Much like a car crash, Americans can’t help but “rubberneck” to watch a high-profile court case.
The United States has a unique fascination with true crime and criminal cases. The response to TV viewer ratings for the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 spawned network shows like The Practice, Boston Legal, NCIS and drove up ratings for the the likes of the Law and Order series and NYPD Blue.
In 2016, more than 20 years after the trial at which Simpson was acquitted of murder, two documentaries about the proceedings debuted to rave reviews. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story set an FX viewership record for an original drama premiere with 5.11 million viewers. And O.J.: Made in America, produced by ESPN Films, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2017.
Given the critical and audience reaction to these productions, it’s clear that the public’s interest in true crime stories is at an all-time high.
Famous Court Cases
O.J. Simpson Murder Trial
- Dates: Jan. 25, 1995 – Oct. 2, 1995
- Location: Los Angeles
- Charge: Two counts of murder
- Plea: Not guilty
- Verdict: Not guilty
The O.J. Simpson murder trial was one of the most culturally defining moments in 20th century America, highlighted by the stark racial divide in the response to Simpson’s not-guilty verdict. But perhaps more notable was how it brought so many people into the courtroom for the first time, as television cameras were turned on in a murder case involving a national celebrity. The sensational coverage, from the Ford Bronco police chase to the trial itself, exposed many Americans to the inner workings of the criminal justice system, from the high-powered defense team featuring Attorney Johnnie Cochran to the prosecution led by Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark.
While federal courtrooms have almost always banned photography and broadcasting, some courtrooms experimented with allowing TV cameras from 1991 to 1994.Other courts have similarly allowed cameras in the courtroom if a case met certain criteria for public interest. The Simpson trial changed the perception of broadcasting in court-rooms that still reverberates today as one of the most famous court cases.
- Dates: April 3, 1996 – May 4, 1998
- Location: Sacramento, Calif.
- Charge: Ten counts of illegally transporting, mailing and using bombs; and three counts of murder
- Plea: Guilty
- Verdict: Guilty
The two-decade investigation into former child prodigy Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski reached its zenith in January 1998 — two years after he was arrested, — when he pleaded guilty to 13 counts, including three counts of murder. Kaczynski’s mysterious and sophisticated bombings gripped the nation between 1978 and 1995, as he hand-delivered or mailed bombs that killed three people and injured 23. The former Harvard graduate – known in the media as the Unabomber – fled mainstream society for a isolated cabin in Montana, became enraged with the destruction of wildlife, and in retaliation, began making homemade bombs. He was responsible for 16 bombings nationwide.
With the country on edge, Kaczynski was caught after his brother, David, recognized Ted’s writing style in The Washington Post and alerted the FBI. It was the most expensive investigation in FBI history and seems ready-made for a future TV documentary.
John Gotti Jr.
- Dates: Between 2004 and 2009
- Location: New York, N.Y.
- Charges: Racketeering, murder conspiracy
- Pleas: Not Guilty
- Verdicts: Mistrials
A former boss in the well-known Gambino crime family, Gotti Jr. finally faced the full might of the federal government in a pair of famous court cases. Between 2004 and 2009, Gotti Jr. managed mistrials in multiple cases against him on charges of racketeering and murder conspiracy. Gotti Jr.’s acquittals followed his father’s conviction in 1992 on racketeering charges. Gotti Sr., also a former Gambino crime boss, died in prison.
Should a film be made about the Gottis’ time running the Gambino crime family and managing to successfully avoid prosecution, it could grip viewers’ interest, much like television news coverage of their court cases. Unlike other mobsters who preferred a life underground, Gotti Jr. was a very public person and constantly put himself in front of cameras.
- Dates: June 1979 – January 1989
- Location: Miami, Fla.
- Charge: Multiple counts of murder, kidnapping, assault, escaping prison and more
- Plea: Not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity
- Verdict: Guilty
One of the most nefarious serial killers in U.S. history, Bundy eventually admitted to 30 homicides, though the true number of his killings is assumed to be much higher. He escaped prison in 1977 and committed more murders in Florida. He was finally recaptured in 1979, and his Florida murder trials were the first to be televised nationally, as more than 250 journalists from around the world traveled to Miami to cover the trials.
Bundy’s sadistic personality set the stage for some of the gruesome true-crime fascination we see today in the U.S. In his first few trials, Bundy refused the court-appointed lawyer, preferring to represent himself. But over time, he lost his confidence, and eventually, Bundy was found guilty, given the death penalty and finally executed in 1989.
The Menendez Brothers
- Dates: January 1993 – July 1996
- Location: Beverly Hills, Calif.
- Charge: First degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder
- Plea: Not guilty
- Verdict: Guilty
After the gruesome killings of Jose and Mary “Kitty” Menendez, Los Angeles residents were shocked to learn that authorities believed it was the couple’s two college-aged sons who committed the murders.
Lyle and Erik eventually copped to the murders, but, in a nationally televised trial aired on Court TV, their defense centered around the theory that the brothers were abused by their parents, which compelled them to murder their parents. The first trial ended with two hung juries.
In the second trial, the presiding judge ruled there would be no cameras allowed in the courtroom, and the brothers were found guilty of murder. Since their sentencing — life in prison without the possibility of parole — the Menendez brothers have been the subject of dozens of documentaries.
Get Involved in Criminal Justice
What all these famous court cases have in common from the last 40 years is how they gripped the nation during televised court hearings, with millions tuning in to see what would happen. While the criminal justice system certainly isn’t glamorous, it is one of the most fulfilling professions, and it’s a field that is growing. Be a part of the criminal justice system or advance your career within it with an online B.S. in Criminal Justice from Point Park University.
Taught by criminal justice professionals, you’ll study key topics such as criminality, constitutional law and court proceedings, which will prepare you for a variety of criminal justice roles. And thanks to our fully online format, you won’t have to choose between your career and your education. Get started today!