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3 controversial court cases

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

The U.S. justice system is designed to find a defendant guilty or not guilty of the crime they’re being charged with. But the system is run by humans, and humans are imperfect. Here are three murder cases where the defendants may or may not have been correctly convicted.

1. Amanda Lewis

Around 3 pm on August 8, 2007, a 911 dispatcher in Esto, Florida received a frantic call from 27-year-old Amanda Lewis. Her 7-year-old daughter, Adrianna Hutto, had fallen in the family pool and wasn’t breathing. Adrianna was airlifted to a nearby hospital, but pronounced dead early that evening.

At first, investigators believed Adrianna’s death was accidental. There were no signs of foul play, and Florida frequently leads the nation in number of drownings for children 15 and younger. But hours after Adrianna’s death, the Holmes County Sheriff got a call from Amanda Lewis’s mother, Brenda Burns. Burns, along with her husband, had been watching Lewis’s 6-year-old son, AJ, in the aftermath. Burns insisted the Sheriff needed to hear what AJ had just told his grandmother and step-grandfather. AJ was brought into the police station that evening with a shocking story. The tragedy, AJ insisted, was not an accident — their mother had intentionally drowned Adrianna.

Once this revelation came out, police began investigating Amanda Lewis. Upon searching her house, they found no toys, despite the fact that two young children lived there. When confronted about this, Lewis said the toys had been taken away as punishment and locked in a shed — but a search of the shed revealed no toys either. Police also recalled the house smelling of urine.

Other things police considered red flags were an ER doctor who said Lewis had “no emotion” after being told of Adrianna’s death, and Lewis’s son who died unexpectedly at 16 months. The autopsy said the child died of a seizure disorder, but now that Lewis had two dead children, police began to grow suspicious.

Larry Basford, who eventually prosecuted the case, believes Adrianna’s drowning was attempted punishment that went too far. As he pointed out, the pool was 32 - 35 inches tall, and Adrianna was 47 inches tall. If she fell into the pool accidentally, all she had to do was stand up — and she had done this before.

One month after Adrianna’s death, Lewis was arrested and charged with first degree murder. Her trial began on February 19, 2008. Among evidence of Amanda’s guilt presented at the trial was her alleged lack of emotion when hearing of Adrianna’s death, as well as the difficulty she had bonding with her daughter in early years. Former co-workers of Lewis recalled an incident where Lewis came to work irate because Adrianna had written all over her car with permanent marker. In her anger, Lewis insisted, “I want to kill her!”

And there was physical evidence too. Adrianna’s autopsy results showed bruises on her face consistent with the way AJ told police his mother had held her head underwater.

But others weren’t convinced of Lewis’s guilt. An expert in children’s testimony said AJ was unreliable. His story changed multiple times, even during the initial investigation, and there were inconsistencies police initially ignored. Lewis’s lawyer said her reaction (or lack thereof) to her daughter’s death was a reflection of her personality, and pointed out that she was hysterical during the 911 call. Indeed, you don’t have to be an expert in psychology to know people often react to and process grief in very different ways. Lewis’s family believes her step-grandfather, Charles Burns, who wasn’t fond of Lewis or her parenting, coached AJ into telling his story. The fire chief believes Adrianna slipped in the pool and hit her head.

After a four day trial, jurors took two hours to render a guilty verdict. A month later, Lewis was sentenced to life in prison. AJ has since been adopted. He’ll turn 18 at some point in 2019, at which point he’ll be able to decide if he wants any contact with his biological mother.

2. the murder of Martha Moxley

On the night before Halloween, many teenagers and children observe what’s known as mischief night. The celebration includes activities such as switching shop signs and leaving rotten vegetables on people’s doorsteps. While mischief night activities can be dangerous, they’re often harmless. But for the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, mischief night in 1975 would not only turn deadly, but thrust their tiny community into the national spotlight.

On the night of October 30, 1975, 15-year-old Martha Moxley left her Greenwich home to celebrate mischief night…and never came back alive. Her body was found the next day under a pine tree on her property. She had been beaten to death with a golf club so hard it broke in half, then stabbed with the sharp end of the club’s shaft. Her skull had been beaten in so badly, investigators couldn’t tell what color her hair was. Everything was red from her blood.

