5 Crimes That Turned Out to Be Completely Impossible
We’ve got some good news for you, and some bad news. The good news is, legally, when the state accuses you of a crime, you don’t have to prove you’re innocent. The burden’s on them. If they can’t prove you did it, you should go free.
The bad news is, even if they can’t really prove anything, they still have all kinds of ways of making the accusation stick. Sometimes, your best route to exoneration is in coming up with some proof of your own — not just that you didn’t do it, but that you couldn’t have. The really bad news? Even with that proof, it’s a toss-up whether that saves you from going to jail.
A Man Confessed, Then ‘MythBusters’ Proved He Was Innocent
Police were investigating a deadly arson case in 1987, and a suspect pushed them to a group of three other guys from the neighborhood. Under interrogation, each of the three broke down and said, sure, the other two had been involved in the fire, and this landed all three of them with life sentences. One of the men, John Galvan, signed a confession, saying he’d chucked a bottle of gasoline into the house and threw a cigarette on the liquid to light it. He later tried recanting the confession, claiming police had beaten it out of him. All three suspects claimed coercion, in fact; among other things, they said the interrogations included some kicks to the balls.
Years passed. Decades passed. Then in 2007, still in prison, Galvan caught an episode of MythBusters that revealed a cigarette can’t light gasoline. We’ll advise you against smoking while swimming in gasoline, just in case, but yes, that’s what science says. Drop a cigarette onto spilled gasoline, and the liquid will not make enough contact with the hottest ash to ignite. Other experiments besides MythBusters’ demonstrate this as well.
Galvan used that knowledge to get all three men’s convictions vacated. Still, it took him five years after watching that episode to get a new hearing, and another decade to get an appeals court ruling in his favor. New reviews suggest that no Molotov cocktail ever set that fire, and there was insufficient evidence of arson at all. Galvan and his two friends were released last July, after each spending more than 35 years in prison.
The Man Behind the Great Fire of London
Up next is another story of someone who falsely confessed to arson. He was innocent, but he was never exonerated — in fact, he was hanged.
The fire here was The Great Fire of London, which burned a good chunk of the city down in 1666. Ten thousand houses fell, scores of churches crumbled and the total damage clocked in at around a couple billion pounds in modern money. The fire also killed some people, probably, but no one was very good at taking down names in those days, so we don’t know how many.
The fire started in a bakery. Our best guess now is that an oven set it off, but with destruction on this scale, people couldn’t settle for calling it an accident. They needed someone truly guilty, someone they could hate. They fell on Robert Hubert, a watchmaker. Hubert had thrown a grenade into a window of the bakery, police got him to admit. He’d also cut off water to the area. He even admitted to being a spy, employed by the French.
We question the details of this narrative. It seems unlikely that Hubert threw a homemade grenade through the bakery’s window, as the bakery had no windows. One other factor might have made it difficult for him to start the fire, too: He was out of the country when the fire began, away at sea. Still, the police got a confession out of him, and so, it was off to the gallows with him. Then onlookers ripped apart his corpse because Londoners were a bloodthirsty lot back in those days.
A Mouse Autopsy Cleared Cracker Barrel
You often hear about a customer finding something disgusting in their restaurant dish and suing — a la a fried rat in their KFC bucket of chicken — but never that the oddly shaped meat was clearly chicken, or that KFC later proved it via a DNA test.
If you read just the initial reports, you might think faking these dishes is an easy way to extort restaurants. Don’t count on it. Consider the case of Carla and Ricky Patterson, a mother-and-son duo who ate at Cracker Barrel on Mother’s Day in 2004. Carla pointed to a mouse floating in her vegetable soup. She claimed she only noticed the dead rodent after eating a few spoonfuls (and then peering closely, we assume, to find out why it tasted so much better than vegetable soup usually does).
The Pattersons would later say that Cracker Barrel offered them money (which is not proof of guilt), but they held out and demanded $500,000. Instead of paying that, Cracker Barrel ordered a necropsy of the mouse.
The necropsy unearthed that the mouse had no soup in its lungs and had died by having its neck broken. This suggested the mouse had been removed, dead, from some trap rather than jumping into the soup pot while alive. Most damning, the necropsy showed the mouse’s flesh hadn’t cooked at all, suggesting it had been dropped in the bowl while the liquid was starting to cool.
Far from getting the huge payout they sought, both mother and son received a year in prison. And thus ended the first and only story in which you root for Cracker Barrel.
A Witch Hunt — in 1944
These stories of people accused of crimes they never committed are often called witch hunts, harkening back to literal witch hunts, from the Middle Ages or in early America. But did you know that the last time Britain convicted someone under the Witchcraft Act wasn’t (say) 1562? It was 1944. They convicted a self-professed spiritualist under this law because she wasn’t the witch she said she was. Their real motive was to shut her up from spreading war info and attributing her knowledge to her powers.
As for people accused of actual witchcraft, let’s mention Jane Wenham, condemned to death in 1730. She offered to prove her innocence by letting investigators search her skin for a “witch’s mark” (which was a thing people totally believed in, and definitely not just an excuse to strip a suspect and examine her crotch). The search turned up nothing, so they next made her recite the Lord’s Prayer, and she got the words wrong, proving she was a witch.
The jury found her guilty, and the judge had to sentence her to death. Luckily, the judge was sympathetic and set aside the conviction after passing the sentence. This judge was Sir John Powell, and when one witness at the trial accused Wenham of flying, Powell said, “There is no law against flying.”
Laws today, sadly, are not all as lenient about levitation. In Eswatini (the country formerly known as Swaziland), it is currently illegal for witches to ride broomsticks at altitudes higher than 150 meters. The law specifically singles out witches, and if any breaks the law, she faces a severe fine.
A Model’s Breasts Were Too Big to Trespass
In 2007, a man in Japan told police that his girlfriend had caught him with another woman. So far, it sounds like this story should leave police saying, “Why are you telling us this?,” but the man claimed that the girlfriend left the apartment and then decided to return — by kicking a hole in the door and then crawling through it. The girlfriend, a model who went by the name Serena Kozakura, was found guilty of willful destruction of property and received a 14-month sentence.
During her appeal, however, she successfully argued that she could never have fit through the hole in the door, disproving the boyfriend’s story. The hole measured less than 9 inches wide (that’s around the width of a standard piece of paper). Kozakura, a professional bikini model, had an officially documented bust size of 40 inches. That might sound unremarkable to readers from America, land of the free, but it’s notably large in Japan and would make passage through that door hole impossible.
Some of you are now expecting us to provide you a photo of this victorious defendant. We could not find one, though we could find many photos that claimed to show her, photos of indeterminate origin. Even searching the name will send you to porn sites — sites that do not feature the model, but who cater to people searching for that name. You could be on those porn sites right now, but you instead choose to spend your time with us. For that, we thank you.