Death Row Exonerations for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Document Date: December 9, 2003

If people with intellectual disabilities with a mental age of 5 could be executed, does that mean that 5-year-olds should be executed? – asked by Justice David Souter during oral arguments in Atkins v. Virginia

People with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted. With their desire to please authority figures, they are very susceptible to being influenced during interrogation and sometimes “confess” to crimes they did not commit. Most law enforcement officials do not receive training in how to properly question suspects with intellectual disabilities, which frequently results in suspects with intellectual disabilities giving false confessions. Furthermore, they may have much greater difficulty fully understanding their legal rights, and therefore are unable to fully comprehend the significance of waiving those rights. Their intelligence level also makes it extremely complicated for them to participate in their own defense. For these reasons, the United States Supreme Court has held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute people with intellectual disabilities. Now states must fashion legislation to ensure that offenders with intellectual disabilities are not executed. The following cases are examples of innocent individuals with intellectual disabilities who were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes and were later exonerated.

David Vasquez, Virginia

Convicted: 1985
Exonerated: 1989

David Vasquez was arrested for the murder of a woman who was killed in her Arlington County, Virginia home. She was sexually assaulted and then hung. Vasquez, who has a borderline intellectual disability, had reportedly confessed to the crime, allegedly supplying details not released to the public. Additionally, Vasquez could not provide an alibi and was placed near the scene of the crime by two eyewitnesses. Investigators also found pubic hairs that visually resembled those of Vasquez. Vasquez’ attorneys argued that the interrogations were tainted because of his lower than normal intelligence. Friends said that he reacts to the world like a young child and that he is easily flustered under pressure. He was described in court as having ‘low normal’ intelligence. He was so scared of being executed that he pled guilty to a crime he did not commit. Vasquez’ innocence, and limited mental capacity, was demonstrated by his interrogation by the police. Apparently, Vasquez began to incorporate into his responses details supplied by the police officers.

The following is an excerpt from the interrogation of Vasquez by the police.

Detective 1: Did she tell you to tie her hands behind her back?

Vasquez: Ah, if she did, I did.

Detective 2: Whatcha use?

Vasquez: The ropes?

Detective 2: No, not the ropes. Whatcha use?

Vasquez: Only my belt.

Detective 2: No, not your belt… Remember being out in the sunroom, the room that sits out to the back of the house? …and what did you cut down? To use?

Vasquez: That, uh, clothesline?

Detective 2: No, it wasn’t a clothesline, it was something like a clothesline. What was it? By the window? Think about the Venetian blinds, David. Remember cutting the Venetian blind cords?

Vasquez: Ah, it’s the same as rope?

Detective 2: Yeah.

Detective 1: Okay, now tell us how it went, David — tell us how you did it.

Vasquez: She told me to grab the knife, and, and, stab her, that’s all.

Detective 2: (voice raised) David, no, David.

Vasquez: If it did happen, and I did it, and my fingerprints were on it…

Detective 2: (slamming his hand on the table and yelling) You hung her!

Vasquez: What?

Detective 2: You hung her!

Vasquez: Okay, so I hung her.

Because of this “confession,” David Vasquez spent five years in prison before he was pardoned. DNA testing was performed on evidence collected from other crimes where the perpetrator used the same methods used in the murder for which Vasquez was convicted. Testing led to a man convicted for two other rape/murders. The prosecution joined with defense attorneys to secure a pardon for Vasquez, which was granted in 1989. (Source: The Innocence Project,, the Campaign To End The Death Penalty, and The Washington Post, 7/16/89)

Jerry Frank Townsend, Florida


Jerry Frank Townsend has an intellectual disability, with significant limitations. Nevertheless, he was convicted of six murders and one rape and sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences. In 1979, Townsend was arrested for raping a pregnant woman in Miami, Florida. During the investigation, he confessed to other murders. The confessions were largely the consequence of Townsend wanting to please authority figures, a common adaptive practice by someone with intellectual disabilities. Police took Townsend to murder scenes and recorded his confessions. In 1980, Townsend was convicted of first-degree murder for the 1973 killings of Naomi Gamble and Barbara Brown in Broward County. Not only did Townsend confess to these two murders, but he also confessed to the murder of 13-year-old Sonja Marion in 1979. In 1982, he pled guilty to two slayings in Miami in the late 1970s and no contest to two 1979 murders in Broward.

