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4 Crimes That Inspired Law & Order Episodes

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Truth is stranger than fiction, and one place that becomes very clear is in Law & Order episodes that were ripped from the headlines. Sure, the episodes themselves are entertaining, but the original inspiration for the episode is often so bizarre that it makes the show seem mild in comparison. These are a few of the many true stories used in Law & Order episodes. You’ll see why the show occasionally needs to tone down certain details to actually make the case seem believable.

(For those of you worried about spoilers, I’ve tried to limit the giveaways in the plot summaries. You should be OK reading the article without ruining these four episodes.)

1. Episode: Hubris

Law & Order Plot: Four people are murdered during a jewelry store heist. Though the suspect is quickly apprehended and charged with the crime, the prosecutors are in for a rough time when the charming and persuasive young man insists on representing himself. Things get even more complex when he starts flirting with the jury foreman.

The True Story: Peter Gill was part of a Vancouver drug gang charged with murdering two men in 1994. The trial made history when Gill became sexually involved with one of the jurors, a woman named Gillian Guess.

Court officers learned about the behavior, but the judge only approached Gill about the affair, and the two continued to see each other. Eventually, Gill told Guess to convict his two co-defendants.

After the trial, Guess was investigated and police uncovered enough evidence to prove that she was involved with Gill during the trial. The resulting scandal set a number of precedents in Canadian Law. It was the first time a juror was sanctioned for his or her decisions, and the only time in Canadian history where a jury room discussion was made part of the public record.

Eventually, Gillian Guess was convicted of obstruction of justice after other jurors came forward to testify that she badgered them into an acquittal. She served 18 months in prison and one year of probation. Gill was never retried for murder, but he was convicted of obstruction of justice as well, and served six years in prison.

2. Episode: Myth of Fingerprints

Law & Order Plot: A jailhouse confession raises questions about the guilt of two convicted men, one of whom has already died in custody. The resulting investigation reveals that a former fingerprint examiner may have intentionally provided false testimonies in order to secure convictions. To make matters worse, the current police lieutenant earned her promotion thanks to two of these false convictions.

The True Story: If you thought the show’s conviction of two innocent men, one of whom died in custody, was bad, then the story of Joyce Gilchrist will really get your blood boiling. Gilchrist was a former forensic chemist who was involved with over 3,000 cases during her 21 years of working with the Oklahoma City police. During her career, she earned the nickname “Black Magic” for her ability to match DNA evidence. She was very skilled at testifying during criminal trials and persuading jurors. I think you can guess where this is going. That’s right, she didn’t actually match all those samples, and her testimonies sent numerous innocent men to prison.

Some colleagues questioned Gilchrist's work, but it took years to catch her. Things finally came to a head when a man convicted of rape was exonerated based on additional DNA evidence. The man had a clean record and a good alibi, so his conviction largely came down to Gilchrist’s evidence and testimony. Unfortunately, the man had already spent 15 years in prison by that point and missed seeing his children grow up.

The case brought attention to Gilchrist’s work and she was eventually fired due to “flawed casework analysis” and “laboratory mismanagement.” Twenty-three cases she worked on resulted in a death sentence and, of those, 11 have already been executed. It is impossible to say how many of these people would have been found innocent if it weren’t for her lab work. Over 1,700 cases Gilchrist worked on were reviewed by the state of Oklahoma. Lawsuits and appeals related to her wrongful convictions are still pending.

Of course, if you ask Gilchrist or her attorney, she didn’t do anything wrong. Despite all the independent forensic examiners who brought doubt to her work, Gilchrist claims that she was actually fired for reporting the sexual misconduct of her supervisor. She even filed a wrongful termination lawsuit for $20 million, which she did not win.

3. Episode: Born Again

Law & Order Plot: When an 11-year-old girl is found dead, investigators discover clues that point to her desperate mother and her child therapist being involved in a dangerous and unorthodox “rebirthing” procedure.

The True Story: Candace Tiara Elmore and her siblings were removed from their home after suffering from neglect. At the age of seven, Candace was adopted by Jeane Elizabeth Newmaker (pictured at left), who changed Candace’s name to Candace Elizabeth Newmaker. Candace didn’t adapt well to her new environment and she soon started acting out. She was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, but the medications she was given didn’t seem to help her condition.


Eventually, Jeane brought her to an intensive attachment therapy session headed by Connell Watkins. During the second week of treatment, Candace was put through a 70-minute “rebirthing” session, where she was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to force her way out of it, simulating her exiting from the womb. The idea was that once she escaped the “womb,” she would then connect better with her adoptive mother.

Jeane, Watkins, another therapist, Julie Ponder, and two other adults used their bodies to prevent Candace from escaping from the blanket, no matter how loud she complained. Even when Candace started shouting that she needed air and that she was dying, the adults ignored her pleas. Ponder even exclaimed, “You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead, die right now.” Within twenty minutes, the girl vomited and excreted inside the sheet. She still was not released. Forty minutes in, Jeane asked, “Baby, do you want to be born?” Candace meekly replied, “No.” Ponder replied, "Quitter, quitter, quitter, quitter! Quit, quit, quit, quit. She's a quitter!"

