How exactly does someone get away with murder? In the last century we have seen some people who seemed obviously guilty walk free. From O.J. Simpson to Robert Durst, the country is often left wondering how some of these dubious characters never saw the inside of a prison cell. Spoiler alert: money, fame and an amazing defense team doesn’t hurt your chances at getting away with murder. Below, we explore five murder verdicts that rocked the country.
1. Robert Blake: Trapped Husband Or Lucky Killer?
A little over 10 years ago, actor Robert Blake was acquitted of the murder of his 44-year-old wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Blake was known for his true-crime roles, namely his Emmy award-winning work as a street-smart policeman in Baretta. So how did Blake’s personal life turn into something out of a gangster film?
On May 4, 2001 his wife was killed by a gunshot to the head while sitting inside the couple’s car. Blake and his wife had just finished dinner in Los Angeles when Blake allegedly went back into the Italian restaurant to retrieve the gun that he had left. Just after Blake left the scene, his wife was shot. Blake was quickly arrested and charged in connection to his wife’s death. Earle Caldwell, Blake’s longtime bodyguard was also arrested in connection with the murder.
To tie Blake to the crime, a former stuntman, Ronald “Duffy’ Hambleton agreed to testify that Blake wanted someone to kill his wife. To further seal the prosecution’s case, a second stuntman backed up Hambleton’s story. Seems like a straight-forward case, right?
Wrong! Blake’s defense team was able to poke holes in the stuntmen’s stories and shed doubt on their motives for testifying. The defense lawyers were able to effectively portray the actor as a pathetic figure, trapped in a loveless marriage and known to send nude photos of himself to famous men. Many even questioned if Blake was “tricked” into marriage when Bakley became pregnant.
The prosecution was much less successful at convincing the jury Blake was a cold and calculated murderer. Ultimately, the jury deemed the stuntman’s statements untrustworthy due to his admitted drug use . In addition,they didn’t believe there was enough substantial evidence to prove that Blake shot Bakley himself. Blake supporters celebrated the ruling at the restaurant where the murder took place.
Not everyone was so happy about the decision… Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, voiced his strong opinion of the ruling, calling Blake a “miserable human being” and the jurors “incredibly stupid to fall for the defenses claims.”
The civil trial eight months later was a different story, Blake was ordered to pay Bakley’s children $30 million for “intentionally” causing Bonny Lee Bakley’s death. Eric Dubin, the lawyer for the four children, didn’t mince words when discussing the ruling:
“I’ll take a cashier’s check or cash, whatever he wants. Hopefully not in quarters.”
Not surprisingly, Blake has since filed for bankruptcy, but remains in the spotlight. In a 2012 interview Blake had less-than-kind things to say about his former wife, offering several reasons for why someone would want her dead:
“Bonnie had people that she burned. How bad I don’t know. Did she steal everything from them? We’ll leave that alone. But nobody really knew where Bonnie was. She had 15 ID cards. She had 15 credit cards. She had different places where she lived and nobody could ever find her if they were looking for her.”
2. Richard James Herrin: Victim Or Brutal Killer?
There is little to dispute about the death of Bonnie Garland. At 2AM on July 7, 1977 the Yale senior was brutally bludgeoned to death while she slept in her parent’s Scarsdale, New York home. Garland’s life was taken by her boyfriend and Yale graduate, Richard James Herrin. The pair had been together for about two years before the relationship began to wane and Herrin refused to let Garland date other people.
The day before her death, Garland, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, told Herrin, a Mexican-American who grew up in the Los Angeles barrio, that she wanted to end the relationship. Herrin refused to leave the house and was allowed to spend another night in the guest bedroom. On his final night in the house Herrin went to the basement, retrieved a hammer and concealed it under a towel. Herrin then went upstairs to confirm that Garland was sleeping before using the claw end of the hammer to smash in her skull and larynx.
Following the vicious attack, Herrin drove around for hours before confessing, “I just killed my girlfriend” to a priest. But Bonnie wasn’t dead. Inside her room Bonnie lay barely alive and horribly injured. Within a few hours, her suffering ended and she died. So how exactly does someone not spend the rest of their life behind bars for such a brutal act?
Herrin was promptly arrested, but a devoted group of Yale’s Catholic Church members raised enough money to have him released on bail and even began a letter writing campaign to convince the judge of his good character. If you can believe it, the judge released Herrin, who went on to take classes at a local college while awaiting trial.
The eventual trial was highly publicized and Herrin was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder. The case was defined by courtroom melodrama, a central love story and a country’s divided feelings about affirmative action. In the end, Herrin served 17 of his 25-year sentence in a state prison before being released in 1995. Many critics argue that Yale’s Catholic chaplaincy was able to influence the trial by convincing the public that Herrin’s difficult childhood made him the real victim. Garland’s parents insisted that:
“The boy’s impoverished background garnered him more sympathy than their daughter got in death.”
