Death Row Stories

Death Row Stories, Season 3
Sundays at 7.30pm AEST from July 8 until August 26

The justice system in the United States deals with a high number of serious criminal acts every year, with more than 15,000 murders typically occurring annually.

The great majority of these murders are solved, but on occasion, as with any other system, mistakes are made in a small number of cases.

Reasons behind errors of this type vary widely and can include incompetent investigations, racism, a strong drive to convict at all costs, and the outright concealment and corruption of evidence.

Death Row Stories looks at some of these events where incredible twists and turns, unexpected revelations and scientific progress have revealed that innocent men have been sentenced to death and imprisoned for many years.  It is a powerful argument against the death penalty.


  1. Episode 8: Two Brothers:

In September 1983, the body of eleven-year-old Sabrina Buie was found in a field in Red Springs, North Carolina. Investigating officers were appalled to find that she had been raped, beaten and suffocated through having her underwear forced down her throat with a stick.

Preliminary investigations led police to question two brothers – 19-year old Henry McCollum and 16-year old Leon Brown. After an intensive and lengthy interrogation they were charged with rape and murder and committed for trial.

The prosecutor was the flamboyant Joe Freeman Britt, and he convinced the jury of the brother’s guilt and they were both sentenced to death.

There was considerable unease with this verdict as both brothers were substantially below the average IQ and the defence felt that they had been taken advantage of during the police interrogation.

They languished on death row for 5 years, but were granted a retrial because of incorrect procedure in their first courtroom appearance. However their hopes were dashed soon after when Henry was again found guilty and sentenced to death. However Leon’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

In 2014 a major breakthrough followed when the recently introduced DNA technology was applied to a cigarette found at the crime scene and found to belong to another man – convicted rapist Roscoe Artis who had lived in the victim’s neighbourhood.

It was also discovered that the original prosecutor, Joe Freeman Britt had concealed evidence

and a new trial was ordered in September 2014. After more than three decades behind bars both men were declared to be innocent and set free.

After their release Henry and Leon each received $750,000 from the State of North Carolina for 30 years wrongful imprisonment.


  1. Episode 2: Love Kills:

On 23 April 1996 the half naked body of 19-year-old Stacey Stites was found by the side of the road in Bastrop County, Texas. She had been raped and strangled. The following police investigation firstly looked closely at her fiancée, Police Officer Jimmy Fennell but he was cleared after providing a plausible alibi.

Police then found a DNA link with local man Rodney Reed, who was also suspected in having been involved in other sexual assault cases. Reed was arrested, put on trial and found guilty before being sentenced to death. Reed strongly denied being the murderer and instead claimed that he had been having a consensual affair with Stites.

A series of appeals followed over the next few years and further investigations showed that there were major irregularities in the police investigation

that cast some doubt on the justice of the sentence.

Then, in 2007, Fennell, as a working police officer, was found guilty of kidnapping and sexual assault involving a person in his custody and received a 10-year prison term.

This rang alarm bells with the Rodney Reed legal team as it showed that Fennell was entirely capable of sexual violence towards women and this, they claimed, pointed to him as the likely killer. Further investigations also cast considerable doubt on the timeline of the murder and

and this evidence eventually resulted in a stay of Reed’s execution. He remains incarcerated with further appeals pending.


  1. Episode 3: Mississippi Mother:

In April 1989 18-year- old African American woman Sabrina Butler arrived at the Columbus Hospital in Mississippi with the dead body of her 9 month-old-boy.

Investigators were suspicious of the explanations that Sabrina offered and she was eventually charged with murder.  She was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Several years later, while waiting on death row and going through the appeals process, a defence attorney, Clive Stafford Smith

uncovered a corrupt system operating in Mississippi where medical examiners skewed autopsy reports to favour the prosecution in some murder cases.

Sabrina Butler was able to secure a retrial in 1995 and was fully exonerated. She was set free after six years behind bars.

She is the first of only two women in the United States to be exonerated from Death Row.


  1. Episode 7. Murdered babysitter:

In November 1984 babysitter Linda Rodgers was surprised by an intruder in a Santa Ana home and was sexually assaulted, stabbed and strangled, in a particularly brutal murder.

A local transient with a police record, Kenneth Clair, was arrested, tried, found guilty of the murder and in 1987, sentenced to death.

But this was only the beginning of a long series of appeals that uncovered a great deal of contradictory forensic evidence, allegations of withheld information and poor legal advice Clair was forced to take in his initial trial.

Clair’s death sentence was later overturned amid the efforts of a private investigator who launched a petition to free Clair through the online forum, a petition that attracted thousands of responses.

Although his death sentence was commuted Clair has not been exonerated, and remains in prison. Some 30 years later he is to undergo resentencing with the chance of a life sentence with parole.


  1. Episode 6: Feds versus Outlaws:

In February 1983 law enforcement authorities investigating a shocking quadruple homicide in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, eventually accused the leader of the notorious biker club “The Outlaws”, of the murders.

Clarence “Smitty” Smith, a Vietnam veteran, was eventually cleared of these killings

but then convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 car bombing of a federal witness in New Orleans. However, with the help of defence attorney Clive Stafford Smith, this sentence was appealed and Smith was exonerated for the second time.

But then in an amazing development, Federal authorities invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act –  (RICO) and in 1996 Smith was again charged with the Fort Lauderdale murders and the New Orleans bombing.

This time, in 1997, he was found guilty

and sentenced to life without parole.


  1. Episode 1: Family Lies:

The shocking case of the murder of a family of six in a rural Texas town in August 1992 led to a sensational series of events that resulted in the execution of one man and the wrongful conviction of another. It also resulted in a high profile Texas Prosecutor later being disbarred for professional conduct.

The murders were particularly gruesome involving shooting, stabbing and clubbing with a blunt object, killing two adults and four children. The house in which the murders occurred was then set on fire.

Police arrested a suspect, Robert Carter, who admitted setting the house on fire, but then blamed another man, Robert Graves for the murders. A long investigation followed and both men were charged with murder and sentenced to death.

Carter was executed by lethal injection in 2000, but sensationally, before his death, he recanted his earlier testimony and denied that Graves was involved in any way.

Graves launched a series of appeals, and was finally freed in 2010, after serving 18 years in gaol, 16 of them on “death row”.

The Prosecutor, Charles Sebesta was disbarred for professional misconduct in 2015, for withholding important evidence from the Courts during Graves’ legal actions.


By: R. Whitaker

Image:Prison photo of Rodney Alcala, 2 September 1997, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.