The 8 Most Famous Crimes That Changed the Law Forever

Blue police light on top of a police car at night.

Some crimes received so much attention that they helped to shape the law. | Chalabala/iStock/Getty Images

Newspaper headlines are full of heart-wrenching crimes on a daily basis. Murder, abuse, rape, kidnapping, arson … the list of heinous acts is endless — and discouraging.

It can be depressing to turn on the news or even log into social media thanks to all the crime stories. But every once in a while, one of those crimes winds up becoming a force for good. Certain laws or procedures are often enacted thanks to a related incident, which helps to stop a similar offense from happening again. For example, did you know that the nationwide 9-1-1 distress hotline was created in response to an actual crime?

Ahead, discover some of the most famous crimes that helped shape future laws forever.

1. Adam Walsh and Code Adam

It was a crime that rocked the nation. On July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Sears department store in Florida. Authorities recovered his severed head 16 days later.

This event led to the creation of the Code Adam Program, which helps children who are lost in stores or public places get reunited with their parents more quickly. If you hear, “Code Adam” over a store’s intercom, it means you should be on alert for a lost child or any suspicious activity.

Code Adam was first used by Walmart in the ‘90s and since 2003, the Code Adam Act requires all federal facilities to use it, too.

You may also recognize John Walsh, Adam’s father who helped to get the law passed. He’s the host of America’s Most Wanted and helps to bring the nation’s most notorious criminals to justice.

Next: This law helps missing children get found.

2. Amber Hagerman and Amber Alert

Amber Alert displayed on a bus

The alert was named after a girl who went missing. | IanMcD/iStock/Getty Images

Not all child abductors strike in a public place.

For more wide range emergency systems involving missing children, there’s the Amber Alert, which is also named after a real person. A nine-year-old girl named Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered in 1996 and so far, the killer has never been caught.

Enter the Amber Alert. This far-reaching system broadcasts the news of a missing child via television, highway notification signs, and text messages, providing as much pertinent information as possible about the child and the suspect. In this instance, Amber has two meanings. It’s both a tribute to the little girl who lost her life and an acronym that stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.”

The success of the Amber Alert system has led to similar programs such as the Silver Alert for mission senior citizens who may suffer from dementia or other mental disorders and the Blue Alert, which aids police officers missing in the line of duty.

Next: Before this incident, there was no such thing as 9-1-1.

3. Kitty Genovese and 9-1-1

dispatchers working

The first 911 call was made in Alabama in 1968. | gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images

On March 13, 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stalked, stabbed, raped, and murdered. The New York Times reported that 37 people saw the incident, yet no one reported it. Or they may have tried to contact police but never got through.

To report an incident at that time, you’d have to dial “0” for the operator or the local police, and then the call would be transferred to a communications bureau before getting transferred again to a specific precinct. Finally, after all that, a police officer could get dispatched to check out a potential crime.

But that all changed after Genovese’s murder. In 1967, a nationwide distress hotline replaced this method and 911 was born. The first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama on February 16, 1968.

Next: Ever wonder where “You have the right to remain silent” originated?

4. Ernesto Miranda and Miranda Rights

Police have to state these rights during any arrest. | Darren Hauck/Getty Images

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.”

If you’re a fan of crime shows or movies, you can probably recite this by now, but have you ever wondered where it came from?

On March 2, 1963, an 18-year-old woman from Phoenix told police she had been abducted and raped in the desert. Police tracked down a car that matched her description and found a man who had a prior record as a peeping tom but nothing more. Ernesto Miranda was arrested in 1966 on suspicion of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. During the police interrogation, he confessed to committing the crimes.

But that conviction was eventually overturned due to intimidating police interrogation methods. Miranda Rights were created to prevent this from happening in the future. By law, these rights must be clearly stated during any arrest in the United States.

Next: This law allows you to steer clear of sex offenders.

5. Megan Kanka and Megan’s Law

An empty bench in park

Information about sex offenders must be public. | kityowong/iStock/Getty Images

Megan’s Law requires that information about registered sex offenders must be available to the public. That’s because of what happened in 1994, when seven-year-old Megan Kanka was abducted from her driveway while riding her bike. Her body was recovered the next day in a nearby park.

Jesse Timmendequas lived across the street from Kanka and had two prior convictions for sexual assault, though the Kankas did not know that. Megan’s parents lobbied for a new law which would inform citizens about sex offenders in the area. They argued that having access to that information could have saved their daughter’s life.

While there are some controversies about its use and proof of its effectiveness is inconclusive, Megan’s Law has been in place since 1996.

Next: This controversial law helps punish repeat offenders.

6. Polly Klaas and Three Strikes Law


This law made prior convictions count. | Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images

12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from a sleepover and murdered in 1993 and during the investigation, it was discovered that Polly’s killer had committed multiple previous offenses. This led to the “three strikes law” in California, which states that defendants with one serious or violent felony conviction may have their sentence doubled for a second offense. Anyone with two prior convictions must automatically serve 25 years to life for a third felony, no matter what the severity.

There are many critics of “three strikes,” including members of Klaas’ own family. The stipulations were softened following a vote in 2013.

Next: Before this incident, missing children weren’t allowed to be reported for 24-72 hours.

7. Johnny Gosch and child abduction cases

Des Moines

A kidnapping in Des Moines helped to change missing child cases. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

12-year-old Johnny Gosch was kidnapped in 1982 while delivering newspapers near his home in Des Moines. Unfortunately, at that time missing children were treated much like missing adults, with parents being forced to wait 24 hours to report the incident. In Iowa, parents were required to wait 72 hours. But investigators found that abducted children are usually harmed or killed within the first three to four hours.

The Gosch case captivated the nation, and Johnny’s parents devoted themselves to getting the laws changed. The “Johnny Gosch bill” passed by Iowa Legislature in 1984 and mandated that law enforcement begin investigating missing child cases immediately after they were reported.

Next: This law benefits famous people.

8. Rebecca Schaeffer and anti-stalking laws

woman being stalked

This case helped to make stalking a crime. | MrKornFlakes/iStock/Getty Images

Model-actress Rebecca Schaeffer was shot and killed near her Los Angeles apartment in July of 1989. Prior to the event, an obsessed fan from Arizona named Robert Bardo had written Schaeffer letters and even hired a private investigator to track down her home address using motor vehicle records.

Following her death, new laws in California made stalking a crime, and restrictions were placed on public access to driving records. The state also created a special unit to protect celebrities from obsessed fans. The laws were eventually adopted in other states, too.

Read more: 11 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Could Ever Watch

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