Unless criminals are caught red handed, there’s nothing black and white about a crime. Investigators must diligently track witness testimony and compelling evidence until they identify a perpetrator. Letters, videotapes, photographs, and even phone calls can all be used against a suspect in a court of law. These items are absolutely necessary to determine the truth, especially in high-profile cases that involve murder, sexual assault, and even complete disregard for human decency. Time is often of the essence.
Investigations don’t always end when investigators arrest a suspect. Unless the criminals confess, prosecutors must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the suspects were the ones who committed the crime. They often sift through countless pieces of evidence to determine the facts of the case. However, the more answers they learn, the more questions often accumulate. Does the blood stained shirt really belong to the suspect? Was the murder weapon used out of self-defence? Are videotapes and photographs always reliable? The mysteries continue almost until the moment the jury or judge make a final verdict.
At the heart of the mystery of any criminal trial are the details of a crime scene. There are perhaps millions of mysterious and unsolved crimes throughout history, but here we’re digging deeper into the inner workings of five crimes, with varying degrees of brutality, that left crime scene analysts baffled. The evidence in the following list — specifically crime scene photographs — may never be fully understood in the contexts of the cases. Some merely peak the curiosity while others are devastating. Most are nothing short of mystifying…
Trigger warning: Violent images and descriptions.
5. Dr. Mary Sherman – Autopsy Photographs
Dr. Mary Sherman was found lying dead, face up in a New Orleans apartment in 1964. She had been severely burned. She was stabbed multiple times as evidenced by blood splatters on the premises. It was believed she had been killed in the apartment. The official cause of death was a stab wound to the heart. To this day, the murder is unsolved. However, based on mystifying autopsy photographs of Sherman’s charred body, forensic experts continue to debate the details of the case.
Only the right side of her body was burned while the rest remained relatively untouched. The apartment as a whole where she was found was also relatively unharmed by a fire—not even the curtains were burned. Although some forensic scientists disagree, Dr. Judy Melinek of San Francisco reported that she finds it “strange that the upper extremity (bone and all) was completely incinerated, while the rest of the torso spared.” She also said that this might be explained by her body being killed and burned in another location, then dumped in the apartment. Joan Mellen, an author, agrees with this theory. She says, based on the autopsy photographs, there is no way Sherman’s mutilation was caused by a fire.
4. Patty Hearst – Victim or Revolutionary?
Patty Hearst is the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, a publishing tycoon who is credited for “inventing tabloid journalism.” In February, 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped at gunpoint on the campus of Berkeley by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and taken to the south of San Francisco. The SLA demanded the release of captive members and used Hearst’s life for ransom. Locked up and brainwashed, Hearst’s life was at risk.
However, during the SLA attempted robbery of a San Francisco bank in 1974, Hearst was seen in a photograph taken from a surveillance camera. She was holding an automatic weapon, participating in the robbery as one of the dangerous revolutionaries. Renamed as Tania, she was now an active member of the SLA. She shot multiple rounds of gunfire at a convenience store, according to FBI. The photograph from the surveillance camera and others shocked the public. It was a mystery as to why and how Hearst transformed from a victim to a political freedom fighter. Was the kidnapping a clever ploy? Was Hearst really a victim?
3. Karla Homolka – Beaten to a Pulp
Canada and the world was shocked when news of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka began to flood the media. Bernardo was a vicious sexual predator in Scarborough, Ontario, and Homolka was his beloved lover and bride. Bernardo was angry with Homolka because she was not a virgin and convinced her that she should allow him to take the virginity of her younger sister, to make up for it. She eventually did. With Homolka’s knowledge of sedative drugs, the two drugged, sexually assaulted and murdered Homolka’s sister. This was all videotaped. Similar events happened on at least one other occasion.
It was clear during their trail that Homolka indeed participated in the brutal crimes, as evidenced by the videotapes. What was unclear was if she was brainwashed and manipulated by Bernardo, and if she participated only because she feared for her life. One photo used as evidence to support her defence was of Homolka beaten to a pulp, indicating that she was the victim of an abusive relationship. To this day, after she was released due to a plea bargain and resultant reduced sentence, the issue is still debated: Was Homolka a victim or an active, willing, and enthusiastic participant? The vast majority of criminologists believe that she lied in her testimony, and that she was indeed a willing killer – but the photo of the abused wife still gives others pause.
2. 9/11 Terrorist Attack – Who is The Falling Man?
On September 11, 2001, America fell victim to the most devastating crime since the attack on Pearl Harbour. Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial planes and crashed two of them in the World Trade Centre Towers in New York City. That day will live on in painful infamy forever in U.S. history. There are thousand of photographs of the devastation, but no photograph is more compelling and more mysterious than The Falling Man, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew.
Many people tragically leaped to their deaths as the buildings blazed. Was it to escape the smoke? The heat? Did the people lose hope? The Falling Man photograph depicts a man, seemingly calm, falling upside down from one of the towers. It sparked controversy in the journalism industry and became a symbol for the desperation of the people who remained in the building. Although there has been a great deal of investigation and speculation, no one knows who the Falling Man was. His identity remains a mystery and the photograph is an icon of that tragic day.
1. Jodi Arias – Photographs of Travis Alexander
In 2008, Jodi Arias was charged with the murder of her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Arias met Alexander on the internet and they began dating. They fell in love and Arias moved to Arizona from California to be with him. Eventually, Alexander broke it off with Arias, but their sexual relationship continued. She visited Alexander and the two allegedly had sex. Police found a camera that was run through a washing machine and it contained photographs of the two in the nude.
One photograph apparently depicted Alexander “bleeding profusely.” Friends were worried about Alexander because they had not seen him for days. Eventually, he was found dead in the shower. The immediate suspect was Arias. Her original testimony was that two men broke into the home and killed Alexander. Later, she changed her testimony and told police that she had murdered Alexander in self-defence. But the photograph of the bleeding Alexander tells a different story. Was it the two men who used the camera to take the photograph? How did Arias have time during a shocking self-defence struggle to photograph Alexander? If Arias did commit the murder willingly, why would she document it? Arias’ trial continues to attract media attention and speculation.