5 People Wrongly Convicted Of Murder

Above: Kirk Bloodsworth, Ryan Ferguson, Steven Truscott, Kirsten “Blaise” Lobato, and Juan Rivera
Above: Kirk Bloodsworth, Ryan Ferguson, Steven Truscott, Kirsten “Blaise” Lobato, and Juan Rivera

Welcome to True Crime Tuesday where we review, recommend and generally obsess over everything crime-related.

Going to prison is high on most people’s lists of things they never want to experience. And we believe if we never break the law, we’ll never have to. But tell that to the thousands of people who have been falsely accused and even convicted of a crime they claim they did not commit. Of course, there are plenty of real criminals who will deny they did anything wrong until the day they die, but judging by the number of inmates DNA evidence has exonerated in the last few decades, the number of innocent people wasting away in prison is probably a lot more than we’d like to think.

Just look at Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery. While the truth about what happened to Theresa Halbach, the woman he was convicted of killing, is still uncertain, it’s a fact that Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape and attempted murder that he definitely didn’t commit. The fact is, there are a lot of moving parts that go into getting a murder conviction and human error, biases, ineffective counsel and pressure to close cases can be the downfall of someone who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Here are five cases of people who were wrongly convicted and exonerated after spending years behind bars.

Kirk Bloodsworth
In 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death for the sexual assault, rape and first-degree murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton based on five eye-witness accounts that claimed he was with the victim. In 1992, after reading about a case in England that used DNA evidence to get a conviction, Bloodsworth pushed to have the DNA in his own case re-tested using new techniques. It was eventually tested, ruling out Bloodsworth as the culprit and he was released in 1993 after spending 9 years in prison. It took another 10 years before Dawn Hamilton’s real killer—Kimberly Shay Ruffner—was found and Bloodsworth was officially exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was the first American sentenced to death to ever be exonerated through DNA evidence.

Ryan Ferguson
In 2001, Kent Heitholt, a sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri, was found beaten and strangled in the parking lot of his workplace. His murder went unsolved for two years until a man named Charles Erickson came forward saying he couldn’t remember the night of the murder and thought he might be involved. Despite having no memory of the murder itself, he confessed to it and implicated 19-year-old Ryan Ferguson along with him. Ferguson, who was only 17 at the time of the murder, was convicted on the basis of Erickson’s (who, again, had no memory of the murder) testimony and another eye witness. Ferguson spent almost 10 years in prison maintaining his innocence before Erickson and the other witness recanted their testimonies, claiming the police coerced them to lie.

Ferguson’s conviction was vacated and he was released from prison at the end of 2013. Podcast True Crime Garage did a thorough series on Ferguson’s case including the trial and what would have enticed Erickson—who is still in prison—to come up with the idea he and Ferguson murdered Heitholt. Although Erickson is a huge reason Ferguson was in jail for most of his twenties, he has vowed to help him get released saying, “There are more innocent people in prison, including Erickson. I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He needs help, he needs support, he doesn’t belong in prison.”

Steven Truscott
On June 9th, 1959, 12-year-old Lynn Harper disappeared on her way home from school in Clinton, Ontario. Two days later, her body was found. She had been raped and strangled with her own blouse. A classmate of Lynn’s, Steven Truscott, was arrested and charged with first degree murder as he was the last person known to have seen Lynn before she disappeared. Although he always maintained his innocence and the case against him was entirely circumstantial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was only 14 years old. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison and he got out on parole in 1969.

In 2000, renewed interest in the case started with CBC’s The Fifth Estate looking into. An appeal to re-open the case was filed and approved. Insect evidence was collected from Lynn’s body at the time of her murder and although it wasn’t able to be thoroughly tested in 1959, entomology (the scientific study of insects) determined that the timeline originally put forth by the Crown—which is what convicted Truscott—was not as ironclad as they claimed. Reasonable doubt was established and in August 2007, Truscott was acquitted for the murder of Lynn Harper.

Kirsten “Blaise” Lobato
In May 2001, when she was 18 years old, Kirsten Lobato told a number of friends that a large black man tried to rape her at a hotel in east Las Vegas. She claimed she defended herself by using a pocket knife to slash the man’s penis. In July of that year, the mutilated body of Duran Bailey—a homeless man who somewhat matched what Lobato described—was found and based on what was nothing more than a rumor, Lobato was arrested and charged with his murder. Lobato maintained her innocence and even had an alibi (she was visiting family nearly 3 hours away at the time of the murder), as well as expert testimony that said the physical evidence showed she could not have done it but she was still convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 to 100 years in prison.

Her conviction was overturned two years later and a new trial found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter sentencing her to 13 to 45 years. After multiple appeals and petitions, The Innocence Project put together a presentation utilizing testimony from entomologists and medical examiners that said the timeline the prosecution presented at the original trial didn’t make any scientific sense and Lobato was—for the second time—granted a new trial. Rather than go through with another trial based on little evidence, the DA opted to dismiss the charges. Lobato was released from prison on Jan 3, 2018 after spending over 11 years in prison.

Juan Rivera
In August 1992, 11-year-old Holly Staker was raped, stabbed and strangled to death in a home where she was babysitting. A month later, police received a tip from an inmate that another inmate, Juan Rivera, might have information on the crime. Rivera was questioned repeatedly until he admitted he was the one who killed Staker. A prison nurse reported Rivera, who had a history of mental illness, was in an acute psychotic state and detectives who reviewed his statement agreed it didn’t fit what they knew about the crime. So they questioned him again. And again.

Rivera was charged with first-degree murder on the basis of his confession and convicted. There was no physical evidence linking Rivera to the crime scene and fingerprints found at the scene did not match him. He was also wearing an electronic monitor from a previous conviction at the time of the murder and system records showed that he did not leave his home that night. Rivera’s first conviction was overturned in 1998, but a retrial found him guilty again.In 2004, DNA evidence was tested and Rivera was not a match. Still, prosecutors decided to retry him again and he was found guilty a third time.

Finally, in December 2011, Rivera’s conviction was overturned a final time on the basis that the original confession (which the entire case was based on) was devoid of any new insights—in fact, it was full of completely inaccurate information that Rivera seemed to have made up. There are theories that blood found on Rivera’s shoes was planted and inaccurate assertions about the murder weapon were made at trial. When he was exonerated, the court took the extra step of barring prosecutors from retrying Rivera for the case ever again and he received a $20 million settlement , the largest ever settlement for wrongful conviction in U.S. history.

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on AmongMen.com, 29secrets.com, therichest.com, and ELLECanada.com.  When she isn’t writing about relationships, and the best TV shows and books you should really already know about, she is working on her novel. She hopes to have it published by 2025. You can follow her on Twitter @Courtooo.

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