Eventually, Townsend was cleared by DNA evidence following actions in 1998, when Sonja Marion’s mother had a Fort Lauderdale police detective review the Townsend cases. In 2000, DNA testing of a semen sample on the child’s shorts implicated another man. DNA evidence cleared Townsend for two of the six murders. The evidence pointed to another individual, and cast substantial doubt on the accuracy of all of Townsend’s confessions. Without the confession evidence, the prosecutors asked that Townsend’s convictions be thrown out, especially since DNA testing had actually located the perpetrator in some of the crimes. In April 2001, Townsend was cleared of two Broward killings through further DNA testing, eliminating two of his seven life sentences. Ultimately, he was cleared of all the Broward charges and released on June 15, 2001, at the age of forty-nine, after spending twenty-two years in prison. (Source: The Innocence Project)

Earl Washington, Virginia

Convicted: 1984
Exonerated: 2000

Earl Washington has an intellectual disability. After he was arrested on another charge in 1983, police questioned him about the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpepper, Virginia woman. Washington “confessed” to the crime but got several important facts wrong, such as the race of the victim, the location of the crime and the extent of the victims’ injuries. He was described in court papers as a farmhand with an IQ of 69. Police investigators, untrained in interviewing people with intellectual disabilities, led Washington to changing his answers until they matched the facts of the crime. Washington later recanted his statement. Subsequent DNA tests confirmed that Washington did not rape the victim, who had lived long enough to tell police and her husband that there was only one perpetrator of the crime. The DNA results combined with the victim’s statement all but exonerated Washington. Shortly before leaving office in 1994, Governor Wilder commuted Washington’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole. In 2000, additional DNA tests were ordered and the results again excluded Washington as the rapist. In October 2000, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore granted Earl Washington an absolute pardon. (Statement of Governor Jim Gilmore Regarding the Pardon of Earl Washington, 10/2/00; The New York Times, 10/3/00; and The Washington Post, 9/24/00, 10/4/00, and 2/15/01; Virginian-Pilot & Ledger-Star (Norfolk, VA), 6/26/94; Death Penalty Information Center)

Anthony Porter, Illinois

Convicted: 1983
Exonerated: 1999

Anthony Porter was released in February 1999 on the motion of the State’s Attorney after another man confessed on videotape to the 1982 double murder that sent Porter to death row. Charges were filed against the other man, who claimed he killed in self-defense. Porter has a profound intellectual disability. He “confessed” to the crime because of his incapacity to understand his rights. He had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure he could have comprehended what was happening to him, or why.

The case was broken by investigator Paul Ciolino working with Prof. David Protess and journalism students from Northwestern University. Their investigation also found that another witness had been pressured by police to testify against Porter. Porter came within 2 days of execution in 1998 when the execution was stayed because the Court wanted to look into his mental competency. His conviction was officially reversed on March 11, 1999. (The New York Times, 2/6/99 and 3/12/99; Death Penalty Information Center; Center on Wrongful Convictions)

Alejandro Hernandez, Illinois

Convicted: 1985
Exonerated: 1995

Alejandro Hernandez was sentenced to death along with Rolando Cruz for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico in 1983. Hernandez was re-tried in 1990, but the trial ended in a hung jury. A third trial in 1991 resulted in a conviction and an 80-year prison sentence. The conviction was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1995. No physical evidence, only his own statements, linked Hernandez, who has an intellectual disability, to the killing. An anonymous caller had told police that Hernandez knew about the crime. Hernandez, a youth with a low IQ and a propensity for fantasy, denied involvement. Police misconduct was cited by appellate judges. One officer who claimed Hernandez made incriminating statements didn’t document them for almost four years. Others said they never took notes, or claimed their notes were lost or destroyed. Another police officer, who testified to what Hernandez allegedly said, acknowledged that he understood only part of the conversation because Hernandez was also speaking in Spanish.

On November 3, 1995, Hernandez was set free. The court dismissed Hernandez’s case on the basis of the recanted testimony, the DNA evidence, and the lack of any corroborated evidence against them. He was released on bond, and charges were subsequently dropped on Dec. 8, 1995. The man who has confessed to the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, and whose DNA has been linked to the crime, has not been charged in the case. The U.S. Dept. of Justice is considering an investigation into civil rights violations in this case based on the police misconduct. (People v. Hernandez, 521 N.E.2d 25 (Ill. 1988); Associated Press, 12/8/95; The National Law Journal; Death Penalty Information Center; Chicago Sun-Times, 12/10/95; The Innocence Project)

Anthony Gray, Maryland

Convicted: 1991
Exonerated: 1999

In Calvert County, Maryland, in October 1991, Anthony Gray pled guilty to first-degree murder and first-degree rape and was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. The convictions were based on a “confession,” which police officers coaxed out of Gray, who has an intellectual disability, by telling him that two other men arrested in connection with the case had told police that Gray was involved. Gray is of below-average intelligence. He was pressured into the confession, believing he would avoid the death penalty if he entered a guilty plea and agreed to testify against two other men. Gray said he pleaded guilty because ‘they were trying to give me the death penalty for something I didn’t do. . . . Why should I die for something I didn’t do?’

Years later, the conviction came under intense scrutiny – from the Calvert County State’s Attorney as well as Gray’s new lawyers – when a man arrested in connection with a burglary reported unpublicized details about the 1991 murder. DNA testing of semen recovered from the crime scene, which had excluded both Gray and the two other men originally arrested, produced a match with the burglary suspect, who pled guilty to the rape-murder in 1997. In December 1999, more than seven years after he was first jailed, Gray won his release. (Source: The Innocence Project, The Washington Post,

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