We like to think that law enforcement weighs up a pretty high standard of evidence before they straight up throw a dude in prison. After all, we have all this fancy new technology to discern the guilty from the innocent! It's not like any of us could just wind up in jail for looking like a serial killer. But unfortunately, there have been cases of the legal system slipping up in just that way, for example ...
Adolph Beck was a Norwegian living in England in 1895, who had the bad luck of looking exactly like a prolific jewelry thief. He found this out one day during a chance encounter with a woman who cornered Beck and accused him of stealing her jewels. When the police came by, they arrested him apparently on the evidence that he totally looked like the dude who did it, and he would spend much of his life getting repeatedly nailed for this other guy's crimes, purely because they could (almost) be twins:
Come on, Beck and the real criminal clearly tie their ties in completely different ways!
Once in court, Beck's luck went from bad to worse. Despite the man who swindled the woman sounding less and less like Beck, the jury decided nonetheless that he was not only guilty, but that he'd been seducing ladies and relieving them of their jewelry multiple times since 1877, under the woefully unimaginative fake name "John Smith." For that guy's crimes, Beck was thrown in the slammer for five freaking years.
A 19th century British slammer, no less.
Beck finally caught a break when it was found that "John Smith" was circumcised, while Beck was not. While we don't want to imagine how he proved this in a court of law, he was nevertheless off the hook. At least until three years later, when another woman accused him of theft, and he was again arrested and charged with another string of jewelry robberies -- "Smith" was still out there doing crime, still looked just like Beck, and the court system hadn't learned a goddamned thing from the previous incident. Beck was found guilty again and served another five years or so in the big house.
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"Mmm-hmm. Mistaken identity. Miscarriage of justice. Right. Can we wrap this up?"
His luck only turned around when the real John Smith -- who was actually an Austrian doctor named Wilhelm Meyer -- committed another robbery while Beck was in prison. Though they probably tried their best to prove Beck did it with telekinesis, they eventually nailed Meyer for the crimes, discovering that the mistaken identity simply came about from both of them looking like the most British man in history. Beck was awarded a full pardon by the king and given a truckload of money to boot.
The above story may raise a question you've probably never asked yourself before: In days before photo ID and fingerprints, how did the cops ever know for sure if they were even talking to the right guy? Like if a suspect just straight up said, "Sure, Steve did it, but I'm not Steve -- I just look like him!" How did they know if he was lying?
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"Whaaat? You think I'm O.J. Simpson? Like ... the football guy?"
Well, for a while they used something called the "Bertillion method," which was basically a whole bunch of measurements they took of the size and shape of different parts of your body and face. As well as being an unflattering additional humiliation if you're a fatty, it served as a pretty reliable system -- that was until 1903, when these two guys came along:
Jeez, way to ruin the Bertillion method for the rest of us, guys.
They're not the same man -- the one in the left mugshot is who, after being arrested, was asked if he'd ever been in trouble with the law before. He answered no, but an examination of his measurements told a different story. And he wound up being charged more harshly for lying, much to his confusion. Where West caught a break that the guy in the above example didn't, was that the criminal who matched West's measurements was already incarcerated ... in the same prison. That's the guy in the second mugshot, whose name was -- get this -- also William West (though he went by "William" instead of "Will").
After a thorough examination to make sure one of them wasn't a liquid metal terminator or maybe The Thing, authorities were forced to conclude that this was just a one-in-a-billion coincidence. This caused a new problem for prison officials, who had trouble telling the two Wests apart, which could have been disastrous for one of them: William was serving a life sentence for murder, while Will was in for a much lesser charge.
"OK, one of you has to wear these. Don't worry, your fellow inmates should appreciate a little levity!"
Thankfully, the prison warden, Major Robert McClaughry, started to hear word about a newfangled method of identification that used fingerprints instead of facial measurements. After switching over to the new system, the prison was finally able to tell the difference between West and West, and the example served as proof that the fingerprinting method was far superior. Not that there isn't still confusion, since, for example ...
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So in the modern era of DNA testing and meticulous record keeping, how can prosecutors still get tripped up by similar suspects? When they're identical twins.
They certainly can be ... distracting.
For instance, in Germany, police working on a $6.5 million gold and jewelry heist found traces of DNA on a pair of discarded rubber gloves. Unfortunately for them, the DNA was a match for two identical twins named Hassan and Abbas. They both had their DNA in the database, but because their DNA is 99.99 percent the same, it was impossible to tell whose DNA was on the glove. With the twins keeping their mouths shut and quietly high-fiving each other, the cops had to let them go.
And in Arizona, either Orlando Nembhard or his twin brother Brandon killed someone outside a nightclub. Both were at the crime scene, but because they're identical twins, witnesses couldn't tell which one pulled the trigger. Cops were forced to drop the charges, at least until new evidence is found.
Go Team Murder!
But if you're an identical twin, don't start planning your crime spree just yet. It turns out there is one foolproof way to tell you guys apart, even if you were smart enough not to leave fingerprints. Experiments done by police in the Czech Republic showed dogs could differentiate the scents of identical twins 100 percent of the time. So all we need, we guess, is more dogs stationed around twin-crime hotspots. At the very least, the entire plot of The Parent Trap could have been avoided.
But then again, even if you don't have a twin, DNA can still wrongly nail you for a crime ...