6 Intriguingly Famous Court Cases that Captivated the Nation
By Jess Scherman on 08/29/2017
For decades, the nation has grown abuzz every few years as a new high-profile court case consumes the attention of American media outlets. Whether obsessing over an ill-fitting glove or a shaky alibi, we flip the news on each morning, eager for an update, and then we head to work where the topic dominates that day’s watercooler conversation.
As a society, we consume a lot of fictionalized drama through pop culture. It’s no surprise our interest grows when given a front-row seat to the latest developments of a real-life, high-profile criminal case. We are eager to act as honorary members of the juries from the comfort of our homes, speculating and drawing conclusions based on new evidence.
While regulations regarding media relations in the courtroom vary by state, the most intriguing cases find a way to break past boundaries to still captivate the country. These cases feature defendants the public loves to hate, lawyers whose reputations precede them and shocking revelations of new, damaging evidence—and, with one of the trials on our list, an in-court marriage proposal!
Brush up on your knowledge of the U.S. criminal court system by learning more about some famous court cases that fascinated the country and beyond.
6 captivating court cases that had Americans glued to their screens
1. O.J. Simpson
We’d be remiss if we started our list anywhere other than the case dubbed the “trial of the century. ” We are referring to the mother of all courtroom media spectacles: The People of the State of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson.
When the former NFL running back, O.J. Simpson, was charged with two counts of murder for the 1994 homicide of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, the entire country sat on the edge of our seats. Not only was the famous defendant represented by a very high-profile team of defense lawyers (at the time dubbed “The Dream Team”), but the case also received an unprecedented amount of media coverage. This coverage was so intense that it caused for many delays to the trial, which ended up spanning 11 months.
Witnesses began selling their stories to the tabloid press, which disqualified them from testifying in the hearing. Jury selection proved a controversial process, as it was difficult to narrow down a pool of potential jurors who could remain neutral amid the ‘round-the-clock coverage of Simpson’s arrest and beyond surrounding the murder case. Ten jurors would be dismissed for various reasons over the course of the trial, leaving just four of the original jurors on the final panel.
It’s also true that this trial invited the American population right into the courtroom with the proceedings televised by “Court TV” and other news outlets. Upon month after month of grueling court proceedings and conflicting testimonies, Simpson was found not guilty of the crimes, sending shockwaves across the nation.
You can learn more about the intricate details of this case here.
2. Ted Bundy
While the O.J. Simpson trial may still hold the unofficial title of being the “trial of the century,” Ted Bundy’s criminal trial is in the record books for being the first trial to be nationally televised. Bundy was not the first serial killer our country has seen, and he’s far from the last. But something about the charismatic psychopath captured the attention of many.
Bundy—who was considered to possess movie-star good looks—attracted the attention of many young females even after he was arrested for multiple murders and sexual assaults. Bundy not only received hundreds of love letters from female fans while in prison, but it was also a common occurrence for young, attractive women to line the rows of his trial, hoping to get a glimpse of him.
The fascinating criminal opted to represent himself at trial—of which one of those memorable moments included his proposal to his devoted girlfriend and champion of his innocence, Carole Anne Boone, while he questioned her on the stand.
Bundy was actually on trial multiple times—he managed to escape a courtroom and jail before his final capture and trial. Ultimately, his actions resulted in three separate murder convictions, all of which were accompanied by death sentences. He was executed by electrocution in 1989.
You can learn more about the various twists and turns of Bundy’s case here.
3. Casey Anthony
America was riveted by the Casey Anthony case from the moment she was arrested for allegedly killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, in 2008. The country was shocked by this young mother’s bizarre and frequently shifting stories about what unfolded during the last days and hours of her daughter’s life. From a tale about a completely fictional nanny abducting Caylee to months’ worth of lies from Anthony about maintaining a job she didn’t have, it was clear to many onlookers that Anthony was hiding something.
The trial was a media circus, with every possible outlet reporting on updates in the case multiple times per day. The proceedings were broadcast live across cable networks, and Anthony was quickly dubbed “the most hated mom in America.”
Anthony—who waited an entire month before reporting her daughter missing—went on trial for the murder in 2011 with the death penalty on the table. Evidence presented in the courtroom included questionable internet searches, forensic evidence that a decomposing body had possibly been in the trunk of Anthony’s car and unfounded allegations of sexual abuse. After nearly 11 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted her of the murder charge, but found her guilty of four misdemeanor counts of giving false information to law enforcement (two of which were later dropped). It was a verdict that completely shocked the nation.
