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Mistaken Identities and Executions: 6 Murderers Who Didn't Do It

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What do you do when you've just hanged someone for murder, and then their "victim" pops up alive and healthy a few towns away?

1. Not the Marion Type

William Jackson Marion and Jack Cameron met at a Kansas boarding house in 1872. The two men became fast friends and traveling companions, using Cameron's team of horses to go from place-to-place to find work. Along their journey, the two made a brief stop in Beatrice, Nebraska to visit Marion's in-laws before moving on. After a few days, however, Marion returned solo, sporting clothes that belonged to Cameron and driving Cameron's horses. Then he left town again.

Weeks later, the body of a man was discovered with three bullet holes in his head. He was also wearing the same outfit that Cameron had worn the day he left town. Marion immediately became the prime suspect and a manhunt began. After 10 years of searching, Marion was finally captured in Kansas.

The trial and conviction of Jack Marion was seriously abbreviated. Marion's verdict was read after just one hour of deliberation, and he was hanged for his crime on March 25, 1887.

Four years later, Jack Cameron reappeared looking for his old friend. Apparently, he had run to Mexico to avoid a shotgun wedding in Kansas, giving his horses and other possessions to Marion. Now he'd come back to reclaim them.

The story does end on a (slightly) positive note: Thanks to the work of Marion's grandson, Elbert Marion, Nebraska governor Bob Kerrey granted Jack Marion a posthumous pardon in 1987, 100 years after his execution.

2. The Brothers Boorn

aWilkieCollins.jpgIn May of 1812, when Richard Colvin vanished, speculation amongst the townspeople of Manchester, Vermont was that his brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen, were responsible. Without evidence of foul play, though, no charges were pressed. Seven years later, the Boorn Brothers' uncle had a dream in which Richard said he'd been killed and his body buried in an old cellar on the Boorn farm. Upon excavation of the cellar, a penknife and a button were found, both identified as Richard's. But the "evidence" still wasn't enough to charge the Boorn Brothers. Soon after, when a barn on the Boorn farm burned to the ground, many believed it was arson to cover more evidence. But, again, no charges were filed.

Things finally came to a head, however, when a boy discovered bones under a tree near the Boorn home. While in custody, Jesse confessed that he and his brother had killed Richard. But before the trial began, a closer examination of the bones revealed they weren't even human, but those of an animal. The prosecution carried on, however, for they had the damning testimony of Silas Merrill, a forger, who was Jesse's cellmate.

Silas said Jesse had implicated himself, Stephen, and their father in Colvin's murder. His testimony mentioned the suspected locations of the crime "“ the cellar, the barn, and the tree "“ all fitting together in a neat little package. For his cooperation in the case, Silas was set free.

As the evidence mounted, Stephen confessed as well, telling the same story as Silas, but without implicating his father. The Boorn Brothers were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1819.  Jesse's sentence would later be commuted to life in prison, but Stephen was set to hang.

Rather than sit idly by, Stephen placed an ad in different newspapers explaining his predicament. The ad included a description of Richard Colvin. Amazingly, the thing worked! Someone actually tracked Colvin down, who was alive and well in New Jersey.
The Boorn Brothers were released from prison and petitioned for compensation from the state.  But because they had both confessed to the crime, they received nothing but their freedom. The Boorn case became the first documented wrongful murder conviction in American history.

3. She Gets Convicted

Zhang Zaiyu disappeared from Hubei Province in 1994.  A few months later, a woman's body was found in a lake and Zhang's family identified it as their missing loved one. Her husband She Zaiyu was arrested for murder.

For 10 days, She was reportedly denied sleep and received severe beatings until he finally confessed to the crime. Once in court, She said the confession had been coerced and that he was not guilty. He was sentenced to death in late 1994, but four years later his sentence was reduced to 15 years because the courts felt there wasn't sufficient evidence for the death penalty.

Then, in March of 2005, Zhang Zaiyu resurfaced in Hubei. Mrs. Zaiyu claimed to have suffered from mental illness and had wandered away from her home in 1994. She wound up in Shandong Province, living there and even marrying another man. Her identity was confirmed through DNA testing and her first husband was released from prison 11 years after he had been convicted. He then sued the government and received 700,000 yuan (about $102,650) in compensation.

But more importantly, She's case - and that of Teng Xingshan "“ helped bring about changes to the Chinese judicial system in 2005. Now, capital punishment cases are the sole authority of the Supreme People's Court, which requires more oversight and investigation before executions are carried out.

4. The Servant and the Bloody Shirt

On August 16, 1660, William Harrison left home in Campden, England to do business in a nearby town. When he didn't return, his servant, John Perry, went to look for him. Perry found Harrison's shirt covered in blood, along with his hat, which had been slashed by a knife. Harrison, however, was nowhere to be found.

Authorities immediately suspected Perry, and likely tortured him for answers. He confessed to a conspiracy involving himself, his mother, and his brother. According to his statement, Perry claimed that it was his brother who had actually killed Harrison while attempting to rob him. Despite the fact that all of Perry's relatives proclaimed their innocence, the entire family was convicted and hanged. Mrs. Perry, who'd also been accused of being a witch, was hanged first.

Two years later, however, William Harrison returned to England claiming that he had been abducted, taken to Turkey, and sold into slavery. He escaped when his master died, and his return was publicly lauded.

While Perry's trial didn't do John Perry (or his family) much good, it did have an impact on future cases. John Perry's story set a legal precedent in England - "no body, no crime" - that lasted for nearly 300 years.

5. The Professional Job

In April 1987, the dismembered body of a woman was dragged from the waters of the Mayang River in central Hunan Province. A young woman, Shi Xiaorong, had been declared missing shortly before the body was found, so police believed she was the victim. According to authorities, the dismemberment looked "very professional", so local butcher Teng Xinhshan became a prime suspect. It was speculated that Teng had sex with Shi and killed her when she tried to steal his money. Teng claimed he had never met Shi, but was found guilty and sentenced to death anyway. He was executed in 1989.

Then, in 1993, Shi Xiaorong reappeared saying that she had been tricked and sold into marriage in March 1987. When Teng's relatives learned that Shi was still alive, they sued the judiciary.  After the case was reopened, Shi testified that she had never even met Teng, and that he had obviously not killed her. Teng was posthumously exonerated in 2006.

6. Puppy Love

Picture 10.png14-year old Natasha Ryan vanished from her Queensland home in 1999. No body was ever found, and, after years of searching, her family presumed she was dead. Their fears were confirmed in 2002 when incarcerated serial killer, Leonard Fraser, was secretly recorded in his jail cell confessing that Natasha was one of his many victims.

In the middle of Fraser's 2003 trial for the murder of four women, including Natasha Ryan, the authorities received a tip that Ryan had been living with her boyfriend, Scott Black, since her disappearance. They raided Black's house, which was less than a half-mile away from her parents' home, and found Natasha hiding in a wardrobe. The charges for Natasha's murder were dropped, though Fraser was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences for the other three murders.

As for Natasha and her boyfriend, he was sentenced to one year in prison for perjury for claiming he didn't know Natasha's whereabouts. He was also fined $3000 and had to pay $16,740 of the costs accrued by police while searching for Natasha. Natasha only had to pay $1,000 fine for causing a false police investigation, though she sold her story to Australian tabloids for much, much more. The two married in 2008; both of Natasha's parents attended the ceremony.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]