Jeane was asked to leave the room around that point and shortly after, the therapists asked the other two volunteers to leave the room. After talking amongst themselves for a few minutes, they gave up on Candace and unwrapped the sheet to reveal Candace’s body. She was blue in the face and wasn’t breathing. Jeane, who was watching the room on a television monitor, returned to the room and started performing CPR while Watkins called 911. Paramedics were able to get the girl’s heart started again, but in the hospital the next day, she was declared brain dead due to oxygen deprivation.

The entire two-week therapy session was videotaped, which provided ample evidence at the trial of Watkins and Ponder. The two were found guilty of reckless child abuse resulting in death, and each received 16-year prison sentences. Watkins was paroled after seven years, but she was put under strict restrictions regarding contact with children and counseling work. Jeanne pled guilty to neglect and abuse and was given a four-year suspended sentence. The two other participants in the session pled guilty to criminally negligent child abuse and were given ten years probation and 1000 hours community service.

A number of states have added statutes outlawing dangerous birth experience reenactments since the case.

4. Episode: Patient Zero

Law & Order Plot: When a car jacking is linked to an outbreak of the deadly SARS virus, detectives have to find the first patient who contracted the illness. The eventually turn up a wealthy researcher with a motive for revenge.

The True Story: When physician Richard J. Schmidt was dumped by his lover and former colleague, Janice Trahan, he decided to get revenge. In 1994, Schmidt took a blood sample from one of his AIDS-infected patients and injected the virus into Trahan, telling her it was a “Vitamin B” injection.

When Trahan was diagnosed with HIV, she was immediately suspicious of Schmidt. She had her ex-husband and all former boyfriends tested for the disease and they all came up clean. With this evidence, the police started to investigate her claims about Dr. Schmidt.

Because HIV can last only a few hours outside of the human body and Trahan said the injection was performed late at night, the police knew the blood had to be taken late at night, too. Eventually, they uncovered hospital records that showed Schmidt took blood from a patient at night and never sent the sample to the lab. They tracked down that patient and took a sample of his blood.

While virus DNA matching had never been performed for a criminal trial before, the forensics team went forward with the testing and the DNA of the patient’s virus matched the virus DNA from Trahan. As a result, prosecutors were able to secure a conviction against Schmidt, who was charged with second degree attempted murder and sentenced to 50 years in jail.

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Beyond CSI: 10 Fascinating Forensic Careers
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If you were to believe everything you saw on television about a day in the life of a forensic science professional, it would be all crime scene investigation all the time. As pulse-poundingly exciting as the investigative antics on CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Criminal Minds may be, the day-to-day duties of forensic professionals aren’t always so cinematic. From accountants to astronomers, here are 10 lesser-known—but entirely fascinating—forensic careers.

1. FORENSIC LINGUIST

From pronunciation to word order, the patterns with which a person communicates are almost as distinct as the sound of his or her voice. Which makes them an identifiable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, particularly in cases where fraud or plagiarism are concerned. Though the field of forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t come into popular use in the U.S. until the mid-1990s, when FBI forensic linguist James Fitzgerald convinced his employer that publishing the Unabomber's “manifesto” could possibly help them catch the man who had killed three people and injured nearly two dozen others with the homemade bombs he’d been mailing to unsuspecting victims for nearly two decades. It worked. Several people called in tips after reading the manifesto, recognizing the writing style, which eventually led them to Ted Kaczynski.

If you've been watching Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber, you've already gotten a sense of what Fitzgerald's job entails. He's portrayed by Sam Worthington in the series, and Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "Fitz," has been impressed with the series' accuracy. "They are in the high 80 percentile [of accuracy]," Fitzgerald told Bustle, noting that "the Fitz character is a composite character." He describes the series as "a metaphorical look at my role in the Unabomber case, as well as bits and pieces of other agents who did it. It’s relatively factual. I will say, if it is about language analysis that is shown on the screen, that was me. That was the real Fitz."

2. FORENSIC OPTOMETRIST

Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But Graham Strong has spent more than two decades doing just that, helping to prove the ownership of eyewear evidence left behind at crime scenes. It all started in 1989, when he assisted investigators in proving that the glasses found beneath the body of a murder victim were the same ones that their key suspect was wearing in an earlier mug shot. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to photographs in every way,” Strong explained of his investigative process. The evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction.

3. FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST

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If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you kinda sorta know what’s in a forensic anthropologist’s job description: to help identify and investigate decayed or damaged skeletal remains. If the science in the show seems sound, that’s because (for the most part) it is: The series, which ended its 12-season run in March 2017, is based on the life, work, and writing of Kathy Reichs, who is one of only 100 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (she’s also a best-selling author and was one of the show’s producer).

4. FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGIST

Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, forensic archaeologists work with the police and other government agencies to locate, excavate, and analyze historical evidence, from buried personal items to mass graves. Employing the same techniques they would at a dig site, forensic archaeologists help to organize a crime scene and preserve potential evidence and are being increasingly called upon by organizations such as the United Nations in genocide investigations in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia. 

5. FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT

Some investigators carry a gun; others wield an adding machine. Consider this: When the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today, about 400 of the FBI’s special agents are accountants. Forensic accountants are also found in accounting firms of varying sizes, as well as in law firms and police and government agencies, where they investigate a range of crimes that have been committed in the name of financial gain, which could include anything from murder to securities fraud. 

6. FORENSIC ASTRONOMER

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Not even Copernicus could have likely imagined that the field he pioneered would one day be able to aid in the delivery of legal justice. But the celestial bodies that continue to confound us regular folk have been used in much more practical ways for several centuries now, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he successfully defended a client against murder by being able to establish the position of the moon on the night of the altercation (which disproved the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness).

7. FORENSIC ODONTOLOGIST

In the late 1960s, there was a serial killer and rapist on the loose in Montreal who earned the nickname “The Vampire Rapist” because of the signature bite marks he left on the breasts of his victims. That vicious calling card became the undoing of Wayne Boden, the 23-year-old former model who was arrested in 1971 when Gordon Swann, a local orthodontist, was able to show 29 points of similarity between Boden’s chompers and the marks left on the body of Elizabeth Porteous, his final victim. Boden’s conviction was the first in North America to rest on odontological evidence, but certainly not the last; in 1979, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron was a key witness in the prosecution of Ted Bundy for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University.

8. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST

Forensic pathologists—medical doctors tasked with examining corpses to determine identity and the cause and manner of death—have found themselves in the spotlight in recent years with the popularity of reality television series like Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which followed Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Orlando’s Chief Medical Examiner, who famously identified the remains of Caylee Anthony. A decade earlier, HBO premiered Autopsy, a documentary series in which Dr. Michael Baden—the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City—explained the science behind some of the most notorious crimes of the century, including the assassination of JFK, the death of Sid Vicious, and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Lesser-known Autopsy cases examined how maggots, tattoos, breast implants, and chewing gum have all helped solve crimes. 

9. FORENSIC MICROSCOPIST

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The most damning evidence at a crime scene is usually the kind that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Enter forensic microscopy, the science of trace evidence, which can offer valuable clues in solving a crime by examining a variety of substances such as hairs, fibers, soil, dust, building materials, paint chips, botanicals, and food. Skip Palenik has spent a lifetime using microscropy to solve real-world crimes, analyzing trace evidence in the cases of the Hillside Strangler, JonBenét Ramsey, the Unabomber, and the Green River Killer. In 1992, he founded Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory and consultation firm focused on small particle analysis. 

10. FORENSIC NURSE

Nurses are the first point of contact for many a crime victim, so it only makes sense that they would play an important role in the legal system. From collecting blood and DNA samples to counseling crime victims, the specializations of a forensic nurse can vary, as can their training. Writer-producer Serita Stevens—a forensic nurse herself—explores the field in depth in her book Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement, which notes of the job that “When the human body itself is a crime scene, [the forensic nurse] is the most critical investigator of all.”

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13 Infamous Facts About Bonnie and Clyde
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Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). On the 50th anniversary of its release, get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits. 

1. BEFORE IT WAS MADE IN THE STYLE OF THE FRENCH NEW WAVE FILMS, IT ALMOST WAS A FRENCH NEW WAVE FILM.

Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave's aesthetic techniques, too—like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood—making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product. 

2. FAYE DUNAWAY'S STAR-MAKING PERFORMANCE ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN.

Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down "by about 10 women," though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn't think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right. 

3. THE WRITERS HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE DOING.

Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton's father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde's funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn't have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion. 

4. THE FIRST DRAFTS HAD CLYDE SWINGING BOTH WAYS.

Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton's version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn't perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent. 

5. WHATEVER YOU THINK THE FILM “REALLY” MEANS, YOU'RE PROBABLY WRONG.

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Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn't intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, "[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'" 

6. THE STUDIO THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO FLOP AND TREATED IT ACCORDINGLY.

Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. "That's the longest two hours and 11 minutes I've ever seen!" he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. "That was a three-piss picture!" (Also: "This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!") Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.

7. THE STUDIO'S LACK OF FAITH MADE WARREN BEATTY VERY, VERY RICH.

Thinking the film wouldn't make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million. 

8. MOVIE CRITICS KILLED THE FILM, THEN SAVED IT.

Warner Bros.' wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It's worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times' chief critic since 1940.)

Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times' lead film critic in early 1968.)

9. IT TURNED AN OLD SONG INTO A NEW HIT.

Flatt & Scruggs' banjo-heavy bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" serves as the film's theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It's now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there's a chase scene set in a rural area. 

10. IT INSPIRED SONGWRITERS AS WELL AS FILMMAKERS.

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As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation's troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie's sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie's success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.

11. IT INSPIRED A CLOTHING FAD, TOO.

Faye Dunaway's period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn't been popular since the '30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look. 

12. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER QUIT MIDWAY THROUGH FILMING.

Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who'd shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the "new Hollywood" visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn't mesh with his old-school sensibilities.

After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks' competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar. 

13. IT CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY.

When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film's bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde's scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK's death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.

Additional sources:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

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