During the 20th century, a so-called “trial of the century” occurred every few years, fueled by media sensationalism and a public thirst for juicy gossip, celebrity lifestyles or good old-fashioned revenge. Here are 20 trials that have, at one time or another, been deemed the indisputable “trial of the (20th) century.”
Harry Kendall Thaw (1906)
Harry Kendall Thaw was the wealthy son of a Pittsburgh industrialist who had a history of mental illness and a fondness for Broadway showgirls. Both came to a violent head on June 25, 1906, when Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White while attending a play at Madison Square Garden. White was a longtime rival for showgirls’ affections who had slept with Thaw’s wife, popular model Evelyn Nesbit, before they were married. The high profile of the crime and of the individuals involved led to a media frenzy. The first trial was deadlocked, and the second — during whichNesbit testified (falsely and in exchange for money from Thaw’s mother) that White had raped and abused her — ended by finding Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. In 1913, he was released from an asylum but would spend the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions.
“Big Bill” Haywood (1907)
William “Big Bill” Haywood was a prominent Socialist labor union organizer who went on trial in Boise, Idaho for hiring a man to kill a former Idaho governor who had crushed a miner’s strike years earlier. The case divided the nation. Thousands of union members and socialists marched in support of Haywood, while President Theodore Roosevelt denounced him and his supporters as “undesirable citizens.” Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued on Haywood’s behalf, and since the only evidence against Haywood was the testimony of the killer, Harry Orchard — whose history of crime made him a suspect witness — Big Bill was acquitted. Ten years later, he would be found guilty on a separate charge of espionage. He skipped bail and fled to the Soviet Union, where he spent the rest of his life.
Sacco and Vanzetti (1920-21)
Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who were accused of the armed robbery and murder of two men in 1920. Rampant prejudice against both immigrants and anarchists made the case international news and led to the defendants’ speedy conviction, despite irregularities in the case against them and the possibility of evidence tampering. There was sizable opposition to the convictions from those who recognized the prejudicial atmosphere, but after requests for a new trial were denied, Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in the electric chair in 1927.
Chicago Black Sox (1921)
In 1921, eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team were tried for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series in exchange for money. The defendants included two of the team’s best players, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and George “Buck” Weaver, both of whom denied throwing the games (although Jackson confessed to receiving some cash). While the others admitted to taking money, the defense argued that just because the players took the cash didn’t mean that they threw the games. Partly due to semantics that differentiated “throwing games” and “defrauding the public” (the crime that they were tried for), the jury found all eight players not guilty. Regardless of the verdict, the Commissioner of Baseball banned all eight members of the so-called “BlackSox” scandal the next day, claiming that baseball needed to clean up its image. None of the eight ever played in the Major Leagues again.
Fatty Arbuckle (1921)
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the biggest silent film stars in early American cinema when he was arrested in 1921, accused of raping and accidentally killing a young woman he’d invited to a party. The woman died of a ruptured bladder three days after the party, and when her friend told police that Arbuckle had raped her, they concluded that his weight had caused the injury. Arbuckle denied wrongdoing and after two hung juries, he was found not guilty in a third trial when much of the evidence and testimony against him proved to be either circumstantial or coerced. Still, the damage to his reputation from the accusations — and from rumors and exaggerations of what occurred — caused irreparable damage to his career. He didn’t make another film for 10 years, and just when he began a comeback in 1933, he passed away from a heart attack.
Leopold and Loeb (1924)
Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb were elitist college students who decided in 1924 to commit the “perfect crime.” They kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy but were caught after Leopold’s glasses were found near the crime scene. The senselessness of the crime and the well-to-do nature of the defendants led to high-profile media coverage. Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow defended the men, arguing that they shouldn’t be sentenced to death because they took the concept of Nietzschean “supermen” that they were taught in college too seriously, applying it to themselves. Darrow succeeded in sparing them the death penalty, but both were sentenced to life in prison, where Loeb was eventually killed. Leopold was released after 33 years in jail, at the age of 53.
Scopes “Monkey Trial” (1925)
Clarence Darrow again took center stage in a “trial of the century” while defending John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher who was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in violation of the state’s recently-passed Butler Act. The act forbade the teaching of evolution in a state-funded school, and the trial, immortalized in the play and subsequent film Inherit the Wind, pitted Darrow against former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Butler Act was repealed, and the following year, the US Supreme Court ruled that such statutes were unconstitutional.
Gloria Vanderbilt (1934)
Gloria Vanderbilt was the young heiress to a multimillion-dollar family fortune when, in 1934, at the age of 10, she was caught in a custody battle between her mother and her deceased father’s sister. Her Aunt Gertrude alleged that Gloria’s mother, also named Gloria, lived a lifestyle of extravagant spending and perverse sexual exploits that would prove detrimental to the young heiress. The scandalous testimony from the mother’s servants, including charges of homosexual behavior, made headlines. The judge agreed with the aunt, awarding her custody and allowing the elder Gloria Vanderbilt visitation on weekends and for a month each summer.
