Whether the main culprits were scapegoating sports fans, law enforcement officers, tabloid reporters, or regular people hiding behind a social media handle, these figures from recent history didn't deserve the harsh reactions they got from mainstream society.
When talking about people from centuries past, it's easy to make the claim that there were different societal norms and misunderstandings that led to the unfair vilification of some figures. But these cases from the 1990s through the 2010s prove that even in modern days, swiftly harsh judgment and mob mentality are very real problems that have life-changing consequences for people who find themselves swept up in the spotlight.
For some of these figures, you may not have had all the facts. Incorrect reporting, statements taken out of context, and a firestorm of internet rumors and memes may have dominated the narrative and hidden the truth. For others, looking back a decade or two removed made us realize our collective reactions were undeserved. Either way, these cases serve as reminders of how to move forward and avoid repeating past mistakes - and also, that famous figures have feelings, too.
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Shortly after September 11, 2001, the US had another alarming series of attacks: someone was sending mail laced with anthrax, a bacteria that when inhaled can cause a fast-acting infection leading to painful death. Seventeen people would become infected and five would die. With a bio-attack infiltrating the daily mail of Americans, the FBI was under tremendous pressure to find the perpetrator. They soon zeroed in on a scientist, one of the few in the country who was known to have some working knowledge of anthrax: Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a physician who'd worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Among the “evidence” against Hatfill was that he'd previously worked in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970s, when the area experienced anthrax outbreaks (though later research suggested this was probably spread by unvaccinated livestock). He had written an unpublished novel about a biological attack on Washington, DC. He was taking ciprofloxacin (an antibiotic that combats inhaled anthrax) at the time of the attacks, though he had recently had surgery for which this was prescribed. And - a common trait among the wrongfully accused - Hatfill was described as a little bit eccentric, a little bit different than others in his profession. According to former colleague Jim Cline, “If you try to link Steve and the word normal, they’re not going to match up.”
It was nearly a year after the attacks that the FBI first asked to interview Hatfill. He obliged, and later agreed to a “swab” of his apartment - he had nothing to hide. He came home to find TV helicopters and press surrounding a search of his home. There'd apparently been a media leak. Hatfill's life would never be the same again. As he told The Atlantic:
I’d never really watched the news before… and now I’m seeing my name all over the place and all these idiots like Geraldo Rivera asking, “Is this the anthrax animal? Is this the guy who murdered innocent people?” You might as well have hooked me up to a battery. It was sanctioned torture.
A previously respected scientist who'd enjoyed long workdays, Hatfill was fired and couldn't get another job, eventually moving in with his girlfriend and becoming consumed by alcohol and depression as the world seemed to turn against him. The Attorney General named him a “person of interest,” an unprecedented move for an active investigation, and Hatfill found most of his friends and former colleagues abandoning him. For years he'd be followed by the FBI and maligned in the press despite no firm evidence indicating he'd ever touched anthrax - there was never enough evidence to bring an indictment. Hatfill explained:
It’s like death by a thousand cuts… There’s a sheer feeling of hopelessness. You can’t fight back. You have to just sit there and take it, day after day, the constant drip-drip-drip of innuendo, a punching bag for the government and the press. And the thing was, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me. I mean, I was one of the good guys.
It wasn't until 2007 that the FBI realized that maybe Hatfill, who'd never had direct access to anthrax at the USAMRIID facility, wasn't the only person they could investigate. While he had always insisted he was a “virus guy” rather than a bacteria specialist, a senior microbiologist at the same institute, Bruce Edward Ivins, had worked extensively with anthrax. The FBI quickly shifted its intense scrutiny to Ivins, who committed suicide the following year. Hatfill was then officially exonerated.
While the FBI did find some evidence potentially linking Ivins to the attacks, it's impossible to know for certain. When questioned by The Atlantic on how close he might've come to suicide in the six years he spent under a microscope, Hatfill said he couldn't consider that option. It would only let the FBI win, convincing everyone of his guilt.
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Media Outlets Made False, Derogatory Statements About Christopher Jefferies After His Arrest In Connection With A Crime He Didn't Commit
When Joanna Yeates went missing from her flat in the Clifton suburb of Bristol, England (pictured) in December of 2010, the case soon captivated the UK public and press. When dog walkers came across her frozen body on a snowy roadside on Christmas Day, attention on the case skyrocketed.
Shortly after Yeates's body was discovered, police arrested former school teacher Christopher Jefferies for the crime; he was also Yeates's landlord. Tabloids were quick to jump on him and his “eccentric" appearance, with the Daily Mirror calling him a “peeping Tom,” The Sun referring to him as “strange Mr. Jefferies,” and The Telegraph remarking that his former college students had described him as "a fan of dark and violent avant garde films.”
Jefferies was held for questioning for 48 hours before being released on bail. One person who implicated him in the case was his neighbor, a Dutch engineer named Vincent Tabak, who told police Jefferies had borrowed his car on the night of the murder. Tabak himself was arrested a few weeks later, and was eventually convicted of killing Yeates. Even with Tabak in custody, though, Jefferies wasn't free on bail (or of intense public suspicion) until March of 2011.
He said the ordeal took up a whole year of his life and commented on his “trial by media”:
It was clear that the tabloid press had decided I was guilty of Miss Yeates’s murder and seemed determined to persuade the public of my guilt.
Aside from depicting him as a creepy loner, the tabloids had also printed a lot of false information about Jefferies and the case - so much so that he successfully brought libel cases against them and won damages from eight publications. The Daily Mirror and The Sun were even fined for contempt of court for their coverage of the case.
In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton (then Lindy Chamberlain) took her 9-week-old baby, Azaria, on a family camping trip to Uluru, Australia. She was enjoying a barbecue with other campers that August night when she heard a cry and went to check on her daughter. The baby was gone, with only blood remaining in the tent and paw prints leaving the entrance. Chamberlain-Creighton's subsequent shouts of "the dingo's got my baby!" (further popularized by a film starring Meryl Streep) would make her one of the most ridiculed and reviled figures in Australian history.
During the investigation and subsequent homicide trial, public and press alike weighed in on Chamberlain-Creighton's case. Her behavior was under intense scrutiny, attracting criticism for everything from her openness with reporters to what she wore - her sleeveless dresses and "sultry good looks," as one reporter described it, apparently related to her guilt.
The fact that Chamberlain-Creighton and her husband at the time, Michael Chamberlain, were Seventh-day Adventists also raised suspicion, and stirred lurid rumors of cult slayings and sacrifices. Some people even claimed the name "Azaria" was Hebrew for "sacrifice in the wilderness," but it actually means "God helped."
Despite no body, no motive, and witness testimony of dingoes in the area, Chamberlain-Creighton was convicted of slaying her daughter. The dingo story just sounded unbelievable, or as prosecutors put it, like "a calculated, fanciful lie." When Chamberlain-Creighton was convicted, people around the country applauded. She spent three years in prison and received frequent hate mail.
New evidence emerged in the case in 1986, after a hiker accidentally fell off rocks in the area and perished. His body was found near a dingo den, along with an article of Azaria's clothing that Chamberlain-Creighton had always insisted was missing. Much of the "forensic" evidence used to convict Chamberlain-Creighton was also determined to be erroneous. Still, it wasn't until 2012 when an Australian medical examiner finally ruled a dingo as the culprit.
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Richard Ricci Passed In Prison Before His Name Was Cleared In The Elizabeth Smart Case
Ever since Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom in the middle of the night on June 5, 2002 in Salt Lake City, UT, there has been no shortage of books, movies, and podcasts about the case. It was the rare kidnapping story that had a (somewhat) happy ending - nearly a year later, Elizabeth was rescued from her abductors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, and reunited with her family. But for Richard Ricci, the police's initial suspect, there wouldn't be a happy ending.
Ricci was a convicted felon hired through a church program to work as a handyman on the Smart's property. Ed Smart remembered him as being extremely capable and “incredibly friendly to the kids,” and the two had a fruitful working relationship until about a year before Elizabeth's disappearance, when an expensive bracelet went missing from the house. Suspecting Ricci, Ed got rid of him and much of the crew working on the house at the time.
When Elizabeth went missing, Ricci's criminal history of drugs and robberies raised red flags for police. Nine days after the disappearance, they arrested Ricci on a parole violation - he was drinking a beer with his dinner. Someone also leaked Ricci's name to the media. He eventually admitted to stealing the jewelry, but insisted he hadn't abducted anyone. He had an alibi - he was home all night asleep beside his wife, Angela. But Ricci never got a chance to prove his innocence - two months later he suffered what a doctor called a “stress related” brain aneurysm in prison and passed several days later. His widow said the aneurysm was due to her husband's stress, mistreatment, and lack of proper medication for his hypertension.
Much of the police force continued to focus on Ricci after his passing. Yet Elizabeth's younger sister, Mary Katherine, the only witness to the abduction, maintained from the start that he wasn't responsible, asking her father when she saw his face on the news, “What's Richard doing on there… It wasn't him.”
Yet when the case's most crucial lead came in, investigators didn't even look into it. Mary Katherine later had a sudden epiphany about the voice she'd heard that night. It belonged to “Immanuel,” a different man who'd worked on the Smart's property. Police dismissed this, but fortunately the family had a sketch done and took it to America's Most Wanted. It was this publicity that gave them a name (Mitchell) and led to the sighting of Elizabeth that saved her.
According to Angela Ricci's son Trevor Morse, who as 11 at the time and considered Ricci a father figure:
He was convicted by the police and the public, and was intensely interrogated, all the while trying to tell anyone who would listen that he was innocent… Our lives changed drastically from the moment he was falsely accused… Since the day Richard Ricci died, my mother's broken heart never healed.
His mother passed in December 2015 of what appeared to be a prescription drug overdose, but Morse called it “a broken heart.”