3. Robert Durst: King Of Incredible Coincidences Or Strategic Killer?
Anyone that watched the Robert Durst HBO special The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst knows why he makes our list. Whispering “What did I do? Killed them all, of course” while wearing a microphone is not the best way to convince people you are innocent. As a real estate heir, Robert Durst has been in the spotlight for most of his life. Legal trouble became his hallmark when his first wife, Kathie, disappeared in 1982. From then on, Durst became a source of media fascination and public disgust. Most recently, Durst was arrested in New Orleans on first-degree murder warrant signed by a Los Angeles judge for the murder of Susan Berman.
Many believe that Durst murdered his first wife Kathie McCormack Durst, then killed his close friend Susan Berman and finally shot his neighbor Morris Black to death. Not only was Black killed, his dismembered body was discovered in Texas’ Galveston Bay by a 13-year-old boy. Well, the boy only found the torso, no legs, arms or head were attached. To make matters even weirder, Durst was living under an assumed identity as a mute woman when he killed Black. Despite the damning evidence, including Durst’s admission of guilt, blood-soaked floors and a metal table deemed perfect for dicing up a human body, Durst’s acts were allegedly his form of self-defense. Durst’s lead defense attorney, Richard DeGuerin, asserted his client’s innocence to Texas Monthly in 2004:
“It was a simple case. It was complicated because Durst is rich, wore a wig, pretended to be a mute woman, and was suspected of killing his wife in 1982.”
Only now, almost 15 years later, Durst could face actual prison time for the alleged murder of his friend Susan Berman. Durst could get the death penalty for “special circumstances of murder of a witness and lying in wait.” Berman was murdered execution style on December 24, 2000. As a close confidant, Berman served as a public alibi after Durst’s first wife went missing and Durst was in Northern California just days before Berman was killed. When police finally apprehended Durst in Louisanna this past spring, they found a bizarre array of items, including a latex mask, .38 Smith & Weson revolver, a fake Texas ID, his birth certificate and passport and a map with routes to Cuba. Not a good sign of his innocence, eh?
Aside from those three possible murders, Durst may also be connected to the 1971 disappearance of Lynne Schulze, the 1997 disappearance of Karen Mitchell and the 1997 disappearance of Kristen Modafferi. Andrew Jarecki, the director of The Jinx, sums up Durst as:
“…not just a random killer. He’s a strategic killer and won’t put himself at risk unless he thinks there’s an upside.”
4. Isaac Turnbaugh: Troubled Man Or Admitted Murderer?
Turnbaugh makes our countdown because of these two words: Double Jeopardy. In 2004, Turnbaugh was acquitted of killing his coworker, Declan Lyons. Shortly after,Turnbaugh was deemed not guilty, he contacted police to confess to the murder. Despite the blatant admission of guilt, Turnbaugh is protected by the Fifth Amendament’s “double jeopardy” clause.
So what exactly did Turnbaugh admit to doing? Well, Turnbaugh was originally charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his 24-year-old coworker, Declan Lyons. To make matters more tragic, Lyons was engaged and expecting his first child when his body was found outside of the restaurant where he worked.
The case seemed to have no leads until Turnbaugh allegedly told at least six of his friends that he had shot Lyons. Yes, he bragged about the murder before and after the trial, but still walked free! Admittedly, his first “confession” was highly suspect as he and the six bystanders were all tripping on mushrooms when Turnbaugh spoke of the shooting. Oh, and he told them he was a terrorist in the 9/11 attacks…
Complicating the confession even further, Turnbaugh was diagnosed with a serious mental illness before the trial began. People close to the two men asserted that they were good friends and no one seemed to be able to come up with a plausible motive. The lack of a motive combined with Turnbaugh’s strong legal team left jurors with no other option except to find Turnbaugh not guilty.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell summed up the case:
“It’s just a terrible tragedy. But, [Turnbaugh] has to live with what, in fact, he has done.”
5. O.J. Simpson: Misunderstood Celebrity Or Twisted Killer?
This roundup wouldn’t be complete without the O.J. case. Get ready to feel old…the Simpson case happened over 20 years ago! Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a waiter named Ronald Lyle Godman. Like never before, 24-hour cable news was able to document every outrageous, mindboggling and surprising moment of the case that became known as “the Trial of the Century.” In a controversial move, Judge Ito allowed camera’s in the courtroom, giving news outlets enough fodder to stay glued to the case 24/7. Adding the media appeal, Simpson compiled the infamous “Dream Team” of defense lawyers.
No one will ever forget Johnny Cochron’s “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” argument about the seemingly too tiny glove found at the scene of the crime. The exhaustive 9-month trial featured 120 witnesses, 45,000 pages of evidence and 1,100 exhibits. Simpson was ultimately acquitted of all criminal charges. As we’ve seen before, the civil trial in 1997 was a different story. Simpson was found liable for the wrongful death of and battery against Goldman and battery against Brown.
And if you had any doubt about Simpson’s culpability, he penned a book in 2007 entitled “If I Did It: Confessions of a the Killer.” The book cover has the word “if” reduced to a barely legible size and Simpson goes into excruciating detail about what he would have done, if he had murdered Brown and Goldman. The book never made it to market, but the unthinkable contents made their way online.
Main photo: AP/Getty Images
Go deeper inside a world of murder and corruption. Watch Hand of God on Amazon Prime.