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Guilty or Innocent? 10 Highly Controversial Court Cases

When it comes to murder, justice is often elusive.


It’s no secret: the lurid cases and high-profile celebrity murder trials often elicit the most scrutiny. For proof, look no further than the trial of O.J. Simpson, or the headline-dominating cases of Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony. Thanks to some very enterprising documentarians, however, the details surrounding many other murder trials are being brought to the public’s attention—and our obsessive minds.

The controversial verdicts of these murder cases led to plenty of heated conversations around the water cooler. Many also resulted in a reversal of the original conviction, proving that justice can be elusive.

1. Michael Peterson

The police immediately fixed on Michael Peterson as prime suspect in the mysterious death of his wife Kathleen in 2001. Kathleen was found at the bottom of the staircase in their home with multiple lacerations to her head, wounds that law enforcement and pathologists believed were inconsistent with a fall. Peterson insisted on his innocence, but revelations about his extramarital affairs and his connection to another staircase-related death of a family friend in 1985 led the jury to convict him of murder in 2003. The Peterson case was popularized by the 2004 true crime documentary, The Staircase. After information surfaced that one of the FBI agents on the case had falsified evidence and testimony, Peterson was granted a new trial in 2011. He is currently under house arrest as he awaits his return to court.

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2. Adnan Syed

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Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison. The state’s case was largely based on the testimony of Syed’s friend Jay Wilds, who said that Syed told him he planned to kill Lee, then showed him Lee’s body after the murder took place, and even asked Wilds to help bury the body in the woods. Aside from Wilds’ testimony, there was no physical evidence tying Syed to the crime. Thanks in part to Serial, Sarah Koenig’s 2014 podcast on the case, Syed will now receive a new trial. The addictive podcast cast a critical eye on Syed’s lawyer Cristina Gutierrez—in particular, Gutierrez’s failure to call alibi witness Asia McClain—and was instrumental in elevating Syed’s case to the national stage.

Want to read more about Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry? Download a summary of the book on Worth Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

3. Steven Avery

The Netflix series Making a Murderer, about the trial and conviction of Steven Avery, for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, had viewers glued to their screens. New details about Avery have since been released, and have incited a raging debate over his potential innocence. In 2005, Avery was freshly released from prison after serving an 18-year-sentence for rape—of which DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003—when he was accused of killing Halbach. Making a Murderer argues that the Sheriff’s Department framed Avery for Halbach’s murder, in retribution for Avery’s attempt to sue the police department over his wrongful conviction. Avery was sentenced to life in prison. After the show aired, a petition circulated online to exonerate Avery, and a motion for appeal was filed in January 2016.

Related: 6 Books to Satisfy Your Making a Murderer Obsession

4. Sam Sheppard

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In 1954, the nation was gripped by the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who stood accused of bludgeoning his pregnant wife Marilyn to death in their home on Lake Erie. Sheppard claimed he had also been attacked, and pursued the assailant out to the lake, where he was knocked unconscious. Despite a lack of physical evidence against Sheppard, and despite the fact that the murder weapon was never found, Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. After his first lawyer died, Sheppard’s appeal was taken over by F. Lee Bailey (who would later go on to be part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team). Sheppard’s new representation successfully argued for an acquittal in 1966. After Sheppard’s death in 1970, his son sued the state for wrongful imprisonment, but was denied.

Related: Did Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder His Wife?

5. Jeffrey MacDonald

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that intruders brutally murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters one night in 1970; a crime that was eerily similar to the alleged events of the Sheppard case over 15 years prior. It took nine years for charges of murder to be brought against MacDonald, but he was ultimately convicted, and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. MacDonald was the subject of a book, Fatal Vision, by Jeffrey McGinniss, which painted a deeply unflattering portrait of MacDonald’s personal life both during his marriage and after the murders. In 1987, MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud, and they settled out of court. For decades, MacDonald has filed several times to appeal his conviction, and, as of 2015, he still insists on his total innocence.

6. Robert Durst

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Kathleen McCormack’s family has always maintained that Robert Durst, McCormack’s husband at the time, was responsible for her disappearance in 1982. To surviving McCormack family members, it’s no coincidence that Durst is tied to not one, but two other murders, that of his longtime friend Susan Berman in 2000, and his neighbor Morris Black in 2001. Durst has never admitted to killing McCormack, and her body has never been found. Though Durst had always been the prime suspect in McCormack’s case, he has only been tried (and acquitted) for the murder and dismemberment of Morris Black, on the grounds of self-defense. In 2015, after a docu-series on Durst’s crimes, The Jinx, premiered on HBO, Durst was arrested not for the murder of McCormack, but of Susan Berman, and currently awaits trial in California.

Related: How The Jinx’s Robert Durst Got Away with Murder Again and Again

7. Ingmar Guandique

When 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy disappeared in 2001, her family alleged that she had been having an affair with married Congressman Gary Condit. Condit would become the #1 person of interest in the crime, and even though he was eventually cleared, his political career was ruined. Levy’s remains were not discovered until a year after her disappearance, making the hope for physical evidence in the case unlikely. In 2009, a man named Ingmar Guandique was tried for Levy’s murder, as he had been convicted of two other sexual assaults near the area where Levy’s body was found. He was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison, then on appeal granted a new trial. The state announced in July 2016 that it would not seek new charges, and that it would instead deport Guandique back to El Salvador, leading many to believe that he was nothing more than a scapegoat for one of Washington D.C.’s most notorious unsolved murder cases.

8. Andrea Yates

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There’s no doubt that Andrea Yates is guilty of the horrific crime of drowning all five of her young children in the bathtub on the morning of June 20, 2001. She was convicted of the crime in 2002, but a subsequent trial in 2006 found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Yates’ defense team argued that she had been suffering from postpartum depression. They claimed that Yates had attempted suicide several times before the murder of her children, and that she was under close supervision by her husband and mother-in-law. The Yates verdict brought postpartum depression to the forefront of popular discourse, and raised questions about proper mental health treatment for new mothers. With her new sentence, Yates was moved from prison to a mental health facility.

Related: 9 Ordinary Houses with Very Disturbing Backstories

9. Claudine Longet

Claudine Longet claimed her boyfriend, Vladimir Sabich, had been showing her how to use a gun when it went off, shooting him in the abdomen at their home in Aspen in 1976. Sabich died from blood loss on the way to the hospital, and Longet was subsequently charged with his murder. In the process of collecting evidence, though, the sheriff’s department made a few errors. They collected Longet’s diary and a blood sample without a warrant, making the evidence inadmissible during the trail. Prosecutors maintained that the blood sample tested positive for cocaine, while Longet’s diary suggested that her relationship with Sabich was troubled. The jury convicted Longet of the lesser charge of criminal negligence, which is only a misdemeanor. She paid a fee and spent 30 days in jail. Sabich’s family filed a civil suit against Longet that was eventually settled outside of court.

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10. Lizzie Borden

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The name Lizzie Borden is synonymous with the grisly axe murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Many believe Lizzie swung the axe that fateful morning—thanks in large part to the popular nursery rhyme that implicates her in the slaying. When it comes to the law, however, these people are mistaken; Borden was actually acquitted of the crime. Borden’s stepmother, Abby Durfee Gray Borden, was struck with 19 blows to the head, and Borden’s father, Andrew Jackson Borden, was struck 11 times. Borden’s strange behavior after the fact—changing her timelines when questioned and even destroying evidence—made her the prime suspect. A jury found her not guilty, and she returned to her hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. Her trial made her infamous, and she was ostracized and cast out from society, eventually dying of pneumonia in 1927.

Related: Lizzie Borden’s Secret Motive for Murder?