Lindbergh Kidnapping (1935)
In 1932, the kidnapping and eventual murder of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr., the son of the famous aviator, shocked America and the rest of the world. Following two years of investigation, German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann was arrested for the crime after being found with a portion of the ransom money and wood that matched that used in a homemade ladder found at crime scene. Although he claimed that the money was left by a friend of his, Hauptmann, due in part to a high degree of public pressure (he was deemed “The Most Hated Man In The World” at the time), was convicted and put to death in 1937. However, doubts over his guilt remain to this day.
Scottsboro Boys (1931-37)
The so-called Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine young black men and boys, aged 12 to 19, who were accused in 1931 of raping two young white women, 21-year-old Victoria Price and 17-year-old Ruby Bates, on a train traveling through rural Alabama. The accusers were known prostitutes, and Price, the more vocal of the two, most likely made the charges to deflect attention from her illegal effort to transport a minor (Bates) across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The initial trial took place in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 under the pressure of an angry mob outside the courthouse and within the context of a segregationist South that had a history of mob violence against black men accused of assaulting white women. The trials were sped along by a biased judge and were ruled on by an all-white jury, while the defendants’ attorneys were inexperienced and unprepared. Despite a sizable amount of evidence refuting the two women’s story, eight of the nine defendants receiving death penalties. The trial of the ninth, 12-year-old Roy Wright, ended in a hung jury when they couldn’t agree whether he was too young for the death penalty. Outrage over the unfair trials poured in from groups like the NAACP, the ACLU and the American Communist Party. In 1932, the US Supreme Court ruled that the defendants were denied their right to counsel, and they were ordered to be retried, this time in Decatur, Alabama. Again, despite considerable evidence proving their innocence — including Bates recanting her story and testifying that the two women were not attacked — the juries returned guilty convictions and death sentences. The Supreme Court once again rejected the verdicts, this time on the grounds that black citizens in Alabama were systematically denied the right to take part in juries. During the third round of trials (1936-37), one black man appeared on the jury, but since only a two-thirds vote was necessary for conviction, he did not sway the verdicts from once again coming up guilty. However, this time, only five of the nine were found guilty, and none were sentenced to death. Although they were sentenced to life in prison, the men were all released on parole by the end of the 1940s, having served over a decade in prison for crimes they likely did not commit.
Nuremberg Trials (1945-1949)
The Nuremberg trials were a series of trials of the German Nazi leadership that took place after the end of World War II in Nuremberg, Germany. The most high-profile of the trials occurred in the initial stage, running from 1945 to 1946, which targeted top Nazi officials for their participation in war crimes. A panel of judges from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union submitted their rulings: of the 22 men tried, 12 were sentenced to death, three received life imprisonments, four received sentences of 10 to 20 years and three were acquitted. Twleve more sets of trials off lesser Nazi military, political, medical and economic officials took place between 1946 and 1949.
The Rosenbergs (1951)
Husband and wife Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American Communists who were the first US civilians ever sentenced to death for espionage. Julius was an engineer for both the US Army Signal Corps and the Emerson Radio Corporation and was accused of using his positions to transfer military and technology secrets to the Soviet Union. Ethel’s involvement was reportedly restricted to typing secret communications and recruiting fellow spies. One recruit that the Rosenbergs drew in was Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supposedly passed along nuclear secrets to the Soviets through Julius. While the overriding public opinion was that the couple was guilty, protests of anti-Communist sentiment and anti-Semitism raised some doubts and raised public awareness of the trial. Guilty or not — and in hindsight, it appears that Julius at least did pass along information to the Soviets — the harsh sentence of death drew protests around the world. Nonetheless, the couple was executed in June 1953.
Sam Sheppard (1954, 1966)
Sam Sheppard was a successful doctor who was accused of the 1954 murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn. His story of being knocked unconscious by a murderer described only as “bushy haired” raised doubts over his innocence, and many news outlets proclaimed his guilt. In this hostile atmosphere, he was found guilty in 1954 and sentenced to life in prison. After more than a decade in jail, however, the US Supreme Court ruled that Sheppard was denied due process as a result of the bias expressed by both the media and the judge ruling on the case. He was retried in 1966 and acquitted. Sheppard’s case launched the career of famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey and is believed to have inspired the television show and movie The Fugitive.
The Chicago Seven (1969-70)
The “Chicago Seven” were seven social activists who were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner. (An eighth, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale , was dropped from the case after being sentenced to four years in jail for contempt of court.) The defendants had organized mass protests of the Vietnam War that ended up in a series of violent clashes with police, much of which aired live on television for the nation to see. The trial captured the social and political turmoil of the era, fueled by war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (both of which occurred earlier in 1968) and the Civil Rights movement. In February 1970, all seven were convicted of inciting a riot and sentenced to five years in prison, but their convictions were overturned in 1972 on appeal because the judge had refused to allow defense attorneys to screen prospective jurors for cultural and racial bias. The Justice Department decided not to retry the case.
