High Profile Trials That Captivated America
O. J. Simpson Trial circa 1994-1995 (Televised for 134 days)
“O. J. Simpson went on trial for the killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman twenty years ago, in what would become a wall-to-wall televised proceeding. The heavy coverage started even before the trial began. Simpson’s infamous slow-speed chase days after the slayings played out on TV screens across the country, and the original grand jury was dismissed due to excessive media coverage1”.
Timothy McVeigh/Oklahoma City Bombing Trial circa 1997
Timothy McVeigh was convicted of one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in American history. He was found guilty of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that injured over 500 people and killed 168 people. He was subsequently put to death for his crimes in June of 2001.
Casey Anthony Trial circa 2011
Casey Anthony stood accused of killing her two-year-old daughter in 2008. Thanks to social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, members of the public reacted to every moment of the televised testimony in real time, further boosting even more coverage on national morning news programs and on local newscasts2. Attention to this case has drawn comparisons to the O. J. Simpson trial.
Amanda Knox Trial circa 2007-2015
Amanda Knox spent about four years in an Italian prison accused of the 2007 murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. A guilty verdict at Knox’s initial trial caused widespread international controversy and scrutiny over the Italian legal process. Knox was freed after lengthy and highly publicized court proceedings in 2011. After her acquittal at the second level Italian court, she was subsequently exonerated in March of 20153.
Jodi Arias Trial circa 2012-2015
Jodi Arias was charged and later convicted with first-degree murder of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. She was sentenced to natural life in prison in Maricopa County in April of 2015. The details of the murder and trial received widespread media attention as Arias testified that she killed Alexander in self-defense. “The trial quickly snowballed into a made-for-the-tabloids drama, garnering daily coverage from cable news networks and spawning a virtual cottage industry for talk shows, legal experts and even Arias, who used her notoriety to sell artwork she made in jail4”.
James Holmes/Aurora Shooting Trial circa 2011-Present (Televised coverage lasted 11 weeks and counting pending sentencing)
This trial especially resonates with Coloradoans as James Holmes’ crimes hit very, very close to home. James Holmes was behind the July 20, 2012 shooting rampage that left 12 people killed and about 50 others wounded in an Aurora movie theater during a midnight screening of the Dark Knight. His unusual court antics and appearance has cast a spotlight on his mental state at the time of the murders. However, a jury found Holmes guilty on twenty-four counts of first-degree murder, 140 counts of attempted first-degree murder, one count of possessing explosives, and a sentence enhancement of a crime of violence.
3 Resonating Questions about High Profile Court Cases
1. What do these high profile court cases have in common?
- Overwhelming and intense media coverage
- Public reaction in real time—apart from the O. J. Simpson trial and Oklahoma City Bombing trial, Facebook and Twitter have become an integral role in the court of public opinion
- Loss of life/lives
- Made-for-TV movie qualities—sex, scandal, violence, conspiracies, etc…
Critical Thinking: What is it about high profile cases that keep us interested and engaged?
What else do high profile cases have in common?
2. Why does the legal process take so long?
- Contrary to what television and movies depict, it takes more than a 60 minute television show to arrest, charge, and convict a suspected criminal. Particularly in the case of the Aurora Shooting Trial. “It took 2½ years for the judge, prosecution and defense to plow through the mountain of evidence and hash out numerous legal questions. Further complicating matters were the number of victims, the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty and Holmes’ decision to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. It took nearly three more months to choose the jury after 9,000 summonses were sent”5.
In the case of the Amanda Knox trial, because the Italian court system is as such, she was held in prison pending her trial. Knox spent almost four years in prison before a second-level or appeal trial freed both her and her ex-boyfriend in October 2011.
3. Why is the court of public opinion significant?
- Facebook and Twitter have become an important tool in the court of public opinion because they affords the public the opportunity to weigh in. In short, trying cases in the court of public opinion refers to using the media outlets to influence public support for one side or the other in any given court case. Further, it is said that high-profile cases possess important implications for balancing the public’s right to scrutinize the judicial process and the right of the participants to a fair and just trial6.
Critical Thinking: Is it possible to suppress the court of public opinion in a globalized world?
In closing, the judicial system was put in place to serve as a platform for a fair and just process of law and the introduction of mass media and social networking has simply brought high profile court cases to the general public’s attention in unprecedented ways. The consequences of this phenomenon can be widely debated. If you are currently a criminology student or contemplating becoming a criminology student, you should know that the field of criminology extends beyond how crime is defined and why some people commit crime and some do not. Criminology is also the study of how law enforcement and the judicial system merge to prevent and deter criminal behavior. This overlap, in my opinion, provides a myriad of career options for students studying criminology. Moreover, if you can see yourself in a role that deters, prevents, or studies crime—you are already on your way to becoming a criminologist and I would love to hear your thoughts on the critical thinking questions that I posed.
1Boyette, C. (January 21, 2015). 20 Years Later: Key Moments from the OJ Simpson Trial. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/13/us/oj-simpson-trial/
2Stelter, B. and Wortham, J. (July 5, 2011). Watching a Trial on TV, Discussing It on Twitter. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/06/business/media/06coverage.html?_r=0
3Oloffson, K. (December 9, 2009). Amanda Knox, Convicted of Murder in Italy. TIME. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1945430,00.html
4Skoloff, B. (May 8, 2013). Jodi Arias convicted of first-degree murder. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/jodi-arias-convicted-first-degree-murder-205106003.html
5N.A. (July 17, 2015). Key Elements in Colorado Shooting Case. The Associated Press. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/key-elements-colorado-theater-shooting-case-32510512
6N.A. (September 2007). The Practice and Ethics of Trying Cases in the Media. Duke University School of Law. Retrieved from https://law.duke.edu/conference/2007/publicopinion/