Unfortunately for Martha and her loved ones, the investigation had numerous problems from the start. Police in Greenwich, which was generally thought of as a safe community, hadn’t seen a murder in decades and were ill equipped to deal with one. The crime scene wasn’t secured, and lots of people walked over it, causing contamination. The Connecticut State medical examiner was called in to perform the autopsy, but couldn’t perform it until a day after the murder. The delay affected results — the medical examiner couldn’t narrow down the time of death very much.

But these criticisms didn’t get nearly as much attention as the number one controversy in this case. Within days, Martha’s 17-year-old neighbor, Thomas Skakel, had become a prime suspect. His house was the last place Martha had been seen alive. The golf club used to kill her matched a set found in the Skakel home — and they were the only family in their neighborhood who owned a set like it. Thomas’s story constantly changed, and he was caught in several lies by the police. He also had motive — Martha wrote in her diary that Thomas had a crush on her. According to witnesses hanging out with the teenagers the night they were murdered, Thomas made numerous advances toward Martha — all of which were rejected.

But there was one problem. Thomas’s father, Rushton Skakel, was the brother of Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. The Skakels had status.

The police were reluctant to believe a member of the wealthy and powerful Kennedy clan was responsible for such a heinous crime and started looking elsewhere. They searched one suspect’s house thoroughly, but let him go when he passed a polygraph. They never searched the Skakel home themselves, instead allowing an 18-year-old relative of the Skakels to do it.

The case went cold for almost 15 years. Then, in 1991, another Kennedy, William Kennedy Smith, was accused of rape. At some point, a rumor began that Smith was visiting the Skakel home the night Martha was killed. The rumor was eventually proven false, but the attention it brought to Martha’s murder case thrust it back in the spotlight. The case was soon reopened.

This time around, Thomas Skakel’s story changed. Instead of saying he was working on a report for school at the time of the murder — which was later proven false by his teacher — Thomas said he and Martha had sex that night. But the autopsy report showed no evidence of sexual activity, even concluding Martha was a virgin when she died.

But Thomas wasn’t the only one police were looking at. His brother Michael, who was 15 at the time of the murder, had always provided the alibi that he was in bed at the time. But now, he told police that instead, he had gone to Martha’s house later that night.

But state prosecutor Donald Browne still didn’t feel there was enough evidence to charge Michael with murder. In 1998, author Tim Dumas’s book Greentown, was released. In the book, Dumas was critical of Browne's decision, saying he was being too cautious. A few days after the book’s publication, Browne resigned.

In 1999, the book Murder in Greenwich; Who Killed Martha Moxley? was released. The author, former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, theorized that Michael Skakel had actually been the killer. According to his theory, both Skakel brothers had feelings for Martha and Michael flew into a jealous rage after seeing his crush with his brother. So after Martha left his house, he followed her and attacked her with the golf club.

On January 19, 2000, an arrest warrant was issued, likely for Michael Skakel, though he wasn’t publicly named. He turned himself in later that day. At a pretrial hearing, two of his former classmates claimed Skakel had confessed to them years earlier that he would get away with murder because he was a Kennedy.

But the prosecution didn’t have as solid of a case as they may have liked. Police had looked at numerous other suspects before even considering Michael over 15 years later. He wasn’t arrested until two books criticized the investigation, one of them only providing a theory as to how Skakel might have killed Martha. And there was very little physical evidence.

Despite this, Skakel was found guilty on June 7, 2002 and, later that summer, was sentenced to 20 years to life. Many appeals and petitions for a new trial followed, but all were denied (as was parole in 2012). But, on October 23, 2013, a new trial was finally granted. On November 23, Skakel was released after his bail was posted. Then, on May 4, 2018, the Connecticut Supreme Court vacated Skakel’s conviction. On January 7, 2019, it was announced this decision would be upheld. Although the state could still retry Skakel, he is not currently considered legally responsible for Martha Moxley’s murder.

Sadly, more than 30 years after Martha’s death, her loved ones have many questions and few answers. Did someone from outside her neighborhood or town kill her? Was Thomas Skakel responsible? Did he commit the crime with assistance from his brother? Or was the right person convicted? And, if so, was he released due to lack of evidence — or because of his family’s power and status?

3. The West Memphis Three

On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys went missing in the tiny town of West Memphis, Arkansas. The next day, their bodies were found in a creek in a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills. The bodies of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore had numerous injuries and their hands and feet had been ‘hog tied’ to their ankles with their own shoelaces.