Charles Manson (1970-71)
Charles Manson was the leader of a small Los Angeles-area cult known as the Manson Family, whom he instructed in 1969 to commit several murders in preparation for what he believed would be an impending race war. The most notable victim was actress Sharon Tate, wife of movie director Roman Polanski, who was almost nine months pregnant at the time of her death. The initial trial was rife with theatrics on the part of the four defendants (including Manson), who would carve X’s in their foreheads, shave their hair and routinely explode in vocal outbursts. At one point, Manson attempted to attack the judge. Meanwhile, his co-defendants tried to remove the blame from Manson by claiming that the real mastermind was an ex-Family member who had testified against them. Outside the courtroom, witnesses were intimidated and injured by Family members, and one of the defense lawyers disappeared and was later found dead. Finally, in January 1971, Manson and his co-defendants were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. When California outlawed the death penalty in 1972, however, their sentences were reduced to life in prison.
Patty Hearst (1976)
Patty Hearst was a wealthy newspaper heiress who was kidnapped in February 1974 by the extremist group the Symbionese Liberation Army. By April, she had issued a statement announcing that she had joined the SLA. Shortly thereafter, she participated in a bank robbery with other members of the group, the image of her holding an automatic rifle plastered on TV news reports across the country. She was arrested for the crime in 1975, and although her defense, conducted by F. Lee Bailey, claimed that she was brainwashed by the SLA , she was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, however, and she ended up serving less than two years in jail. She was officially pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.
John Hinckley, Jr. (1982)
John Hinckley, Jr. was tried in 1982 for his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. The defense portrayed Hinckley as a troubled man who, upon seeing the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, developed an unhealthy obsession with actress Jodie Foster and believed that by killing the President, he would impress her. (He reportedly had originally targeted Jimmy Carter but settled on Reagan just two months into his term as President.) As such, they argued that Hinckley was not guilty by reason of insanity and even brought in Foster in to testify about the bizarre letters and phone calls she’d received from him. The prosecution’s experts meanwhile declared Hinckley sane, but the jury agreed with the defense, and he was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains to this day.
Rodney King Officers (1992)
In 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were tried for excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon in the arrest of Rodney King. The incident made national headlines when a videotape of the arrest — in which the officers beat King with their batons at least 56 times — was splashed across TV screens. Race quickly became an issue in the case, as the policemen were white, and King was black. When the trial was moved from Los Angeles to the largely white Simi Valley for fear that the pervasive media coverage might have tampered the jury pool, doubts arose as to the new jury’s makeup, which included no African Americans. Defense attorneys further fanned the racial flames by asserting that some of the officers had a racial bias against black people. Nonetheless, the four officers were acquitted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. The jury deadlocked on the charge of excessive force for one officer, Laurence Powell. Outrage over the verdict sparked the 1992 L.A. riots, which caused a billion dollars in damage to the city. The four officers were later indicted on federal charges for violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Two, Powell and Stacey Koon, were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison.
O. J. Simpson (1995)
Former football star O.J. Simpson was tried for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her new boyfriend, Ronald Goldman. The deaths made news because of Simpson’s stature as a pro athlete and because he led police on a low-speed chase for 50 miles through the Los Angeles area as an estimated 95 million people watched on television. The highly publicized trial made national news daily as every piece of evidence, every person testifying and every lawyer was held under extreme scrutiny. Simpson’s high-priced defense lawyers, dubbed “the Dream Team,” deflected much of the evidence against him by claiming that the DNA evidence was tainted, by discrediting investigative officer Mark Fuhrman over his racist beliefs and perhaps most famously, by showing that a glove found at the crime scene did not fit on Simpson’s hand. “If it doesn’t fit,” attorney Johnnie Cochran explained, “you must acquit.” The Fuhrman testimony and residual resentment over the Rodney King verdict led to an atmosphere of heightened racial tension surrounding the case. In the end, Simpson was acquitted, although several jury members stated that the decision was due more to the prosecution’s mishandling of the case than to Simpson’s innocence. In 1997, Simpson was found guilty in a wrongful death civil lawsuit in the Brown/Goldman case and ordered to pay $33.5 million.
Bill Clinton Impeachment (1999)
The impeachment trial of Bill Clinton was only the second such trial of a standing President in United States history. Clinton was accused of lying in a sworn deposition about the nature of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with whom he’d had a brief extramarital affair. The House of Representatives indicted Clinton on December 19, 1998, on charges of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. It was then up to the Senate to conduct the trial, which began in January 1999. The case helped make unwilling celebrities of Lewinsky, informant Linda Tripp and lawyer Kenneth Starr, whose investigations opened the door for the impeachment. Ultimately, while a two-thirds majority of the Senate (67 votes) was necessary to remove Clinton from office, only 45 Senators voted guilty on the perjury charge and only 50 on the obstruction of justice charge.