Trials of the Century, from Scopes to Simpson

By Deutsch, Linda | THE JOURNAL RECORD, January 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Trials of the Century, from Scopes to Simpson


Deutsch, Linda, THE JOURNAL RECORD


A jostling mob of journalists swarmed the courthouse. Photographers snapped away. This murder trial would be "reported to the ends of the civilized globe," one paper said.

The defendant was a millionaire. The motive was jealous rage. The crime was bloody.

This was the Trial of the Century B and it was only 1907.

The defendant was Harry Thaw (O.J. Simpson would not be born for 40 years), and the case set a pattern for "trials of the century" to come.

At least 33 cases have been given that label, according to Gerald Uelman, professor of law at Santa Clara University Law School.

American schoolchildren learn the pledge of "Justice for all," but these cases show how difficult it is to keep that promise. War crimes, civil rights abuses, sensational murder and assassinations. Even the impeachment of a president. All of these have been placed at the doorstep of the law in this century. And not all have resulted in fair verdicts.

The most powerful cases forced society to face fundamental quandaries. In the Scopes "Monkey Trial," it was the place of religion in public life. The Simpson case presented troubling racial questions. Trials like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" killings left us peering into the darkness of the soul.

"The measure of a great trial," said defense attorney Leslie Abramson, "should be the impact on society B cases that advanced our state of knowledge and reflected on the problems of the times, those that aided in the search for truth."

Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, offered another standard.

"A trial of the century is when the public feels invested in the outcome," she said. "They will sit around and talk about it; they'll root for one side or the other."

Here's a look at some of the 20th century's greatest dramas of crime and punishment.

`Red Velvet Swing'

Harry Thaw, the wastrel heir to a Pittsburgh industrialist's fortune, fatally shot society architect Stanford White in the middle of the White-designed Madison Square Garden in view of hundreds. Thaw's wife, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, had told her husband that White, her former lover, once raped her.

The first "trial of the century" offered salacious views of the upper crust. There was testimony about White's red velvet swing where he liked to have showgirls swing so he could look underneath their dresses.

Great defenses often make great trials, and Thaw's lawyer, Delphin Delmas, had a winner. His client, he said, suffered from "Dementia Americana," an affliction of the American male whose wife's purity is violated. After two trials, Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity and spent the rest of his life in and out of insane asylums.

The trial, held in New York, taught the media lessons they would not forget about the appeal of courtroom dramas featuring wealth, indulgence and sexual decadence. It was the beginning of saturation coverage with the new art of photographic reproduction enlivening newspapers.

Fatty Arbuckle

The 1921 trial of Fatty Arbuckle, a comic superstar in the fledgling movie industry, focused on loose morals in Hollywood. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter when an actress died after a wild party. There were allegations that rape by the overweight actor had killed her. Two juries deadlocked and a third acquitted Arbuckle, declaring a great injustice had been done. Nonetheless, his career was ruined.

More important, the nation's moral outrage led to creation of the movie industry's Hays Office, which censored films for the next 30 years.

Sacco and Vanzetti

Rarely has an outpouring of public outrage equaled that at the conviction and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

The Italian immigrant anarchists, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, were charged with committing murder during a $15,000 payroll robbery in South Braintree, Mass. …

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