5 Of The Craziest Cases Of Controversial Or Wrongful Convictions

Sometimes, evidence is lost. Investigations are botched. Confessions are forced. Sometimes, killers go free. And sometimes, the wrong people are put behind bars. Here are five of the most controversial cases covered by CrimeFeed.

July 11, 2019
By: Catherine Townsend

Photo By: Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

Photo By: Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam aka the 'Central Park Five' attend the 2019 BET Awards on June 23, 2019 [Leon Bennett/FilmMagic]

Photo By: Amanda Knox [Wikipedia]

Photo By: Ricky Amos; Richard Jones [Kansas Department of Corrections]

The West Memphis Three

For many true crime fans, the West Memphis Three — Damien Echols; Jessie Misskelley, Jr.; and Jason Baldwin — have become the poster children for wrongful convictions. The trio were in prison for almost 18 years after being convicted of the murders of three young boys on May 5, 1993.

On that day, Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. The next day, the boys’ dead bodies were found in a creek bed. Their naked bodies had been badly beaten, and appeared to be cut and mutilated. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley became the focus of the police investigation — in large part because they dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. Rumors of Satanism, ritual animal killings, and even human sacrifice spread like wildfire through the area.

Many critics believe that police failed to investigate potentially crucial leads. These included a report of a bloody man in a bathroom at a nearby restaurant bathroom on the night of the murders and suspicious behaviors of some of the dead boys’ family members.

In 1994, all three were convicted. Echols received a death sentence, and Baldwin and Misskelley were each given life sentences. But in 2011, the men were released from prison following following public outcry, activism by celebrities, and three influential documentaries. They accepted an Alford plea, which allows defendants to assert their innocence, while conceding that the state has enough evidence to convict them. The Alford plea also meant that their convictions stand, and the West Memphis Three could not claim compensation from the state of Arkansas. [CrimeFeed] [CrimeFeed]

The Central Park Five

On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman, later identified as Trisha Meili, was jogging in Central Park when she was attacked — raped, sodomized, beaten, stabbed, and left to die in a ravine. Meili’s attack was only one of many that took place in the park that night, where a group of teens were allegedly committing assaults and harassing homeless people.

Five young black and Hispanic men, whom the media would soon name the "Central Park Five," were arrested for attacking and raping Meili. They were Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise, and all were between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. The suspects were subjected to 24 to 36 hours of questioning. They later claimed that their videotaped confessions were coerced. Former District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau's office wrote that comparisons of their statements “reveals troubling discrepancies,” and that the “accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime.” In spite of the alleged discrepancies, the five were tried for assault, robbery, riot, rape, sexual abuse, and attempted murder. After being convicted of most charges by juries in two separate trials in 1990, the five received sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years, and spent between 6 and 13 years in prison.

In 2002, Matthias Reyes, a convicted rapist whom the media nicknamed "The East Side Rapist," came forward and claimed that he had been the only actual attacker. Traces of Reyes' semen were reportedly found on Meili's sock from the night of the attack, and this resulted in the charges being dropped against the Central Park Five due to a lack of DNA evidence connecting them to the crime. The five defendants' convictions were vacated by the New York Supreme Court in 2002.

The Central Park Five subsequently sued the city of New York, and ended up winning $41 million in 2014. But opinions remain divided on the subject of the Central Park Five.

Some maintain that the Central Park Five did actually attack Meili, and then afterward Reyes proceeded to rape her.

Meili has come forward saying she's not so sure that Reyes is the only assailant responsible for her attack. Her doctors reportedly told her that the damage to her body was consistent with more than one attacker, even to the point of displaying handprints of different sizes. Former New York City detective Eric Reynolds reportedly still believes the original five are responsible, and has said, "The five of them went to Central Park to beat up people and they ended up with millions of dollars and they’re heroes and civil rights icons." [CrimeFeed] [The Guardian]

Amanda Knox

In 2009, Amanda Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were both convicted of the sexual assault and murder of Knox’s roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy. The attack took place on the night after Halloween in 2007. After spending the night out with her boyfriend, Knox came home to the apartment she shared with Kercher, a British student. She told authorities that she found Kercher's bedroom door locked and blood in the bathroom, and called the police.

