Despite murder being a crime that most people feel is the lowest of the low, deserving of the ultimate penalty, it has been estimated that one third of all murders in the United States will go unsolved. Even with the most cutting-edge technologies at our fingertips, not only is detective work extremely difficult, but sometimes, errors are simply made by medical examiners around the world—mistakes which result in a murderer going free. Families often wait years with no closure as the silenced victims are buried, just like their cases, becoming one of the unlucky “cold case” files that sometimes linger for decades.
But occasionally, thankfully, this isn’t always the end of the story. While it is rare, sometimes new leads, new ideas, and new breakthroughs motivate authorities to exhume the body of someone who had been written off simply as accidental death or an unsolved murder, only for the results of the post-exhumation investigation to bring about a conviction. Here are ten such cases where bodies were exhumed, leading to the solving of a murder case.
10. Virginia Vincent
As we will see, often, by the time a body is exhumed to catch a murderer, it’s one of the most sentimental gestures that a society can do for a grieving family, as the murderers themselves are dead or already behind bars, making prosecution redundant at best, pointless at worst. This is the case with Virginia Vincent, a 57-year-old resident of Danville, California. In 1985, she was brutally raped and strangled, and it wasn’t until 2002 that DNA evidence was able to produce a profile from the DNA collected. The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a system of DNA profiles that the police use to hunt for matches to murders, and the profile found at the Vincent scene was scanned through CODIS, but no match was found.
Cut forward to 2017: The Contra Costa County sheriff’s office decided to submit the samples and have them run through the more rigorous California state forensics system, which came up with a possible, but not definite, match to a man named Joey Lynn Ford, who died in 1997. After the possible match was made, it was discovered that Ford had been arrested for a DUI in Danville the day before the murder, and the case was starting to come together. In late 2018, the authorities exhumed the body of Ford, and the DNA tested from the body that was buried in 1997 turned out to be an exact match to that found at the murder scene of Virginia Vincent way back in 1985, and the case was solved.
9. Virginia Freeman
On August 11, 1999, a man named James Otto Erhart was executed. Erhart had kidnapped and murdered a nine-year-old girl by the name of Kandy Kirtland, from Bryan, Texas. Cut back to December 1, 1981, when a woman named Virginia Freeman, who was working as a real estate agent at the time, received a call from a man claiming to be interested in buying a home; the man was none other than James Otto Erhart. Erhart beat and stabbed her repeatedly before finally strangling her to death, leaving her corpse in the still-locked house. The crime scene was thoroughly investigated, and skin samples were taken from underneath the fingernails of Virginia Freeman, but at the time, DNA testing was not an option. Erhart sat on death row and refused to give a DNA sample all the way up until his execution.
With no further evidence to go on, the Virginia Freeman case remained cold. Then, in 2018, investigators decided to unearth the body of James Otto Erhart, and a warrant was granted for the exhumation. The bone fragments of Erhart were tested against the skin under the fingernails of Freeman found at the crime scene, and a murder was solved after nearly four decades, thanks to DNA evidence and the exhumation of a cold-blooded killer.