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Craig Bell


In the early morning hours of October 5, 1986, 25-year-old Johnna Dee Stroup was fatally stabbed in her apartment in Virginia Beach, Virginia. At 4 a.m., her fiancé, 24-year-old Craig Bell, called police and reported that he had been sleeping upstairs in Stroup’s apartment when Stroup, bloody and badly injured, woke him. Bell informed police that Stroup told him she had been stabbed and had asked for help. Bell said Stroup then went into shock before she could say who had stabbed her. When emergency personnel arrived, Stroup was dead. Bell’s clothing was blood-stained. He told police that after he and Stroup argued earlier in the night, she decided to sleep downstairs on the couch. He said he had no idea who committed the crime. Police found that the screen on the window in the room where Stroup was sleeping had been removed. A butcher knife and bloody clothes were found in the room as well. Bell admitted he had been drinking earlier in the night. He agreed go to the police station, where a videotaped interview was conducted. He voluntarily provided blood, hair, and saliva samples and agreed to a warrantless search of his home. On October 16, 1986, Bell was charged with Stroup’s murder. He went to trial in August 1987. The prosecution introduced evidence that the attacker had Type O blood – the same type as Bell. Bloodstain patterns suggested that Stroup had been attacked downstairs and had run to the upstairs bedroom, where she collapsed. The window screen that had been found leaning against the outside of building when police arrived was misplaced before trial. The audio portion of the tape of the police interview with Bell was not discernible. Police testified that Bell made inconsistent statements about how Stroup woke him up. In addition, police testified that Bell’s version of events was partially contradicted by the location of blood in the apartment. In addition, the bloody clothing found in a pile near the couch was the same size that Bell wore, and cigarettes in the clothing were the same brand that Bell smoked. No other evidence linked Bell to the murder. Fingerprints and hairs were recovered, but were not linked to Bell or anyone else known to have been in the apartment. Stroup’s mother and her best friend testified for the prosecution that Bell and Stroup had been fighting before her death, and that Bell had not reached out to her family to express any sympathy after her death. The prosecution also presented graphic photos of Stroup’s body to the jury. The defense focused on the unidentified fingerprints and hair samples, the removed window screen, and the bloodstains, suggesting that Stroup had run upstairs when she was attacked rather than leaving the apartment. The defense argued that Stroup would have been unlikely to run upstairs if Bell was attacking her. Bell testified and denied killing Stroup. During cross-examination, the prosecutor asked him if he was bisexual in an attempt to suggest that Bell had killed Stroup to keep her from revealing his sexual orientation. Bell denied he was bisexual. On August 7, 1987, the jury deliberated six hours before convicting Bell of second-degree murder. Jurors later said they believed Bell was inconsistent in his account and unemotional. Bell was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Two months after his conviction, two other women who lived in Stroup’s apartment complex were raped by intruders. In one attack, the rapist entered through a window. Not long after the second attack, police spotted 18-year-old Jesse Calvin Smith peering through a window of another apartment in the complex and put him in a lineup. One of the rape victims identified Smith. In addition, his blood and hair were similar to blood and hair found at the two rape scenes. Noting the similarities to Stroup’s murder, detectives questioned him about the Stroup murder. Smith quickly confessed to killing her, and gave many additional details of the crime that had not been revealed publicly. A day later, on October 15, 1987, Bell’s conviction was set aside, and he was released from prison. The case was dismissed. The Commonwealth’s Attorney, Paul A. Sciortino, publicly apologized to Bell and sought support for a bill to provide him with compensation. Though the bill was introduced more than once, it never gained the necessary support and Bell was never compensated. Smith was later convicted of Stroup’s murder. – Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:VA
County:City of Virginia Beach
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1986
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:1987
Sentence:20 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:24
Contributing Factors: