testing conducted in 2008 proved their innocence and pointed to the identity of the actual perpetrator.