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From the trials of Oscar Pistorius to O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, this innovative book provides a critical review of 11 high profile criminal cases. These case studies examine how ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ are constructed in the courts and in wider society, using the themes of evidence and narratives; credibility; rhetoric and oratory in the court room; social status; vulnerability and false confessions; diminished responsibility and the media and social judgments.

Written for criminology, sociology, law, and criminal justice students, the book includes:

  • exercises to extend thinking on each case;

  • recommended readings for studying the cases and concepts discussed in each chapter;

  • an extensive specialist reference list including web links to videos and transcripts pertaining to many of the cases discussed in the book.

The book delivers an accessible examination of the criminological, sociological, psychological and legal processes underpinning the outcome of criminal cases, and their representation in the media and wider society.

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Just after midday on 1 January 1995, officers at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham found Frederick Walter Stephen West dead in his cell. He had killed himself by hanging. Fred, as he was always referred to, had been charged with 11 murders and was being held before appearing at Winchester Crown Court. He had already admitted the killings, albeit with frustrating changes of focus and detail, during various interviews with the police after his arrest in February 1994. The case had quickly attracted extensive national and international media coverage, not only because of the number of victims, determined to have died over an extended period of time between 1967 and 1987, but also because most of them had been sexually assaulted before being murdered. Most of the remains were buried under the patio or cellar at Fred’s home at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester (soon to be christened by the press as the ‘Gloucester House of Horrors’). It had also emerged that his wife, Rosemary West (hereafter Rose) had a history of promiscuity, bisexual relations and a documented case of sexual assault on a young woman carried out with Fred in 1972. Particularly shocking was the record of serious physical abuse of Fred and Rose’s eight children and repeated serious sexual abuse against their daughters.

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On the morning of 19 April 1995, 26-year-old Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder rental truck, holding a homemade bomb, in the disabled zone in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in the US. After parking the truck, McVeigh got out of the vehicle and walked away. At 9.02 am, the bomb exploded killing 168 people and injuring more than 500 others. Of those who died, 15 were children who attended the day-care centre on the second floor of the building, and another four children who were in or near the building also died. Other victims were employees of various federal government agencies and visitors to the offices. Meanwhile, McVeigh left the city and headed north in his yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis. State Trooper Charles Hanger stopped McVeigh’s car on Interstate 35 because it did not have a licence plate. Hanger noticed that McVeigh was concealing a gun under his jacket and therefore arrested him for unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon and took him to the county jail in Perry, Oklahoma. Hanger ran McVeigh’s social security number through a national crime database (Branson-Potts, 2015) but there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was held in the jail for two days awaiting a court hearing for the firearms charge and failure to display a licence plate. No one at the jail suspected that he had any involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing. However, back in the city investigators discovered the Ryder truck’s rear axle that had been flung two blocks from where the bomb had exploded. There was an identification number on the axle that enabled them to trace the vehicle to the Ryder agency that had rented it and then to the motel where McVeigh (registered under his real name) had stayed the night before the bombing. Staff at the motel also identified McVeigh from a composite sketch that was drawn from the description of staff at the rental agency.

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On the evening of 12 June 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson (35), her two young children and other family members dined at the Los Angeles (LA) restaurant Mezzaluna, in California. Ronald Goldman (25) was a waiter at Mezzaluna and an acquaintance of Nicole. Ronald (hereafter Ron) left Mezzaluna at around 9.50 pm and, following a brief stop at his apartment to change his clothes, he walked to Nicole’s condominium at 875 South Bundy Drive, LA, to return a pair of glasses that belonged to Nicole’s mother, who had left them at the restaurant. Just before midnight, Nicole’s agitated and blood-stained dog was found by a man walking around the neighbourhood. The dog led the man to Nicole’s condominium where he could see two bodies (later identified by the police as Nicole and Ron) lying on the walkway to the house. They had both been stabbed multiple times (Cotterill, 2003). At approximately 11.50 pm on the evening of the murders, Nicole’s ex-husband, Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson, was picked up by a chauffeur from his house in another part of LA: he was leaving to attend a Hertz conference in Chicago (Buckleton, 2005). The following morning, when informed by the police of the murders, Simpson returned to Los Angeles where he was questioned for almost four hours. He was subsequently released without charge. Simpson maintained his innocence throughout the interview and claimed to have no knowledge of the murders (Cotterill, 2003).

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On 1 March 2005, Michael Jackson went on trial for the sexual molestation of a child and related charges including conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion (McDonell-Parry, 2019). The alleged victim was a friend of Jackson’s, Gavin Arvizo, who at the time of the alleged offences was 13 years old (Wardrup, 2009). The trial lasted 73 days, involved 90 witnesses for the State of California, 50 for the defence, and nearly 700 items of evidence. At the end, on 13 June 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all charges (Dimond, 2005). Jackson was born in 1958; his musical career began when he was five years old. Under the management of his father, Jackson and four of his brothers formed a musical group called the ‘Jackson 5’. Jackson became the lead vocalist and the band was signed to a Motown record label after they were talent-spotted in 1969. The Jackson 5 experienced enormous success and, as well as being part of the group, Jackson launched his solo career when he was 13. In 1982, he released his sixth solo album, Thriller, which remains among the best-selling albums in history (Biography.com Editors, 2020). According to the website ‘Celebrity Net Worth’ Jackson was worth $500 million (£380 million) at the time of his death in 2009. At the height of his career, between 1985 and 1995, he sold 750 million albums and earned between $50 million and $100 million per year.

