When a case goes to trial, surprise the verdict can never be certain due to all sorts of variables. Ordinary witnesses can be unpredictable. Even expert witnesses can turn out to be less knowledgeable than first thought. Sometimes, lawyers—and even judges—can have an off day.
Usually, the exhibits are the most reliable aspect of a trial. However, this evidence is not always what it initially appears to be, either. Here are 10 cases where surprise evidence presented in court led to some unexpected verdicts.
Sheila Dixon’s Gift Cards
Not all criminals think big. Take Sheila Dixon, for example. Born and raised in Baltimore, she served many years on the Baltimore City Council, where she was said to be liked and well respected. Then, as council president, she succeeded Martin O’Malley as mayor of Baltimore in 2007 when he resigned after being elected the governor of Maryland.
But her tenure in office was a short one. In 2009, Dixon was charged with 12 counts relating to corruption, including theft-related charges. Throughout the case, Dixon protested her innocence.
When the jury finally reached a verdict, they found Dixon guilty of only one charge, the misdemeanor embezzlement of gift cards valued at $530. The cards had been intended to be given to the needy of Baltimore.
As part of a plea agreement, Dixon resigned as mayor in early 2010 and agreed not to seek office while on probation. However, she has attempted to regain her political career since then. For example, in the 2020 primaries, she narrowly missed securing the Democratic nomination for mayor of Baltimore. Brandon Scott, the city council president, won by a little over 3,100 votes.
Kwame Kilpatrick’s Text Messages
In 2008, Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor of Detroit when he was charged with perjury and misconduct in public office.
Kilpatrick had been investigated after a wild party at his mayoral home in 2002 was said to have involved strippers. His wife came home unexpectedly and allegedly ended the party by physically assaulting Tamara Greene (aka “Strawberry”), one of the exotic dancers.
When Greene was found shot dead in April 2003, an investigation was launched into the mayor’s conduct.
In 2003, two investigators claimed that they had been fired because their probe into Kilpatrick’s behavior had uncovered his extramarital affair with Christine Beatty, his chief of staff. Kilpatrick testified under oath that this was untrue. The City of Detroit ultimately settled the investigators’ whistleblower lawsuit out of court for $8.4 million.
In 2008, the Detroit Free Press published details of 14,000 text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty. They proved that Kilpatrick had indeed been having an affair and had perjured himself when testifying during the whistleblower lawsuit. Further investigation uncovered large-scale corruption. Kilpatrick was found guilty and sentenced to four months in prison.
After his release, he was involved in more criminal activity. In 2013, Kilpatrick was convicted of multiple charges, including racketeering, extortion, and tax evasion. For these crimes, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Thomas Jennings’s Fingerprints
In 1910, Clarence Hiller, a railway clerk, was murdered in his home in Chicago after confronting an intruder. The assailant, Thomas Jennings, was stopped 0.8 kilometers (0.5 mi) from the crime scene wearing bloodstained clothes and carrying a gun. He had been paroled just six weeks earlier.
During the crime, Jennings left his fingerprint on a recently painted railing at the Hiller house. Although interest in the new science of fingerprinting had been growing for a while, Jennings would be the first person convicted in a criminal trial in the US based on fingerprint evidence.
Jennings’s defense team questioned the legality and reliability of the evidence. They took fingerprints from the public to try to prove that fingerprints were not unique. Then a courtroom experiment went disastrously wrong when the defense lawyer challenged experts to lift his prints off a piece of paper.
And they did.
Despite an appeal which focused largely on suspicion of this new science, Jennings was convicted and sentenced to death.
Salim Aoude’s Purchase Agreement
In the 1980s, Salim Aoude ran one franchised service station in Massachusetts but pictured himself running a whole chain of them. Unfortunately for him, the franchise owner, Mobil, had a clause in their contract which prevented a franchisee from running more than one station at a time.
When the franchisee of a nearby service station decided to retire, Aoude saw an opportunity. He negotiated directly with the other franchisee, John Monahan, and took possession of the new service station. To try to disguise ownership, Aoude arranged to use Monahan’s account in Aoude’s transactions with Mobil. He hoped that Mobil would accept the fait accompli when they eventually found out.
Although Monahan offered to undo the sale, Aoude could not let go of his dream and kept control of the station. He decided to sue and submitted a copy of the purchase agreement, which was fake.
Aoude’s case was thrown out, and Mobil informed Monahan that they were terminating his franchise. Aoude sued again with the same case but a different purchase agreement. He said that this was the genuine document. The first one had showed an inflated purchase price, but this new one was supposedly the real deal.
After a protracted legal battle in which each side filed for injunctive relief, the court found in Mobil’s favor. Aoude attempted to have the ruling invalidated on technical grounds, which was rejected. The appeal, the court said, “trenches upon the frivolous.”
Hartford-Empire’s Magazine Article
In 1926, Hartford-Empire Company submitted a patent application for a method of pouring glass into molds that was known as “gob feeding.” As supplementary information, the firm also submitted a trade journal article, supposedly authored by an “independent expert,” which described their gob feeding machine as a “remarkable advance.”
Hartford-Empire was awarded the patent.
In 1928, they brought a lawsuit against Hazel-Atlas Glass Company for infringing on this patent, which was news to Hazel-Atlas. They had been making glass the same way for a long time. Hartford-Empire lost their first case. But the company appealed, once more citing the magazine article as proof of their intellectual property rights. The appeals court found in Hartford-Empire’s favor.
However, Hazel-Atlas management was suspicious and hired investigators to determine who had really written the article. They interviewed the independent expert, who insisted that he was the author but refused to “stultify” himself by signing an affidavit.
Hartford-Empire’s attorney was more successful. He managed to persuade the expert to sign an affidavit, whereupon Hazel-Atlas was forced to concede. They paid Hartford-Empire $1 million in damages and entered into an ongoing licensing agreement.
The “expert” then asked for a $10,000 payment from Hartford-Empire. Instead, they gave him $500 and told him to go away. Approximately one month later, they made another payment of $7,500. Both payments were made in cash. Though this may have looked like a payoff, Hartford-Empire insisted that they merely felt a “moral obligation” to reward the expert for his assistance.
When Hazel-Atlas appealed to the Supreme Court, the payments were revealed, the true author of the article was exposed as Hartford-Empire’s own attorney, and the patented gob feeding machine was determined to be no different than anyone else’s. The court’s written opinion also said, “To grant full protection to the public against a patent obtained by fraud, that patent must be vacated.”