5 Convicted Murderers Who Might Actually Be Innocent
Plenty of murder trials inspire heated debate over guilt versus innocence, both in the jury room and in the court of public opinion. Over 20 years later, folks are still fighting over whether O.J. Simpson “did it.” But then there are all the other high-profile cases that, by the time the alleged killer is brought to trial, everyone seems to be in agreement on – the question isn’t if they did it, but how they’ll try to wiggle their way out of it and, when they fail, how serious their punishment will be.
In recent years, true crime has seen a resurgence in popularity, particularly with a focus on wrongful convictions, illuminating various failures of the justice system along the way. Ignored witnesses, faulty timelines, tunnel vision, a reliance on subjective circumstantial evidence and psychological profiling and plain old sloppy investigating – so when these same wrongful conviction hallmarks are also present in high-profile cases long perceived to be a slam dunk? Well, maybe they’re worth giving a second look too.
In August, A&E released the six-part docuseries, The Murder of Laci Peterson, which offered a different perspective on a case that has long been perceived as closed. The series features exclusive audio from death row inmate Scott Peterson, who had little to say following his pregnant wife’s disappearance and murder, and did not take the stand at his 2004 trial. In addition to hearing from his family and attorneys, legal analysts and journalists, the prosecution’s winning case is thoroughly presented through trial footage and interviews with jurors who stand by their decision to convict and sentence Peterson to death.
Arguably amongst the most damning evidence for the jury was Peterson’s brief affair with Amber Frey, with whom he continued to communicate after Laci’s disappearance. Frey was secretly recording their calls for police, and although she obtained nothing incriminating, the audio was incredibly damaging. There was no other evidence to suggest Peterson was unhappy about being married and becoming a father, but the prosecution presented his infidelity as proof of both – as well as a motive to kill.
What they didn’t have was a theory for how or where Laci was killed, because police found no blood or other physical evidence at the Peterson home, at Scott’s warehouse or in the boat he allegedly used to dump the body in the San Francisco Bay. Peterson told police that he spent the day fishing near the Berkeley Marina – and that’s exactly where Laci’s body and her fetus were found (separately) three months later. An impossible coincidence, prosecutors claimed. But Peterson’s alibi was common knowledge – if someone else killed Laci, the docuseries posits, they would have known just where to dispose of her remains in order to evade suspicion by framing Peterson.
And then there are the over two dozen neighborhood witnesses who reported seeing a pregnant woman who looked like Laci walking a dog later that morning, after the prosecution claimed she was already dead. The police dismissed these Laci sightings as not being credible with little if any followup; but the docuseries presents a newly uncovered statement from the Petersons’ regular postman which seems to corroborate those accounts. The couple’s dog McKenzie always barked when he delivered the mail, the postman stated, but on Christmas Eve, the house was quiet, which meant no one was home. According to the timestamp on his digital scanner, this was during the same timeframe as the many Laci sightings. And if Laci was still alive and walking the dog after Peterson left the house, he would not have been able to commit the crime.
So who did kill Laci, if Scott Peterson is innocent? Multiple witnesses reported a burglary across the street from the Peterson’s house on Christmas Eve morning, and one witness even claims that she saw Laci confronting the two men involved. According to the docuseries, It’s a compelling theory.
Nearly 50 years ago, Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret surgeon with the United States Army, was accused of murdering his pregnant wife Colette and two young daughters near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was exonerated by a military court in 1970, but nearly 10 years later, was convicted on criminal charges. Now he’s fighting to prove his innocence based on new evidence which he claims supports the account he’s given all along.
MacDonald has always said that four intruders – three men and one woman – attacked the family in February 1970, while chanting “acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” His two daughters were stabbed to death in their bedrooms, while MacDonald and his wife were found in theirs. “PIG” was written in blood on the headboard. Colette had been stabbed nearly forty times with an ice pick and a knife. MacDonald had been stabbed just once which caused his lung to partially collapse.
Despite his injuries, Army investigators didn’t buy MacDonald’s account and charged him for the murders in May 1970. After seventy witnesses testified at the a six-week-long Article 32 hearing, the presiding colonel exonerated MacDonald and urged civilian authorities to pursue another suspect – a drug-addicted police informant named Helena Stoeckley, who matched MacDonald’s description of the female intruder, and her Army-vet boyfriend, both of whom reportedly told witnesses they were involved.
For the next few years, MacDonald went on with his life, but in 1974, his once supportive stepfather-in-law, now convinced of his guilt, filed a citizen’s criminal complaint that ultimately led to MacDonald being indicted for murder. Prosecutors argued that MacDonald got the idea to stage the crime scene and blame a hippie gang from an article in Esquire about the Tate-LaBianca murders, perpetrated by the Manson Family. MacDonald took the stand in his own defense, but withered under cross examination. He was convicted and sentenced to three life terms.
