Described by the criminal defence attorney F. Lee Bailey as “a traditional bit of American hyperbole, like calling a circus ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’”, ‘trial of the century’ is a term that’s been deployed so indiscriminately over the years as to be rendered almost meaningless. And yet, its use in the (typically American) press since the 19th century often gives us a sense of broader cultural resonance.
If a court case attracts enough attention, defendants can quickly come to embody something bigger than themselves, to the extent that the court can be transformed into an ideological battlefield. This tends to happen when a trial is the subject of unusually intense public scrutiny via sensational media coverage. In such circumstances, a court case might become a ‘circus’, enflamed by hyperbolic coverage, speculation, ill-informed vilification or veneration, and seesawing public opinion.
The rhetorical notion of the ‘trial of the century’ has emerged from such febrile coverage. Trials have always played a significant part in defining historical narratives and so-called ‘trial of the century’ court cases often tell us as much about the socio-political circumstances and agendas that framed them as they do about the procedural specifics that transpired in the courtroom.
1. Lizzie Borden trial (1893)
If ‘trial of the century’ is a term that emerged from sensationalistic news coverage, then the trial of Lizzie Borden undoubtedly played a big part in defining it. Centring on the brutal axe murders of Borden’s father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, this 1893 trial was the subject of feverish publicity and widespread morbid fascination at a time when America’s national press was beginning to assert its influence. In the event, Borden was acquitted, but her trial became the stuff of legend.
2. Leopold and Loeb trial (1924)
Another landmark trial that reflected the American public’s growing fascination with courtroom drama. Like Lizzie Borden’s trial 30 years earlier, the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924 centred on an act of shocking violence: the senseless murder of a 14-year-old boy with a chisel.
The high-profile case that ensued saw attorney Clarence Darrow mount a famous defence of the defendants, two teenage boys from wealthy families who were supposedly motivated by a desire to commit the ‘perfect crime’. Darrow drew on Nietzschean nihilism to argue that, though guilty, Leopold and Loeb acted on influences beyond their control. His defence was successful and the teenagers were spared death sentences.
3. The Nuremberg trials (1945-1946)
One of the most significant trials in modern history, the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946 saw former Nazi officers tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal. Those tried included individuals – such as specific Nazi leaders – as well as broader organisations and groups, namely the Gestapo.
Of the 177 defendants, just 25 were found not guilty. 24 were sentenced to death. The location at Nuremberg, where Hitler had once hosted vast propaganda parades, was symbolic of the end of his regime. Meanwhile, the trials themselves lay the groundwork for the creation of a permanent international court.
4. Rosenbergs espionage trial (1951)
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a Jewish-American couple tried in 1951 for being suspected Soviet spies. As an engineer for the US Army Signal Corps, Julius passed confidential information relating to the Manhattan Project to the USSR. He was arrested in June 1950, with his wife Ethel also arrested shortly after.
During a short trial, the Rosenbergs insisted on their innocence. They were found guilty of espionage, sentenced to death and executed. They remain the only Americans executed for spying during peacetime, while Ethel Rosenberg is the only American woman to have been executed in America for a crime that wasn’t murder.
Commenting on the controversial death sentences, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world.”
5. Adolf Eichmann trial (1960)
Unlike the grisly murder cases that precede it in our list, we include the trial of Adolf Eichmann because of its irrefutable historic importance – in many ways it really was a century-defining trial. As one of the chief architects behind the Holocaust – the Nazis’ so-called ‘Final Solution’ – the defendant personified an unimaginable act of genocidal evil. Eichmann’s belated 1960 trial (he fled to Argentina at the end of the war but was eventually captured) was televised and broadcast internationally. He was sentenced to death.
6. Chicago Seven trial (1969-1970)
During the Democratic National Convention in 1968, anti-war protests escalated into riots on the streets of Chicago. Seven suspected protest leaders were arrested for inciting riots and for criminal conspiracies. They were tried over 5 months, in 1969-1970.
The trial received harsh criticism, with Judge Julius Hoffman’s impartiality regularly called into question. For example, he rejected most of the pretrial motions of the defense yet granted many of the prosecution’s motions. He also demonstrated open hostility to the defendants on occasion.
The defendants hit back by disrupting the court proceedings – making jokes, eating sweets, blowing kisses. Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale was restrained and gagged by Judge Hoffman at one point, apparently for calling the judge a “pig” and a “racist”.
The jury acquitted all seven of the criminal conspiracy charges, but found five of the seven guilty of inciting a riot. All five were sentenced to 5 years in prison by Judge Hoffman and all 7 were given jail time for contempt of court. The convictions were overturned in 1972, due to Judge Hoffman’s thinly veiled contempt of the defendants.
7. Trial of Charles Manson and the Manson family (1970-1971)
The trial of Charles Manson and his cult, the ‘Manson Family’, for a series of nine murders at four locations in July and August 1969 seemed to define a moment in history – the brutal murder of the hippy dream. The Manson trial documented a bleak but absorbing account of permissive late-60s Hollywood glamour intersecting with the deranged nihilism of a dangerous cult.
8. Rodney King case and the Los Angeles Riots (1992)
On 3 March 1991, Rodney King, an African-American man, was captured on video being brutally beaten by LAPD officers. The video was broadcast across the world, triggering a public furore that spilled over into a full-blown city-wide riot when three of the four police officers were acquitted. The trial was the final straw for LA’s disenfranchised racial minorities, confirming for many that, despite seemingly indefensible footage, the LAPD would not be held accountable for perceived abuse against black communities.
9. OJ Simpson murder case (1995)
Perhaps the ultimate example of a high-profile trial becoming a media circus, the OJ Simpson murder case was, first and foremost, a sensational story. The defendant, an African-American NFL star, broadcaster and Hollywood actor, stood trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. His trial spanned 11 months (9 November 1994 to 3 October 1995) and kept a global audience gripped with a procession of salacious details and dramatic twists. Indeed, the intense scrutiny of the coverage was such that many consider it to have been a seminal moment in the history of reality TV.
Everyone involved in the trial became the subject of media coverage and public speculation, including the lawyers. Simpson was represented by a high-profile defence team, referred to as the ‘Dream Team’, that included charismatic figures like Johnnie Cochrane, Alan Deshowitz and Robert Kardashian (father of Kim, Khloe and Kourtney).
Ultimately, a contentious not-guilty verdict lived up to the drama that preceded it, sparking a massively polarised reaction that was widely observed to be divided along racial lines. Polls showed that most African Americans thought that justice had been served, while the majority of white Americans believed that the not-guilty verdict was racially motivated.
10. Bill Clinton impeachment trial (1998)
On 19 December 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached for allegedly lying under oath and concealing an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The proceedings marked just the second time in US history that a president had been impeached, the first having been President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
After a hugely publicised and controversial impeachment trial, which lasted some 5 weeks, Clinton was cleared of both counts of impeachment submitted by the House of Representatives. Afterwards, he apologised for the “great burden” he had “imposed on the Congress and on the American people.”