The phrase "trial of the century" is obviously a misnomer, as dozens of court cases have been given this label since the 1880s. But it's still a useful term to describe trials that capture the public's attention. Many of these cases have similar circumstances. Often, they involve sordid and unusual crimes, rich and famous individuals, or they tap into the dominant political and social anxieties of their times. Occasionally, like the O.J. Simpson trial, they involve all three.
But most of all, these cases become notorious because of their media coverage. Since the rise of mass media, beginning with newspapers and radio and continuing with TV and the internet, crime has always been a compelling subject. Trials of the century sell a lot of newspapers - or more recently, generate a lot of clicks.
Here are some of the most infamous trials of the 20th and 21st centuries.
While some cases are considered trials of the century because of their sensationalist nature, others dominate headlines because they involve celebrities. With the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, both factors were in play.
By 1932, aviator Lindbergh was already a household name in the US for completing the first non-stop flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. This also made his family a target for ransom.
On March 1 of that year, Lindbergh's 20-month-old son, Charles Jr., was abducted from the family's home in Hopewell, NJ. The first ransom note demanded $50,000, and a second asked for $70,000. The Lindberghs paid the ransom per the instructions, but it was all a misdirect. The baby was discovered less than a mile from their home, likely murdered the night he was taken.
In 1934, a gas station attendant helped police locate the alleged kidnapper, a German immigrant and carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann. In his trial, Hauptmann pleaded innocent. The case against him relied mostly on circumstantial evidence. But in the one pivotal moment, Lindbergh testified that he recognized Hauptmann's voice from the night his son was taken. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Hauptmann was executed in 1936.
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Celebrity court cases tend to grab headlines, and one of the first times this happened was the trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, an early American movie star. In 1921, he attended a party in San Francisco thrown by his friend Fred Fishback celebrating Arbuckle's recent unprecedented three-year, $3 million contract with Paramount Pictures. The party lasted all of Labor Day Weekend and involved plenty of gin in a time when Prohibition made that very illegal.
At the party, a 25-year-old actor named Virginia Rappe sustained injuries and died a few days later. Police arrested Arbuckle for manslaughter, all based on the eyewitness account of a party guest and professional madam named Maude Delmont, who claimed she overheard Rappe and Arbuckle fighting, and that Arbuckle had sexually assaulted Rappe, rupturing her bladder. Newspapers of the time, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst, ran with the story, and Delmont's testimony became the public narrative.
However, Arbuckle had a different story. He claimed he'd never been alone with Rappe. He said the two had a few drinks together, after which Rappe became sick and started vomiting. Rappe's autopsy showed no signs of the struggle that Delmont described, and Arbuckle's lawyers introduced evidence that Rappe suffered from a chronic bladder condition.
After the first two trials ended in hung juries, Arbuckle was acquitted in 1922. But by then, months of negative headlines ruined his reputation as a happy-go-lucky comedic actor. He switched to directing under the name William B. Goodrich (or Will B. Good, per some sources). He succumbed to a heart attack in 1933 at the age of 46.
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The Scopes Monkey Trial Helped Define The Role Of Religion In Education
In 2021, the separation of church and state remains a controversial issue in the US. This was even more true in 1925 when the "Scopes Monkey Trial" put the subject up for debate in the courts.
In March of that year, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Butler Act, which banned teaching the theory of evolution in public schools. In May, young science teacher John Scopes of Dayton, TN, was arrested for violating the Butler Act. In the ensuing trial, famous lawyer Clarence Darrow teamed up with ACLU General Counsel Arthur Garfield Hays to defend Scopes. Former presidential candidate and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan represented the prosecution.
The judge, a conservative Christian who started each day's session with a prayer, weighed the case in Bryan's favor by refusing to allow the defense to call witnesses. Instead, Darrow called on Bryan, a Bible expert, to defend his literal interpretations of the holy book. After Darrow caught Bryan in multiple contradictions and got him to admit that "I do not think about things I do not think about," the judge was forced to rule in Scopes's favor.
While some trials of the century captivate the public imagination because they involve celebrities, others do so because they tap into controversial contemporary issues - or in the Andrea Yates case - help define them.
Yates and her husband, NASA engineer Rusty Yates, had four sons between 1993 and 1999. After the birth of their fourth child, Andrea suffered from postpartum depression and psychosis and was advised not to have more children. Despite this, she gave birth to daughter Mary in 2000. Afterward, she had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized.
On June 20, 2001, Yates drowned all five children in the bathtub, then called her husband and police to confess. She was convicted in 2002. But in 2005, a Texas appeals court reversed the decision and granted Yates a new trial, on the grounds that a prosecution witness had provided erroneous testimony. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has resided in a psychiatric facility ever since.
According to former American Psychiatric Association Vice President Dr. Nada Stotland, the trial was crucial for informing the public about the realities of postpartum psychosis, as well as normalizing postpartum depression.
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Leopold And Loeb Kidnapped And Murdered A 14-Year-Old Boy For The ‘Intellectual Thrill’
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were Chicago-area teenagers and best friends. Both were extremely intelligent. The older Leopold was more awkward and shy compared with Loeb, but in their friendship, Leopold was the more dominant. After reading the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Leopold became obsessed with the idea of committing the "perfect crime."
On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb kidnapped their 14-year-old neighbor Bobby Frank, murdered him, and left his body in a nearby culvert. They also left a ransom note to misdirect authorities. However, Leopold lost his glasses at the scene where they hid the body, and his optometrist led police to him.
The case was another crime involving the depravities of the relatively well-off. The young men's parents hired famous lawyer Clarence Darrow in hopes of defending them. Conceding Leopold's and Loeb's guilt, Darrow instead argued for them to be spared the death penalty. Law professor Philip Johnson summed up Darrow's 12-hour closing speech as follows: "Nature made them do it; evolution made them do it; Nietzsche made them do it. So they should not be sentenced to death for it." Leopold and Loeb avoided the death penalty and were sentenced to life in prison instead.
Ted Bundy wasn't the most notorious serial killer operating during the 1970s, but his "everyman" appearance challenged the conventional idea of what a murderous psychopath looked like. This made him a compelling figure in the media when his crimes were exposed in 1979.
But his ensuing trial, especially his courtroom antics, made Bundy even more of a household name. In June 1979, he stood trial for murdering Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman, two students at Florida State University's Chi Omega sorority. Bundy opted to represent himself, having attended two years of law school. He grinned throughout his trial and often casually put his feet up during the proceedings. After rejecting a plea deal, Bundy was convicted and received two death sentences; he was ultimately executed in January 1989.