Since then, MacDonald’s case has continued to attract attention and debate. In 1983, MacDonald was the subject of the true-crime bestseller Fatal Vision, written by Joe McGinniss, which portrayed MacDonald as a calculating sociopath and inspired a made-for-TV miniseries. (A subsequent book, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, eviscerated McGinniss’s approach and has since become a classic on journalistic ethics.) MacDonald’s supporters include filmmaker Errol Morris – director of the classic 1988 wrongful-conviction documentary, The Thin Blue Line – who reexamined the case in his 2012 book A Wilderness of Error, a 500-page opus which detailed how much of the evidence was lost, uncollected, contaminated or unconvincing.
There have also been decades of failed appeals, most recently in 2014. But in January 2017, MacDonald filed a federal appeal based on new evidence, including three hairs found at the scene that don’t match the family’s DNA, and an affidavit alleging that the trial prosecutor intimidated Stoekley into lying on the witness stand. While the unidentified DNA is also not a match for Stoekley (who is now deceased), MacDonald’s attorneys say it proves there was an intruder. It’s unclear when the federal court of appeals will deliver their decision.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1996, in Dallas, Texas, Darlie Routier called 911 in hysterics, screaming that an intruder had broken in to her home and stabbed her and her two young sons. Just a few weeks later, Routier was charged (and ultimately convicted) for the murders of Devon, 6, and Damon, 5. She is now one of 55 women on death row and maintains her innocence. But Routier’s supporters say authorities had tunnel vision from the start, conducted a sloppy investigation and ignored evidence that contradicted their theory.
Police were instantly suspicious, because Routier told them she had little memory of the brutal attack. She and the boys fell asleep in the living room watching a movie, she said, while her husband Darin slept upstairs with their infant son. Routier remembered Damon shaking her awake and seeing the back of male figure walking out of the dark room, through the kitchen and into the garage. She called 911 as soon as she saw all the blood.
Routier was stabbed in the neck near a critical artery, requiring emergency surgery, but prosecutors claimed the wounds were self-inflicted; photos taken at the hospital that show defensive black-and-blue bruises on Routier’s arms – and they were never shown to the jury.
Additionally, bloody clothing belonging to Routier and her children were put in the same evidence bag, risking contamination. The defense didn’t call their own forensic expert to refute prosecution witness Tom Bevel’s testimony that the blood spatter on Routier’s nightshirt was “consistent with” having repeatedly stabbed her sons. His findings have since been disputed as inconclusive and misleading, and over the last 20 years, Bevel’s expert testimony has been linked to at least three wrongful convictions.
Router’s supporters also say police tainted the crime scene, moved furniture and objects before photos were taken, and hastily concluded evidence of forced entry and an intruder – like a sliced window screen in the garage, and a bloody sock in a nearby alley – had been “staged” by Router.
Lacking an obvious motive for such a heinous crime, prosecutors portrayed Routier as a vapid bimbo – she had “bleached hair” and fake breasts – who missed her “lavish” child-free lifestyle. Their most damning evidence was a TV news segment, filmed at the boys’ grave, which showed Routier laughing and playing with silly string.
“She had just lost two children, and yet she’s out literally dancing on their graves,” the prosecutor told them.
Family and friends were actually celebrating what would have been Devon’s 7th birthday; hours earlier, Routier sobbed through a somber memorial service. There was footage of that too, but the jury only saw “silly string” portion, which they asked to view seven times during deliberations.
After the trial, one juror admitted, “if we had been able to see the whole picture of what happened that day, I believe I would not have voted to convict.”
In 2002, a leading forensic anthropologist determined that a bloody fingerprint found on a glass table did not match anyone in the Routier family or involved in the investigation, and her current appeal is pending further advanced DNA testing. The State of Texas has offered to reduce Routier’s sentence to life without parole if she would admit guilt, but she’s refused.
If there’s anyone in recent memory who can compete with the Scott Peterson as the most hated murder suspect in America, it’s Jodi Arias. In 2008, Arias was charged with the premeditated murder of her on-off-boyfriend Travis Alexander in Mesa, Arizona. She didn’t stand trial until 2013, and by then, the media had all but convicted her. A jury followed suit, and Arias was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2015.
Unlike Peterson, Arias doesn’t claim to be innocent, at least not anymore – at trial, she testified to shooting Alexander in self-defense. But that was her third explanation for what occurred on June 4th, 2008, the day police believe Alexander was killed. Arias initially denied even being in Arizona, but when evidence put her at the crime scene, she admitted to being there, but blamed two intruders for the murder. Two years later, her story changed to self-defense.
Arias testified for 18 days at her trial in 2013, at which time she described the couple’s sex life in graphic detail. Alexander, a devout Mormon, had a preference for anal sex because it wasn’t as much of a violation of church doctrine. Arias also alleged that Alexander could be emotionally and physically abusive, saying he once choked her to the point of passing out. That’s why, Arias claimed, she feared for her life when Alexander allegedly attacked her for dropping his camera. Prosecutors said she shot him with her grandparents’ stolen gun, but Arias said it was Alexander’s gun and the shooting was an accident. She was in a fog after that, the result of what a defense expert called post-traumatic amnesia, but admitted to tossing the gun, which has never been found.
