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5 Convicted Murderers Who Might Actually Be Innocent

Their cases were supposedly open-and-shut – but could these famous killers be wrongfully imprisoned?

These five cases appeared to be easy convictions – but supporters say the stories are not what they seem.

ZUMA

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. 

Jodi Arias was convicted of murdering her boyfriend, but she claims it was self-defense.

Tom Tingle/AP

Jodi Arias

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.

Tyra Patterson has been paroled, but she's determined to clear her name.

Tyra Patterson

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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