The old saying goes that justice is blind. Experience tells us she’s also as unpredictable as a drunken horse on roller skates. Over the course of legal history, there have been a number of seemingly open-and-shut cases that have ended up not with convictions, but with the accused swanning out of court into the bright light of freedom while the public are left to pick their collective jaws up off the floor. We’re not saying that any of the following were miscarriages of justice. We are saying that acquittals were the last verdict anyone expected.
10. Lorena Bobbitt
Lorena Bobbitt is the woman who, in 1993, cut off her husband’s mini-Bobbitt while he slept and hurled the poor little guy out a car window at high speed. The story was both so shocking and ridiculous that it made the national press. Bobbitt today has her own entry on Biography.com, something that actual people who have accomplished actual things don’t always have.
So, what happened to the woman who assaulted her husband with a knife and left him a bleeding ruin? Since you’ve seen the title of this article, you can probably guess. Bobbitt got off Scot-free.
OK, some context. Bobbitt claimed her husband John had repeatedly sexually assaulted her, causing her to finally lash out in self-defense. While John was acquitted of assault in 1993, the claims were still enough for a jury to find Lorena not guilty by reason of insanity. After 45 days in psychiatric care, she was a free woman.
Interestingly, her husband may have benefitted from his nightmare ordeal. His penis was reattached and his notoriety left him in such high demand that he became a porn star.
9. Lizzie Borden
The 19th Century generally wasn’t a cool time to be a woman. You couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, and were generally regarded by the menfolk as little more than a comely breeding machine. On the other hand, if you were of a sufficiently high class there’s no way anyone would ever believe you could be guilty of murder. Even if you, say, hacked up your parents with an axe then brazenly lied to police about your actions on that bloody day.
Yep, the case of Lizzie Borden is like playing a game of Clue in which there is only one suspect, and she starts the game covered in blood and screaming her head off about how she just murdered her parents. Gizmodo has gathered all the evidence against her in one handy link and, suffice to say, it’s significant. Lizzie burned her dress after the murders. She was in the house at the time, and claimed not to hear her parents being butchered. She even predicted her father’s death a few days beforehand, for God’s sake.
But this was the 1890s, so no-one thought a demure Sunday school teacher could do such a heinous thing. A jury acquitted Lizzie in 90 minutes.
8. Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge was an early film pioneer who captured first photographic proof that a horse lifts all its legs off the ground in mid-run (trust us, this was a big deal at the time). Oh, and he also tracked a man down in the California wilderness before killing him in stone cold blood. The reason he’s famous for pictures of horses today and not, say, shooting a dude through the heart? He was let off, even though he said he did it and a witness saw him do it.
Muybridge’s “innocence” comes down to the identity of his victim. Major Harry Larkyns was a friend of Muybridge’s wife, who may have also been her lover. Mrs. Muybridge had even sent a picture of the couple’s son to the Major, with the caption “little Harry.” When Muybridge was put on trial for shooting the Major, he basically said ‘yeah, I did it, but what would you do if your wife was seeing another man, huh?’ The all-male jury set him free.
7. The Bundy Militia
In January, 2016, members of a militia linked to the Bundy family occupied Federal land in Oregon as part of a land rights protest, triggering a long stand-off with law enforcement. It ended with the FBI shooting a guy and slapping the entire militia in irons. When the case came to trial, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Feds were gonna take the Bundys to the cleaners.
At least, it did until October, when a jury found the Bundy militia innocent of all charges.
This was… unexpected, to say the least. The Bundys had openly occupied Federal land. They’d done it as a protest, after all, and they weren’t exactly quiet about it. Many progressives were furious the jury didn’t convict, arguing that if the Bundys had been black or Native American instead of white, they’d be in jail.
Some of the jurors had a rational explanation. Rather than slap the militia with a trespassing charge, the FBI had gone with the much harder to prove charge of conspiracy. There wasn’t enough evidence of conspiracy, so the Bundys walked free.
6. Casey Anthony
If you were above a certain age at the time of the Casey Anthony case, you definitely remember it. The investigation was not only huge news, it was one of the most emotionally-charged cases to reach the courts. Anthony’s 2-year old daughter Caylee was found dead in the woods near their home almost a month after going missing. Casey was unable to account for her actions during that time. A forensic test determined she’d had a decomposing corpse in her trunk at some point. Clearly, something fishy was going on.
If you’re thinking that fishy thing was Casey murdering her daughter, you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone in America thought that. Most of them still think it even after Casey was acquitted in 2011, to the shock of the world.
The trouble was, no one could prove Casey had actually killed Caylee. They knew she was lying, but no hard evidence meant she walked free. Today, most people still see her as about as innocent as OJ Simpson. In other words, not innocent at all.