4. George Zimmerman
Hinging on Florida’s controversial self-defense laws, the case of George Zimmerman became a national phenomenon with media attention running rampant and civil rights groups publicly crying out for justice. In fact, it wasn’t until six weeks after Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin—claiming it was in self-defense—that public pressure on law enforcement led to his arrest.
On the evening of February 26, 2012, Martin was walking home after picking up some snacks at a local convenience store. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted him and deemed the hoodie-clad teenager suspicious. The neighborhood was one known for its fair share of petty crime—with 402 calls to the police between January 1, 2011 and February 26, 2012—so Zimmerman, who had a documented history of phoning the police to report suspicious-looking activity, called it in.
Little is known about what exactly happened next. The 911 dispatcher instructed Zimmerman to stop following Martin. After the call ended, there was a violent encounter between the two that culminated Zimmerman fatally shooting the 17-year-old, who was just 70 yards from his home.
With many claiming the shooting was motivated by racism, and others standing by Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, everyone in the nation was on edge as the trial unfolded. The proceedings included three weeks of testimony and a litany of expert witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense. In July of 2013, the all-female jury declared Zimmerman innocent of all charges. The verdict led to nationwide protests and far-reaching conversations about abolishing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
You can learn more about the tragic circumstances surrounding this case here.
5. Scott Peterson
The murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son hijacked the attention of the nation for many reasons. She went missing on Christmas Eve of 2002, was eight months pregnant at the time, her smile was magnetic and her marriage to her husband, Scott, was, by all accounts, picture perfect.
Despite Peterson claiming to the press that he was devastated about his wife’s sudden disappearance, he showed little emotion—no distraught pleas for help through media outlets, and no spearheading of search parties. Even still, he was far from being considered a suspect by Laci’s family early on in the investigation. But investigators had their suspicions.
Before long, evidence surfaced revealing that Peterson had carried out a number of extramarital affairs while married to Laci, the most recent of which was with a woman named Amber Frey. Once Frey discovered Peterson was a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance, she contacted the police. Frey revealed that Peterson had referred to himself as a widower as many as two weeks before Laci’s disappearance. He was arrested on April 18, 2003.
Peterson’s trial ran from June 2004 through March 2005, and it endured many shocking twists and turns, including three separate versions of a jury panel, with jurors being removed for various reasons throughout the deliberation process. After five and a half months of testimony from a whopping 184 witnesses, the final iteration of the jury weighed evidence for just seven hours before declaring Peterson guilty of the murders of his wife and unborn son. He sat unflinchingly as he was sentenced to death for his crimes.
Peterson’s defense team is still undergoing appeals, and he awaits his fate on death row in a California prison. You can learn more about the case here.
6. Timothy McVeigh
The Oklahoma City bombing was a tragic event that shook the nation to its core. The media frenzied with coverage of the events surrounding the April 1995 act of terror. It was on that fateful day that 29-year-old Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh—with the help of accomplice, Terry Nichols—detonated an enormous truck bomb that was parked in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children, six military personnel, 99 employees of the federal government, eight law enforcement agents and three pregnant women.
The attack was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism, suspected to have been committed as a reaction to the federal raid of a Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas almost exactly two years earlier. After sifting through 22 days of testimony from 160 witnesses, jurors found McVeigh guilty on all 11 counts of his federal indictment, to which his emotionless response sent chills down the spines of everyone watching.
At the recommendation of the jury, the judge sentenced McVeigh to death. After a series of denied appeals and unforeseen delays, he was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001. Among his final statements made as his execution date neared, McVeigh proclaimed that his only regret was not completely leveling the federal building in his attack.
You can learn more about the trial of Timothy McVeigh and the public’s reaction here.
Take your fascination beyond the screen
Some might argue that the most infamous court cases in American history—both historical and present-day—can teach us more about the human condition than any textbook and can hold the public’s attention more firmly than any well-written courtroom thriller that splashes across the silver screen.
You are certainly not alone if you find yourself fascinated by the inner workings of our justice system and the twisted minds of some of the most notorious criminals. But have you ever considered taking your interest in crime and courtrooms to the next level?
If you’re interested in a court-related career but have been hesitant because the idea of spending years in law school is unappealing, then worry not! There are several other courtroom careers you could consider. Take a look at a full run-down in our infographic, "Order in the Court! A Visual Guide to Courthouse Jobs."