Naturally, the community was shocked, and there was enormous pressure on police to make an arrest. A few days after the murder, police reached out to juvenile probation officer Jerry Driver for a list of names of people he thought might be involved. Among the names on Driver’s list were 18-year-old Damien Echols, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelly Jr.

Police interviewed Damien and Jason several times but it was Jessie who ultimately broke the case wide open. On June 4, they paid a visit to Jessie and informed he and his father of the $35,000 reward for information in the case. Later that day, Jessie went to the police with a confession. He didn’t admit to killing the boys but said he was there and watched as Damien and Jason committed the crime — which also included sexual assault. all three teenagers were soon arrested.

On February 4, 1994, Jessie was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years. Damien and Jason were tried together and, on March 18, were also found guilty. Jason was sentenced to life in prison, while Damien received the death penalty.

For most cases this would be the end of the story. But for Damien, Jason and Jessie, who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three, the story was just beginning.

During the investigation and following trials, HBO producers were on the scene, documenting a great deal of the goings-on. On June 22, 1996, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” aired on the network. But even before the documentary, which clearly favored the innocence of the three, the case was gaining national attention. The ‘Free the West Memphis Three’ movement began in 1995, and the case had originally caught the interest of popular band Metallica — who lent their music to Paradise Lost. Other celebrity supporters include Ozzy Osbourne and Peter Jackson (who produced the 2012 documentary West of Memphis). But perhaps the most well known supporter is Johnny Depp, who maintains a friendship with Damien Echols — the pair even has matching tattoos.

Supporters of the West Memphis three often point to the botched police work, lack of forensic evidence, and unreliable witness testimony. Jessie Misskelly Jr., who initially implicated himself and the other two back in 1993, is thought to have an IQ of 72 and later claimed his initial confession was coerced. There were multiple inconsistencies in his story, including his claim that the boys were murdered at noon, when they would have been in school. When he’s shown on the stand in Paradise Lost, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell glosses over these inconsistencies, saying Jessie simply got “confused.” Also remember the $35,000 reward Jessie had hanging over his head for information, as well as the fact that he claimed he didn’t actually participate in the crime.

At least two witnesses have since retracted their statements. One, a former cellmate of Jason Baldwin, has even apologized to Jason for his part in getting him locked up. Two follow-up films to Paradise Lost examined two family members of the victims as potential suspects. John Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers, was considered a suspect at one point, and Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steve Branch, was allegedly abusive. Both men have criminal histories.

Another oft used defense of the Three is a phenomenon known as Satanic Panic. From the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s, the United States saw the rise of occultism and Satanism, as well as a string of murders thought to be associated with these beliefs. After the West Memphis murders, speculation ran rampant that the crime was committed by Satanists performing a ritual sacrifice. While Damien Echols certainly dabbled in Satanism, if nothing else, supporters often argue that Satanism is misunderstood, or that the three were vilified and locked up with little evidence other than the fact that they were a little weird.

Still, a smaller but equally vocal group believes the West Memphis Police had the right culprits all along. They often cite Damien’s history of violence* and frequent lies (both on and off the stand) as well as his lack of a credible alibi. They also bring up an incident where, while at a mental hospital in 1992, Damien reportedly admitted he and his girlfriend planned to have a baby and sacrifice it to Satan. In 2013, one YouTube channel compared the wounds found on one of the boys to a knife found in the water outside a trailer park where Jason Baldwin once lived — and found a match.

On August 19, 2011, after years of an uphill legal battle, Damien, Jason, and Jessie entered into an Alford Plea. This legal maneuver allows a defendant to maintain their innocence while also acknowledging that the state has enough evidence to find them guilty. This new plea reduced their sentences to time served, and, though they’re still considered legally responsible for the murders, the West Memphis Three were released from prison.

So what really happened that day? Were three teenagers wrongly convicted because people in their small town saw them as freaks? Or did the police have the right suspects all along? Regardless, whoever murdered three eight-year-olds in 1993 is probably not in jail.

What are your thoughts on these cases? Let me know below. All the cases listed here are fascinating cases you can take a deep dive into, so I highly recommend doing your own research as well.

*Sourced from Exhibit 500, a compilation of Damien’s mental health records. You can download it here:

(Be forewarned, it’s very long — over 500 pages.)


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