5. Robert Blake
It sounds like a crime his own TV detective, Baretta, might have investigated. Actor Robert Blake is six months unhappily married to Bonny Lee Bakley, a known fraudster and con-artist. After the couple are spotted having a miserable dinner together in a restaurant, Bakley turns up dead a block away, shot to pieces in a car. The actor’s alibi is flaky. He has the motive, but no hard evidence has yet surfaced linking him to the crime. He seems almost convinced his fame will let him get off. Job for Baretta, right?
Not in this case. Despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against him, despite two stuntmen who testified that Blake had separately tried to hire them to kill his wife, Blake ended up walking free. Bakley’s murder is officially unsolved.
In an interesting twist, a civil case found Blake criminally reliable for his wife’s death, with orders to pay $30m (later reduced to $15m). Blake’s career never recovered, but, hey, maybe that’s a small price to pay for avoiding life in jail.
4. George Zimmerman
Remember 2012, when controversies over police slayings still seemed like a new and exciting thing? That was the year that George Zimmerman blew away unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, leading to nationwide protests. Zimmerman was eventually arrested and brought to trial, with evidence including stuff like a recording of Zimmerman seemingly indicating he was about to confront Martin bolstering the prosecution’s case. In the glare of the spotlight, it seemed a sure bet Zimmerman was headed for jail.
Or, it would have, had Zimmerman not shot Martin in Florida, a state with a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that allows for killing in self-defense. For this reason, he was set free. The country went crazy.
Interestingly, Zimmerman has not shied away from controversy since that trial. He has tweeted images of Martin’s dead body, been arrested twice for assaulting his partner (the charges were later dropped), and become notorious for selling memorabilia related to the shooting. He also managed to sell a painting of the US flag for over $100,000.
3. William Kennedy Smith
When a member of the Kennedy clan winds up in court on rape charges, you know the case is going to become the media sensation of the year. So it was in 1991, when 29-year old Patricia Bowman claimed Kennedy Smith had assaulted her on a beach near his house in Palm Beach. The trial, inevitably, became a media circus. Members of the Kennedy clan piled into the courtroom and made long and impassioned speeches. TV cameras followed the proceedings. When it finally came time for the verdict, viewers seemed almost disappointed it only took the jury 77 minutes.
Many also seemed surprised Kennedy Smith was acquitted, but only in the way you’re kinda surprised when a celebrity manages to get away with anything breathtakingly illegal. The judge disallowed testimony from three women who claimed Kennedy Smith had assaulted them over the past few years. According to Vanity Fair, the Kennedy clan instituted a gigantic public relations drive, throwing money and expertise at improving Kennedy Smith’s public image. After all that, it’d probably be more surprising if William had gone down.
2. Ethan Couch
Oh, look. It’s another entry on our sub-list ‘Rich People Who Got Away with Stuff No-one Else Could Have Got Away With Because They Were Rich’ (the, uh, title needs a little work). In 2013, the then 16-year old Couch got mad drunk, took some valium, jumped in a car and crashed it into another car. Four people died in the wreck and nine more were injured. One was paralyzed for life. Couch showed no remorse, and effectively acted like he couldn’t give an expletive.
Now comes the bit you’ll remember. Couch was actually found guilty, but given an incredibly lenient sentence that would involve no jail time. The judge ruled that he suffered ‘Affluenza’ and was too rich to be held responsible for his actions.
The result looked a whole lot like an acquittal, especially given all the dead people and the alcohol coursing through Couch’s bloodstream. Luckily, this story ends with some justice being done. Couch took a vacation in Mexico rather than report to his probation officer. The state of Texas took a dim view of his continued Affluenza and chucked him in jail for 2 years.
1. OJ Simpson
Come on. You knew who’d be at number one, right?
For those of you who somehow missed both the 1990s and every single reference pop culture subsequently made to the 1990s, OJ Simpson was a football player turned film star who absolutely, one hundred percent did NOT murder his wife and did NOT stab to death her friend Ron Goldman and did NOT then get away with it purely because he was famous and able to afford high class lawyers. He just, uh, happened to be found criminally responsible in a later civil case. You know, as totally innocent people often are.
Simpson’s trial was known as the ‘Trial of the Century’. It certainly has a good argument for being the trial of the decade. Simpson’s clear culpability; the famous image of him trying on the glove; the chants his defense lawyer used, such as “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”… it all played into a media circus America is still fascinated with. The fact that Juice both walked free and then wrote a book called If I Did It… which heavily implied he did, in fact, do it, all added to the trial’s notoriety.
Still, karma got there in the end. In 2007, OJ went to prison for robbery and kidnapping. He was finally released in 2017.