Our culture has a fascination with litigation, particularly litigation involving contention, controversy, tragedy or celebrities. Such legal cases shake our society by disrupting our news cycles, creeping into our small talk and pervading our media consumption. We have an appetite for the sensational, and contentious court cases appeal to that appetite. The following are five of the most famous — and sensational — court cases in US history.
THE LINDBERGH KIDNAPPING
On March 1,1932 Charles Lindbergh Jr., the 20 month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, was abducted from his home, then on May 12 of the same year, his body was discovered nearby. In September of 1934, Richard Hauptmann was arrested and tried, and in 1935 he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Although the kidnapping and trial occurred before the advent of nationally televised court proceedings, it stirred up enormous public attention and sympathy. Newspaperman H.L. Mencken called the events “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” The crime prompted Congress to pass the Federal Kidnapping Act, often referred to as the “Lindbergh Law,” making the transportation of a kidnapping victim across state lines a federal crime.
In 1979, Ted Bundy stood trial for the Chi Omega homicides and assaults in Miami, Florida. The trial attracted incredible media and public attention, due in part to the grotesque extent of the crimes, and the charming charisma of the rapist and serial killer. The fact that it was the first trial to be nationally televised in the United States only added to the public fascination. Despite the presence of five court-appointed attorneys, Bundy insisted on handling his own defense, even referring to himself in the third person. Ultimately, Bundy refused a plea deal, was found guilty and received three death sentences.
The King of Pop’s reputation was forever tainted when, in 2005, Michael Jackson was indicted for child molestation. The indictment was based upon accusations of Gavin Arvizo, a 13 year-old boy Jackson had befriended. Arvizo’s accusations occurred shortly after the release of Martin Bashir’s documentary, Living with Michael Jackson. In the documentary, Jackson revealed that many children had slept in his bed, but insisted that it was in no way sexual. This fueled speculation surrounding the case, however, Arvizo’s allegations concerned events that supposedly took place after the documentary had aired. Part of the Jackson’s defense against the accusations was that it would be absurd for him to molest Arvinzo just after he was suspected of such a crime. The trial spanned approximately six months and ended with Jackson’s acquittal of all charges.
In August of 1995, Timothy McVeigh was indicted on eleven federal accounts including the conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, the use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction with the use of explosives, and eight counts of first-degree murder. McVeigh, along with co-conspirator Terry Nichols, was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. He detonated a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring over 600. McVeigh instigated the attack as revenge for the federal government’s handling of the 1993 Waco siege and the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, hoping to inspire a revolt against the government. This remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history and earned McVeigh almost unmatched notoriety. In 1997 McVeigh was found guilty of all charges and received a death sentence.
The O.J. Simpson trial, or “The Trial of the Century,” set the precedent for round-the-clock media coverage, garnered international attention, heightened race divisions in the U.S., and imprinted itself permanently on the cultural consciousness. In 1994 Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman were found stabbed outside Nicole’s condo in Brentwood. Simpson was a person of interest in the trial, and when he failed to turn himself in, he became the object of a low-speed pursuit in the famous white Ford Bronco SUV. The televised chase interrupted coverage of the NBA finals, and the pursuit, arrest, and trial were among the most widely publicized events in U.S. history. An estimated 100 million people nationwide tuned in to hear the verdict of “not guilty” for both murders.
America’s obsession with sensational trials, particularly criminal court proceedings, is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Nationally televised coverage of high-profile cases has become part of our culture. It’s a bit like the wreckage of a car crash on the side of the road. It’s often grisly and tragic, but it seems most of us just can’t look away.