|Date / Location:||October 4, 1986, Virginia Beach, VA||Conviction:||Murder in the second degree|
|Year of Conviction:||7-Aug-87||Release Date:||Oct-87|
|Sentence:||20 years in prison||Sentence Served:||2 months|
|Real perpetrator found?:||Yes||Contributing cause to wrongful conviction:||Tunnel vision, junk science|
Craig Bell was wrongfully convicted of stabbing his fiancée to death in the home that they shared. Physical evidence pointed to a forceful intruder, and Bell swore that he was innocent. Nevertheless, he was singled out as the only possible suspect and was only able to prove his innocence when the real murderer confessed.
Bell, an officer in the Navy, had gone out with friends on October 4, 1986. They spent the day at a softball game and later went to a restaurant and a few local bars. Bell arrived home in the early morning hours of October 5, 1986. When he entered the house, his fiancée was on the couch watching television. Bell went upstairs and fell asleep. A few hours later he was awakened by his fiancée. She was bleeding, and told him she had been attacked and stabbed. Bell ran to her aid and asked her who had stabbed her. After she became unconscious, Bell called 911.
Despite signs that an intruder may have been responsible for the crime, police focused their investigation on Bell. Although he consistently denied committing the crime in at least four unrecorded statements to the police, the police claimed that Bell made inconsistent statements about important details of the crime and therefore aroused their suspicion. These statements were not recorded. The victim’s blood was found on Bell’s shirt. He and the victim had apparently quarreled a few days before the murder. The perpetrator’s blood discovered at the scene was type O, and Bell’s blood type is O (as is that of 36 percent of the population). Bell smoked the same kind of cigarettes and wore the same style of underwear as the murderer.
But plenty of evidence pointed to an outside intruder. A window screen was dislodged at the home, and palm prints from the window ledge did not match those of Bell or the victim. Hairs found at the scene were not Bell’s, and the bloodstain pattern around the house was consistent with Bell’s version of events. Additionally, neighbors reported hearing broken glass and seeing someone entering the house through the window.
During the trial, the prosecution explored the idea that Bell had murdered his fiancée because he was bisexual. The introduction of this “motive” evidence was later noted as the turning point in the case and was an important contributing factor to the jury’s verdict. On August 7, 1987, Bell was found guilty of second-degree murder and was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Two months after Bell’s conviction, a man named Jesse Calvin Smith was apprehended for peeping in windows late at night in the same apartment complex in which Bell’s fiancée had been murdered. Smith quickly became a suspect in two rapes that had occurred in the same complex. One of the detectives investigating Smith noticed the similarities between these rapes and the Bell case. This detective questioned Smith about the Bell case, showing him photos of clothing found at the crime scene. Smith identified the clothing as his and offered specific details about it that were not publicly known. As questioning of Smith continued, he confessed to being the real murderer in the Bell case. He admitted to breaking into the apartment through the window screen, removing his clothes, and, upon becoming scared when the victim awoke, stabbing her in the chest and fleeing the apartment through the same window.
Once Smith confessed to the crime, the Commonwealth’s Attorney asked that Bell’s conviction be overturned. Craig Bell was released the next day, after serving two months in jail. Smith was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
After his release, Craig Bell returned to his home state of Michigan. He has received a formal apology from the Commonwealth’s Attorney but no compensation from the Commonwealth of Virginia.