The gun also is not the murder weapon – the bullet hit Alexander near his eyebrow and ended up in his cheek, but it didn’t kill him. A knife did – Alexander had 27 stab wounds to his chest and back, but he ultimately bled to death from his neck, which had been cut from ear to ear under his chin. Arias testified that she couldn’t remember stabbing Alexander or slicing his throat, but she did remember the knife clattering to floor in the bathroom. The prosecution also changed their theory from the gunshot being first (which Arias’s account corroborates) to last, a coup de grâce they said demonstrated Arias’s cruelty. This was contradictory to the autopsy report, conducted five years earlier, as was the medical examiner’s testimony that the bullet penetrated Alexander’s brain, incapacitating him.
The state’s timeline depended on their interpretation of crime scene evidence and a series of timestamped photos recovered from Alexander’s camera, which had been found in the washing machine. Arias took photos of Alexander in the shower “seconds” before stabbing him, the prosecutor claimed, and when the camera fell to the ground, it took a few more photos “accidentally,” as Arias dragged Alexander’s dead body. But these “accidental” photos are dark and distorted, there’s nothing to conclusively identify Alexander or Arias and her supporters question the validity of the manually-added timestamps.
Prosecutors said the photos prove Alexander was killed on June 4, 2008 — but the autopsy doesn’t determine a date or time of death based on decomposition, and the medical examiner didn’t testify about it. Arias’s supporters believe her attorneys failed her by not questioning such flimsy evidence for Alexander’s date of death, when it’s the only day that week that Arias did not have an alibi. They also say she wouldn’t have the strength to move Alexander’s body the way prosecutors claimed, nor the time to do two loads of laundry before his roommate got home less than an hour later.
Over the next five days, neither of Alexander’s roommates noticed the “overwhelming” smell of decomposition permeating the home, and both told detectives that they saw the victim after he was supposedly dead. Conveniently, neither was called to testify.
Arias’s supporters are adamant that Mesa PD bungled the investigation and withheld evidence, and her own attorneys were too focused on avoiding a death penalty sentence instead of pushing for a not guilty verdict. Because Arias gave sworn testimony admitting her culpability in Alexander’s death, a reduced sentence may be her best hope, but some supporters don’t believe she should be in jail at all. Arias may have shot Alexander in self-defense, they say, but a more thorough review of the forensic evidence would produce reasonable doubt that she actually killed him. And given how unpredictable Arias has been, it’s certainly possible she’ll change her story for the fourth time.
Late one night in September 1994, in Dayton, Ohio, 19-year-old Tyra Patterson found herself at wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong group of teenagers. Months later, Patterson was convicted of aggravated murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison; though she was recently granted parole after 23 years, she’s still determined to clear her name.
That night, Patterson and her friend, Becca Stidham, were hanging around a group of five acquaintances, who got into an altercation with another group of teens, including two sisters, Michelle and Holly Lai. The Lai sisters and their friends had allegedly been out “roguing,” or driving around looking for open garages to rob. Words were exchanged between the two groups, and Michelle Lai was fatally shot in the head.
Even though prosecutors ultimately learned that Patterson’s codefendant shot Lai, Patterson was charged with aggravated murder for her participation, after confessing to stealing a necklace. Patterson claimed that her recorded confession to police was false and coerced. A detective, she said, threatened her and implied that Stidham had been released because she had provided them with information. So, Patterson made up a story.
“I saw the girl in the back with a necklace on,” Patterson told police. “I took the necklace. I didn’t hit her or nothing, I just grabbed it.”
Patterson later said she didn’t rob anyone – she found the necklace on the ground and later flushed it – and was not even present for the shooting. After trying to deescalate the situation, Patterson and Stidham headed home and heard a gunshot on the way. Patterson called 911 as soon as she got home, using a fake name. The jury never knew about, let alone heard the 911 call, and the defense did not call Patterson or her friend Stidham to testify. Prosecutors focused on Patterson’s robbery confession, but the surviving victims contradicted each other when identifying which of the defendants was responsible for the various offenses – including snatching Candice Brogan’s necklace from around her neck.
Nevertheless, Patterson was convicted and sentenced to 43 years to life, incurring what’s referred to as a “trial tax” – a penalty for having the audacity to claim innocence and forcing a case to trial. Stidham and three of Patterson’s codefendants have since sworn under oath that she was not involved in either the robbery or the murder. Six of the 12 members of the jury have provided affidavits saying that if they had known about the 911 call they would have found her not guilty. And Holly Lai, who initially told police that Patterson wasn’t involved, now says that detectives pressured her to change her story with force-fed details.
“I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle’s murder,” Lai wrote in a letter to Ohio governor John Kasich. “I believe it is wrong for Tyra to stay locked up.”
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