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On 3 November 2005, the mother of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach called the local sheriff’s office (in Calumet County, Wisconsin, US) to report that her daughter was missing. She was last seen on 31 October taking photographs of a car for the Auto Trader magazine at a business called Avery’s Auto Salvage in nearby Manitowoc County. Halbach was taking the photographs for Steven Avery, who, along with other members of the family, lived in one of the cabins on the Auto Salvage lot. On 5 November, Halbach’s vehicle, a Toyota RAV4, was discovered on the lot, and a few days later police found the key to it in Avery’s bedroom. On the same day, bones and teeth were found in a burn pit adjacent to Avery’s cabin. On 15 November, Avery was charged with the murder of Halbach (Griesbach, 2014). In the days following the discovery of Halbach’s vehicle, the police interviewed other members of Avery’s family including his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey. Dassey, who had learning disabilities, was interrogated multiple times, on 6 November 2005, and 27 February, 1 March and 13 May 2006, each time without a lawyer present (Gallini, 2019). During the 1 March interrogation, he confessed to participating in the murder of Halbach with his uncle, Steven Avery. When Dassey’s mother was permitted to see him after the interrogation, he immediately threw doubt on his confession telling her ‘They [the police] got to my head’ (Interrogation of Brendan Dassey, 2006b).

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On 5 May 1981, 34-year-old Peter William Sutcliffe went on trial at the Old Bailey, charged with the murders of 13 women: Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill. He was also charged with the seven attempted murders of Anna Rogulskyj, Olive Smelt, Marcella Claxton, Maureen Long, Marilyn Moore, Upadhya Bandara and Theresa Sykes (Smith, 2013). Sutcliffe attacked and murdered his victims (some of whom were sex workers and whose ages ranged between 16 and 47) late at night in West Yorkshire and Manchester between 1975 and 1981 (Bilton, 2012). His modus operandi typically involved hitting the unsuspecting woman on the back of the head with a ball pein hammer. He also stabbed his victims with a sharpened screwdriver and mutilated their bodies. The expensive and lengthy police investigation attracted enormous media attention because it took West Yorkshire detectives more than five years to capture Sutcliffe. The police were heavily criticised, not least because Sutcliffe had been interviewed nine times during their investigation. The reasons for their failure to apprehend Sutcliffe more quickly have been the subject of most true crime books and documentaries covering the case. First, senior investigators were misled in their belief that the man they were looking for was solely motivated by a ‘hatred of prostitutes’ (Yallop, 1981: 65); and second, a hoaxer from north-east England wrote letters and sent tapes to detectives falsely confessing to the murders.

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At 3.19 am on 14 February 2013, in Pretoria, South Africa, a distraught Oscar Pistorius phoned one of his neighbours, Johan Stander, to ask for help: ‘Johan, please, please come to my house. I shot Reeva. I thought she was an intruder. Please, please, please come quick’ (Carlin, 2014: 8). In that first brief and urgent request, five minutes after the shots were fired, Pistorius gave an account that determined the way that the criminal case against him would develop. He had shot Reeva (he did not say that someone else had shot her); and although he was not quite accurate in saying he thought that ‘she’ was an intruder, he thought that he was shooting at an intruder (he did not say, for example, that he was angry with Reeva). He would say the same to others who he called that morning, to the neighbours, security guards, emergency services and police who went to his house, to the magistrate who committed him for trial, and to the judge who presided over it. In terms of the requisites for establishing guilt (see Chapter 1), Pistorius admitted that he was at the scene of the incident and had fired the shots, but he denied criminal intent, claiming that he had fired in self-defence and that Reeva’s death was a tragic mistake. As we will see, in evaluating Pistorius’s account of events two questions were the focus of attention.

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On 2 November 2007, 21-year-old British exchange student Meredith Kercher was found sexually assaulted and murdered in her bedroom in Perugia, Italy. The alarm was raised by one of her flatmates, 20-year-old American exchange student, Amanda Knox. Knox reported that she had spent the night at the residence of her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and had returned to her flat on the morning of 2 November to shower and change her clothes. Apart from Kercher, there were two other flatmates, Italian students, who were away for the weekend. Knox noticed droplets of blood in the bathroom; Kercher’s bedroom door was closed and locked, and she did not respond to knocks and shouts. Knox returned to Sollecito’s flat, told him about her concern, and he called the police. When the police arrived, they forced open the door and discovered Kercher’s body. Despite having raised the alarm, Knox and Sollecito quickly fell under suspicion because the authorities thought that their behaviour was odd. As they waited outside the small house in which the flat was located, the couple were observed embracing and kissing and the lead prosecutor later said it was not what would be expected of someone supposedly grieving for her murdered friend (Knox, 2015).

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Every so often, a trial comes along that attracts a great deal of public attention. Various factors appear to contribute to this explosion into the public domain: the violence – sometimes horrendous or shocking – with which the crimes were committed (for example, James Hanratty, Timothy McVeigh, Peter Sutcliffe, Rosemary West), the celebrity status of defendants and victims (for example, Oscar Pistorius, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson), or puzzles about the crime (for example, Casey Anthony, H.H. Crippen, Brendan Dassey, Amanda Knox). In this book, we have examined 11 such cases to help illuminate some of the processes which, according to sociologists, psychologists, criminologists and legal scholars, are involved in the construction of guilt and innocence. To the extent that these researchers’ findings are valid, they should also be applicable to new cases that will certainly emerge in the future. Of course, the law does not stand still and, indeed, may react to research findings by changing its practice. For example, more attention might be paid to the way in which vulnerable defendants are handled during the investigatory process; experts may be called to a trial to counter popular beliefs about the markers of credibility and reliability for people who take the stand; and courts may instruct jurors to put aside their notions of common sense or to ‘switch’ a key social or demographic characteristic of the defendant and test their assumptions about the ‘reasonable person’.

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