When the Innocent Plead Guilty

The 31 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.

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.

Michael Phillips   was the only suspect in the rape of a 16-year-old white girl that occurred at the motel where he worked and lived. Philips, who is black, and was misidentified by the victim in a photo lineup, feared a jury would take her word over his and agreed to a plea bargain to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was exonerated when semen from the victim’s rape kit excluded him as the source in July of 2014.

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.

Rodney Roberts  pleaded guilty to kidnapping after police said a  rape victim picked Roberts out of a photo lineup. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. In 2007, the case was remanded back to court and the victim denied she picked any suspect out of a photo lineup. In 2013, DNA testing was preformed which excluded Roberts from the crime. He was exonerated and released in March of 2014.

Mandel Rogers  was  arrested in 1997 and charged in relation to three separate armed robberies and one armed robbery and sexual assault. In 1999 he was convicted of two of the charges and took a plea for the other two for a reduced sentence of 12 years. In 2010 DNA evidence from the sexual assault was run through the CODIS DNA database and hit to another offender.  Rogers filed state petitions for writs of habeas corpus in all four of his convictions seeking to vacate his no-contest pleas.  Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ for and vacated the robbery and sexual assault case but denied the writs for the three other cases.

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.



  2. Cara Badie

    Please I need help finding someone who can help me they have lock up my son on charges that is not tire they haven’t came and talk to his witness they keep telling him they don’t have no DNA but they won’t let him out can you please let me know if it is someone I can talk to

  3. CJ Hudson

    They do it all the time! Officers inflate charges (accepted as truth, allegations made by accuser- when making arrest)- hoping one will stick or thinking that it will work its way out in the wash, when the prosecutor reviews it. But it still results in a felony arrest- BEFORE the plea deal is ‘offered’ (actually they use the plea deal to ‘get something to stick’). It’s a game to them. It’s a life to someone else. They’ve become drunk, and toxic, w/ their own egos and cynicism. They have NO idea, the damage that they’re doing. We can’t keep allowing these things to happen. We can’t!

  4. Sally Ride

    This is frightening. My son is an ex con from an incident when he was 20. Even with a college degree he could not get a job. 130 IQ. So he becomes a handyman. He has only 5 star reviews about his work. He worked this career for 6 years and not a single negative remark. An old woman sees him working at our rental and begs him to build her a deck. She pays with credit card and loves him and the work . She texts him this. She hires him for 2nd small project, loves the work, texts this and pays with credit card. Then a third same scenario, same glowing texts. Finally she hires him to do a $12,000 bath remodel. She texts,and begs him. He texts back I am not contractor, she texts she cant afford permit and contractor. He says beis not liscensced . Reluctantly, you can see this in texts, he agrees. He starts the grueling job , using a shovel to dig out 5 feet of dirt to get to plumbing lines. They go together to Lowes. She buys all the supplies including a coke for him. She sigs for it. She does this twice. Then she decides this is too much trouble a d TEXTS him that her credit card is on the counter, could he just use it and sign her name and get what he needs. He does this. (Scary music now) He finishes job, she texts she loves it. She pays with credit card. 1 month goes by and he hears from credit card company that she is disputing the $12,000 . He texts her several times asking if she needs him to fix something. She does not give anything and texts she has no money. He goes to her house and asks what needs fixing. He does state in firm terms he will get his money. She slams the door in his face. A few weeks later he gets restaining order!! Then she disputes all of her charges. The credit card sides with my son.THEN she goes to the police and have him arrested for working without a liscence, pretending to be a contractor ,forging her redit card, theft by conversion from credit card, and scamming an elderly person. We try to show email to police, woukdnt even look!! We tried to show to jusge at bail hearing and He would’t listen or look. DA makeshimookike repeat offender with 5 counts. So judge denies bail and next hearing set in 6 months. We feel the emails prove the old lady is the one scamming, trying to get out of paying $30,000 in bills! His lawyer said he will be found guilty of not having liscence etc andmaybeeven the forgery even with text permission. He said jury will belie e old lady and he should plea d out. Unfortunately, we know he is right due NOT TO THESE charges, but his record. He wouldnt even get chance to testify because jury will then learn he is excon, an old lady will be credible. So we are considering guilty is best chance for lighter sentence. Petrified of forgery charge. We so want a jury to see the text messages, but the risk is just too great. He has supportive wife and darling 3 year old. Everyone that reads the texts say it is clear cut. But the “penalty of trial” justooms too large. May take full page ad of texts after court decides. Want the public to know!!,

  5. MzMorgan

    I pled guilty! My husband had me arrested by lying, stating to the police that I was his estranged wife and I didn’t live in our home, and the car I trashed was only his. In court I was offered a lesser criminal charge. The case was supposed to be civil because we are married. Now there is a no contact order of protection, where I am the perp. My husband spit on me and then grab me an ripped my shirt off outside, to get his hands off me, I hit him once and lift a small sctratch on his face. I pled guilty because my attorney told me it was best, I wanted to fight the case but, because I work for the city; I was told just to take the deal. I want to know how or who can I write to to get this overturned. I was thrown out of our home with all my children and he took everything. I filed for my divorce but I think the judge is helping him because of the order of protection. I just want this overturned can someone please help me.

