12 Fascinating and Mysterious Criminal Cases

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1. The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Everyone has heard the story of Lincoln’s assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth, but the ensuing manhunt and trial of the conspirators (held before a secret military commission) is conspicuously absent from the history books. Lincoln’s assassination was not the product of a single deranged individual, but the act of a complex web of conspirators, leading back to the heads of the Confederate party and mysterious confederate terrorists based out of Canada, who among other deeds, attempted to defeat the Union with biological warfare.

Read the full account here.

2. The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial

The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, should serve as a cautionary tale. When it was all over, the government had spent seven years and $15 million dollars investigating and prosecuting a case that led to no convictions.  More seriously, the McMartin case left in its wake hundreds of emotionally damaged children, as well as ruined careers for members of the McMartin staff.  No one paid a bigger price than Ray Buckey, one of the principal defendants in the case, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial for a crime (most people recognize today) he never committed.

Read the full account here.

3. The Dingo Trial

On August 17, 1980, at a campsite near Australia’s famous Ayer’s Rock, a mother’s cry came out of the dark: “My God, my God, the dingo’s got my baby!” Soon  the people of an entire continent would be choosing sides in a debate over whether the cry heard that night marked an astonishing and rare human fatality caused by Australia’s wild dogs or was, rather, in the words of the man who would eventually prosecute her for murder, “a calculated, fanciful lie.”  A jury of nine men and three women came to believe the latter story and convicted Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her ten-week-old daughter, Azaria. Three years later, police investigating the death of a fallen climber discovered Azaria’s matinee jacket near a dingo den, and the Australian public confronted the reality that its justice system had failed.

Read the full account here.

4. The Trial of Charles Manson

In the annals of crime, there might never have been a more bizarre motive for killing than that revealed in the 1970-71 trial of four Manson “Family” members.  In the twisted mind of thirty-four-year-old Charles Manson, a wave of bloody killings of high-society types in Los Angeles would be the spark that would set off a revolution by blacks against the white establishment.  When “blackie,” as Manson called black people, proved unable to govern, they would turn to Manson and his tribe of followers, who would have survived “Helter Skelter” by hiding out in an underground cave in the Death Valley area of California while the chaos raged above.

Read the full account here.

5. The Massie “Honor Killing” Trials

Two dramatic criminal trials, one for rape and one for murder and both involving multiple defendants, forever changed the nature of Hawaiian race relations and politics.  Filled with twists and turns and unanswered questions, the trials have all the elements of a good mystery.

Read the full account here.

6. The Trial of Leo Frank

The discovery of the body of a thirteen-year-old girl in the basement of an Atlanta pencil factory where she had gone to collect her pay check shocked the citizens of that crime-ravaged southern city and roused its public officials to find a suspect and secure a conviction.  Unfortunately, it now seems, events and the South’s anti-Semitism conspired to lead to the conviction of the wrong man, the factory’s Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank.  The case ultimately drew the attention of the United States Supreme Court and the Governor of Georgia, but neither the Constitution nor a Governor’s commutation could spare Frank a violent death at the end of rope strung from a Georgia oak tree.

Read the full account here.
7. The Trial of Patty Hearst
The security camera of the Sunset District branch of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco showed Patricia Hearst holding an assault rifle as members of the Symbionese Liberation Army carried out the midday robbery.  Was the rich heiress, kidnaped two months earlier, acting in fear of her life?  Was she brainwashed?  Or did she participate in the robbery as a loyal soldier in “the revolution”?  That was the issue a California jury had to decide in the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst.

Read the full account here.

8. The Trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard

On July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard, the wife of a handsome thirty-year-old doctor, Sam Sheppard, was brutally murdered in the bedroom of their home in Bay Village, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie.  Sam Sheppard denied any involvement in the murder and described his own battle with the killer he described as “bushy-haired.”

Did Sam do it?  It’s rare for a murder mystery to endure for over half a century.  Almost always, if the the mystery is not fully resolved at the trial, subsequent admissions, previously uncovered clues, or more sophisticated forensic tests reveal what the trial did not.  Not so with the Sam Sheppard case.  Facing two different juries, twelve years apart, Sam Sheppard was found guilty by one jury, not guilty by the next.  Even over the past decade, partisans continued the debate.  A third jury in 2000, asked to consider awarding the Sheppard family damages for wrongful imprisonment, sided with county prosecutors.  In 2001, a book on the Sheppard case concluded that Sam was clearly innocent.  Two years later, another book on the case argued just as forcefully that the first jury got it right: Sam was guilty as charged.

Read the full account here.

9. The Trial of Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks,

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

Actually, the Bordens received only 29 whacks, not the 81 suggested by the famous ditty, but the popularity of the above poem is a testament to the public’s fascination with the 1893 murder trial of Lizzie Borden.  The source of that fascination might lie in the almost unimaginably brutal nature of the crime–given the sex, background, and age of the defendant–or in the jury’s acquittal of Lizzie in the face of prosecution evidence that most historians today find compelling.

Read the full account here.

10. The Leopold and Loeb Trial

Few trial transcripts are as likely to bring tears to the eyes as that of the 1924 murder trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. Decades after Clarence Darrow delivered his twelve-hour long plea to save his young clients’ lives, his moving summation stands as the most eloquent attack on the death penalty ever delivered in an American courtroom. Mixing poetry and prose, science and emotion, a world-weary cynicism and a dedication to his cause, hatred of bloodlust and love of man, Darrow takes his audience on an oratorical ride that would be unimaginable in a criminal trial today. Even without Darrow in his prime, the Leopold and Loeb trial has the elements to justify its billing as the first “trial of the century.”

It is not surprising that the public responded to a trial that involved the kidnapping and murder of a fourteen-year old boy from one of Chicago’s most prominent families, a bizarre relationship between two promising scholars-turned-murderers, what the prosecutor called an “act of Providence” leading to the apprehension of the teenage defendants, dueling psychiatrists, and an experienced and sharp-tongued state’s attorney bent on hanging the confessed killers in spite of their relative youth.

Read the full account here.

11. The Trial of Bruno Hauptmann
Journalist H. L. Mencken called the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the accused kidnapper of the baby of  aviator Charles Lindbergh, “the greatest story since the Resurrection.”  While Mencken’s description is doubtless an exaggeration, measured by the public interest it generated, the Hauptmann trial stands with the O. J. Simpson and Scopes trials as among the most famous  trials of the twentieth century.  The trial featured America’s greatest hero, a good mystery involving ransom notes and voices in dark cemeteries, a crime that is every parent’s worst nightmare, and a German-born defendant who fought against U. S. forces in World War I.

Read the full account here.

12. The Trial of William “Big Bill” Haywood

The struggle between the Western Federation of Miners and the Western Mine Owners’ Association at the turn of the twentieth century might well be called a “war.” When the state of Idaho prosecuted William “Big Bill” Haywood in 1907 for ordering the assassination of former governor Frank Steunenberg, fifteen years of union bombings and murders, fifteen years of mine owner intimidation and greed, and fifteen years of government abuse of process and denials of liberties spilled into the national headlines. Featuring James McParland, America’s most famous detective; Harry Orchard, America’s most notorious mass murderer turned state’s witness; Big Bill Haywood, America’s most radical labor leader; and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous defense attorney, the Haywood trial ranks as one of the most fascinating criminal trials in history.

Read the full account here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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