by | Feb 27, 2019 | KJ Howe | 8 comments

by KJ Howe
There is no drama like courtroom drama. High stakes, aggressive arguments, forensic evidence, and the riveting uncertainty of what the verdict will be. What’s not to love?  The American legal system has produced some of the most compelling trials in history. But which one was truly THE trial of the 20thcentury. The criteria: the trials had to involve massive public interest, memorable personalities, set in America, be criminal in nature, and be real (sorry Harper Lee and John Grisham—we still love you!). Without further ado, in chronological order, here are seven nominees, you pick the winner:
The Trial of Leon Czolgosz (1901)
This one just creeps in just under the wire. On Sept 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President Leon McKinley at a public event. Anarchists like Czoglosz assassinated political leaders and royalty across the globe and the United States was no exception. The Czologsz case is the epitome of speedy justice. The trial began nine days after McKinley expired from his wounds, the proceedings lasted just eight hours (you read that right—hours), the jury deliberated for thirty minutes, and Czolgosz was executed by electric chair on Oct 29, 1901, barely seven weeks after the shooting. Whiplash justice.
The Trial of Leopold and Loeb (1924)
Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb killed young Bobby Franks in cold blood in Chicago.  The case was reviewed brilliantly by Rogue Lisa Black here. The most interesting aspect of the case was the legendary closing statement by controversial defense lawyer Clarence Darrow which lasted some 12 hours (longer than the entire Czologsz trial!) and saved the defendants from the death penalty.

Clarence Darrow
The Scopes Monkey Trial (1925)
This case featured historical giants Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant slugging it out over the legality of a law that forbid the teaching of evolution in public schools in Tennessee.  The case attracted media from all over the country and had to be held outdoors due to the extreme heat of the summer. While the trial has spawned books, plays, and movies unlike any other case, it had a most humble beginning. The town of Dayton Tennessee was dying out economically when a group of local businessmen drinking soda saw an ad from the ACLU offering to finance a test case about teaching evolution. The men convinced substitute teacher John Scopes, who was really more interested in playing tennis and courting a certain local lady, to say he had taught evolution to help out the boys. The truth is he probably never taught evolution and never even testified at the trial where he was convicted. While his conviction was eventually overturned on a technicality, the law survived and similar laws remained on the books in a number of states until many decades later.
The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping (1935)
On March 1, 1932, twenty-month old Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the legendary aviator, was boldly snatched from his bedroom. The publicity exploded nationwide and the press swarmed.  Famous journalist H.L. Mencken referred to the kidnapping as “the biggest story since the resurrection.” Even though the ransom was paid, the child was found dead a short time later.  Eventually, the notes and bills used to pay the ransom were traced to Bruno Hauptman who was arrested for the crime. Sketches of the make-shift ladder used in the kidnapping and the remaining funds from the ransom were found in his home. While he denied his guilt until the end, Hauptmann was convicted and died in the electric chair.

The Tate/Labianca Murders (1970)
On August 9 and 10, 1969 a group of cultists murdered eight people, including Sharon Tate who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Police work cracked the case, and cult leader Charles Manson was tried for the murder despite not having been at the scene of the murders. Manson claimed to be receiving messages from contemporary music about a great race war called “Helter Skelter”, and he planned these murders to help initiate the war. In what might be the first of the modern media circus trials, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliant strategy led to Manson’s conviction. Manson recently died in jail.
The Rodney King Trial (1993)
On March 3, 1991, construction worker Rodney King was pulled over by four Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase. An altercation with the officers resulted in King being struck multiple times by night sticks and kicked while on the ground. A nearby civilian filmed the beating and sent the tape to a local TV station. The four officers were charged criminally, but were acquitted by a jury. This lead to a six-day period of rioting and civil disobedience that cost the lives of 63 people. 2,373 more individuals were injured and the riots resulted in over one billion dollars of property damage. Eventually, the officers were charged federally and two of them were convicted and sentenced to thirty months in jail.  

The O.J. Simpson Trial
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and friend Ron Goldman were stabbed to death
in Los Angeles. When former NFL star, O.J. Simpson refused to turn himself in, he was involved in the most famous “low-speed” vehicle chase in a now notorious white Bronco. The trial was the pinnacle of the media circus, stretching over eleven months while Judge Lance Ito, “The Dream Team” of defense lawyers led by Johnny Cochrane, and Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark became household names. At the end of the trial, Simpson was acquitted, but later he was found civilly liable for the deaths and jailed on unrelated charges.
Significant trials come in all shapes and sizes with all types of outcomes. 

Which trial would you call the “Trial of the Century,” and are there any you would add to the list?

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    Every trial you list is fascinating and important, KJ. What a thought-provoking list. The only one I was able to follow closely was that of OJ Simpson, because at the time I was making extra money working as the private secretary to a multimillionaire who was bedridden and riveted to the televised performances and legal rulings. Holy moly! I kept trying not to be interested, but kept getting caught up in it. But then, I was living in Santa Barbara, less than 100 miles north, and the frenzy and fascination seemed to permeate the air. Does all of that make it the most important legally? Not to my mind, but it sure did make it important to those debating the issues of racism, domestic abuse, and the privileges of the ultra wealthy.

  2. Robin Burcell

    I very much recall the OJ trial. Everyone was riveted to the TV. I was out of town at a week long course for the police department, and it was definitely the topic of conversation all around–and made it difficult to concentrate as we were all waiting to hear the highlights of the trial. I'm also old enough to vaguely recall all the Manson murders and the name Tate/Labianca is forever etched as one word in my mind.

  3. Rogue Women Writers

    What an incredible history lesson of headline-grabbing trials. When you listed the Charles Manson murder, it reminded me of the time I was a reporter in San Francisco in the 70's and was sent to the prison where one of his cult members was being held. I did an interview with a particular female followers that was absolutely chilling. The woman showed no remorse and tried to "justify" her actions as she gazed up at me with a "doe like stare." Good grief! Come to think of it, any one of those trials could be turned into quite a thriller – right?….Karna Bodman

  4. Lisa Black

    You interviewed Charles Manson followers??? I have got to hear that story!!!

  5. Lisa Black

    I can't decide which would be the winner, but another contestant might be the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951.

  6. S. Lee Manning

    Great recap of fascinating trials. For me, as a lawyer, what is most interesting about trials is speculating about what is not shown on television: decisions about evidence and witnesses and how they choose a theory of the case. The courtroom drama while riveting is much like an iceberg. You see this dramatic towering object – and sometimes don't realize the mass that is lurking beneath the surface. Unfortunately, though, much of what is behind a case is bone-chillingly boring – involving months of long days going through documents, through evidence, etc.

  7. Chris Goff

    Trials are fascinating. I remember my parents talking about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. My dad grew up in a house across the street from Ann Marrow, Lindbergh's wife. Always scared me. But I have to say, I love the cold cases. My parents also talked about the murder of Charles Percy's daughter. Charles Percy was a Senator and presidential hopeful out of Illinois. During his senatorial bid in 1966, one of this twin daughters was murdered in their home by someone who climbed through her second-story bedroom window. Did they target Valerie, the daughter? Were they targeting Charles Percy, the politician? Or were they targeting Charles Percy, the businessman? He was the head of Bell & Howell. It's a case that was never solved, but stuck in my head. I remember skiing with the Percy's as a child before the murder. Maybe it hit too close to home.

  8. Unknown

    another contestant: The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti (some time in the 1920s?