  6. Hello my name is Michelle Dawson my son took a plea to avoid,25 years on a ,CNC1 the prosecution lawyer cheated my son out of his life. They kept him in jail for One year and they raised his bond so we could not get him out. The first case he was 12 again no proof just here say. My son is doing 8years
    For a crime that supposed to sexualy assaulted a girl 10 years ago . They made sure that we the defense team did not testify in his behalf . The trial started on Monday we was told that we did not have to be there to testify till Wednesday
    On Tuesday they had the girls testify. My son had nothing none of the 13 defense witness he was set up. They had nothing on him because they knew that the girls were lying. They had nothing on him no DNA nothing . My son was set up and he had no defense on his side. The prosecutor knew they had no case on my son only here say so they went on the first case previous he had . My son had to register as sex a fender which he was also taking off because he did what he had to be done. Now here,10 year ok later another girl who claims her father touched which his name was Aaron also.on the police report they had scramble it to comply with her lie. I am currently working my lawsuit against the State of Michigan and as soon as I get 10 000 I will be getting a lawyer to help free him because they know he is innocent. Thank you for listening to me. But God making a way for me. I will stop till my son is free
    And then I will sue the State of Michigan for wrongfully accusing this second time.

  7. I want my son out of prison
    Grand Rapids court put my son in prison for not only two crimes
    As long as I live I’m coming to get My son out of prison. And God and Jesus to help .

  8. I want my son out of prison
    Grand Rapids court put my son in prison for not one only but two crimes
    As long as I live I coming to get My son out of prison. And God and Jesus help .

  9. Yolanda Ashford

    My son was convicted of a crime in Port Huron Michigan that he did not do.the witness stated he was not the one and police found my son laid out by the woods and the other person was in the woods the system did not test the gun for finger prints or the Bandana to see if there was saliva there was no video of my son but one picture of the other guy in the store buying items well anyway my son was on parole doing good the court said the witness that testifies that it wasn’t my son by the witness from overseas there testifies was irrevalant the witness stated the guy that robbed him had a cross on his face a mark above his eye my son has a teardrops the prosecutor said they not reliable but the own a store in USA so they brung a pair of shoes that looks like boats my son where a size 8 half they found the Gun registration a gun holsters there was nothing at my son place.the other guy was driving my son girlfriend car when all this came to a stop the other guy gave the police access to check the car this case is crazy the guy took a plea my son facing 26 years and the other guy doing 7 years the prosecutor stated my son was the ring leader the Judge stated the other guy took a plea the other did not …

  10. Des

    My son pled guilty to aggravated assault of a child (my step-niece) to protect his grandfather( my father). My son passed the lie detector test. But he pled guilty because the DA was saying 25 yrs. to life.
    He was just 22, never been in trouble, he was scared. My son told me that my dad had molested him at the age of 18 after he had been convicted in 2014. My father has not tried to contact me or my son since 05/2012 when the accusation had come out. I believe my father did because my niece was always alone with my dad. My son and father has the same first name. All my nieces and nephews would call my son by his first and middle name. But she said the fist name only and eveyone assumed it was my son ( and couldn’t be grandpa). Since this has come out she is no longer spending time with her grandfather and for Father’s Day she never mention him on her facebook.
    He is a pastor of a church we trusted him.
    I trusted him. Never Ever in this life again..

  11. Cindy Grillo

    My youngest son pleade guilty for a drug conviction. He was the driver of the car and was pulled over for rolling a stop sign. He was with my oldest son who is a drug dealer. My youngest son was not aware. My oldest son convinced my youngest ( who had no record at the time) to take responsibility because he would just get probation, my son, the drug dealer has a record where he would go to prison. Since this has happened my youngest son has had a hard time, and has violated probation. Dec 8 is his court date, I want the truth and facts to be known and both children to be accountable for what actually happened. I’m sure you get many requests, but please understand, as a mother this is difficult, but I have always told the boys to take responsibility for their actions. My youngest is facing jail/prison time for something he is innocent of. My oldest drug dealer acts as life is great

  12. Anonymous suicide

    Forgot to mention my cousins brother that I was accused of soliciting was on my side saying it never happened, even to this day. To him I say thank you. As the only way he could testify is if his parents let him and seeing how they were the ones who accused me it wasnt happening. And since my brother was 30 secs ahead of us when heading downstairs, he couldnt be considered around for 100% duration. Life is a female dog, huh. 🙁

  13. etina hafoka

    The innocence project seems like your best bet…..remember, lawyer have hundreds of cases, the easiest way is to have who they think is guilty plead to it; because if I was a lawyer and I knew my client was innocent, I would never make them plead guilty….I would say a prayer and ask for My Heavenly Fathers help, then write down my strategy, then fight like hell with God on my side that truth and light will prevail..

    If they tell u to plead guilty, it’s because they don’t believe u…

    I would never plead guilty if I knew I was innocent…

    I think we have far removed ourselves from the creator of us all; need to go back to basics of having faith to call on him to guide us; ALWAYS!!!!…

  14. Brenda VanHalst

    Please help me I don’t know what to do to help my son . He was found quilty on a murder charge in Texas and got 47 yrs. There was no DNA or evidence against my son , they tested 40ty some items and nothing belonged to my son . I need help on what to do and where to turn. Please someone help me !!!

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