After an interrogation, police claimed that Knox implicated herself and her employer, Patrick Lumumba. Knox and Sollecito were initially accused of murdering Kercher along with Lumumba, but Lumumba was soon released. Rudy Guede, a burglar who was known to police, was arrested after his fingerprints were found on Kercher's possessions.

In court, one of the prosecutors reportedly referred to Knox as a "she-devil" and theorized that the motive for the murder was a sex game gone wrong. Later, it emerged that the police who responded to Knox's initial call allegedly made a series of mistakes, including not properly securing the crime scene.

Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison — and Sollecito to 25 — but both convictions were overturned in 2011. The prosecution appealed, and in 2013 they were retried for the same murder and found guilty again. In yet another strange twist, that verdict was overturned after another appeal, and the two were eventually acquitted in 2015.

Guede was found guilty of the murder and sexual assault and was sentenced to 30 years in jail. His sentence was later cut to 16 years.

Since then, Knox has spoken about her ordeal, written a memoir, and become an activist and journalist. In an interview with Rolling Stone after her release, Knox said that she was coerced into giving the confession. [Rolling Stone] [CrimeFeed]

Julie Rea

On October 13, 1997, 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick was brutally stabbed to death in his bed while he slept. His mother, Julie Rea, testified that she woke up that night to the sound of her son’s screams and rushed into his room, where she was confronted by an intruder. She fought back and struggled with the masked assailant before he ran out the door into the backyard and escaped.

On October 12, 2000, a Lawrence County grand jury indicted her for the murder of her son.
At her trial in 2002, the prosecution claimed that she killed her son because she was angry that, following a bitter custody battle with his father, Len Kirkpatrick, the boy’s father, had won physical custody of him while she had only weekend visitation.

The case against Rea was largely circumstantial, but prosecutors questioned her behavior on the night her son was killed — and Kirkpatrick portrayed her as unstable and volatile.
Kirkpatrick, a police officer, said he'd suspected his wife from the beginning.

On March 4, 2002, the jury found Rea guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to 65 years in prison.

In 2004, Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer who'd committed similar crimes in Missouri and Texas, confessed that he had broken into Rea's home, taken a knife from a butcher block in the kitchen, and stabbed a young boy to death.

The Downstate Innocence Project took the case, and eventually were able to find evidence that suggested that Sells had been in the area at the time of the crime. They were also able to mount a defense against the state’s forensic testimony.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed Rea’s conviction and remanded the case for retrial.
In 2004, the initial verdict was thrown out on a technicality, and Julie was freed on probation.

In 2006, the case was retried in Hamilton County, and the jury found her not guilty.
She was granted a Certificate of Innocence on November 29, 2010, and was awarded $87,057 from the Illinois Court of Claims. [CrimeFeed]

Richard Anthony Jones

In 2017, the state of Kansas set a man free after he was convicted of a crime allegedly committed by his doppelgänger. In 1999, 28-year-old Tamara Scherer was walking in a Walmart parking lot in Roeland Park on Memorial Day when a man tried to steal her purse. The assailant escaped in a waiting car with only her cell phone. No physical evidence was left at the scene.

The most solid lead came from three alleged drug users who claimed they had picked up a guy they only knew as "Rick" while out looking for more drugs shortly before the robbery. Their new acquaintance told the trio to drive him to the Walmart parking lot, where they watched as he committed the crime. Three months later, police zeroed in on Jones after one of the addicts pointed out his picture in a police database.

This led to other witnesses picking Jones out of a six-photo lineup. So, despite the fact that Jones had an alibi, a jury found him guilty of aggravated robbery, and a judge sentenced him to 19 years in prison.

But once he was behind bars, other inmates started talking about how much he resembled another man who was in the same prison with them. Members of the Innocence Project tracked down the lookalike, Ricky Amos, and found out that he'd lived near the Walmart at the time of the robbery. Jones’ new legal team presented the doppelgänger, Amos, as an alternative suspect in a 2017 court hearing. A judge tossed Jones' conviction, and he walked out of prison a free man in June 2017. Jones sued the state of Kansas, and was eventually awarded $1,103,945 — or almost $65,000 for each year he spent behind bars. [CrimeFeed]