Hollywood loves courtroom drama. The attorneys strutting about, the no nonsense judge, the upright decent jury and, of course, the defendant. In the black and white classic Twelve Angry Men Henry Fonda brilliantly plays the stubborn juror, the only juror as the film begins who thinks the defendant is innocent of the murder of which he is accused. Gradually, slowly, in the heat of summer, Fonda wears them down until there is only one juror still against him. And in an electrifying moment of confrontation, the lone juror capitulates and the defendant is acquitted. The verdict is calmly delivered, to the surprise of just about everyone, including the beleaguered defendant.
Right or wrong, we take a view on a defendant’s guilt or innocence. America’s media fascination with grisly murder goes back to 1836 New York City and the murder of a beautiful prostitute named Helen Jewett. A young man named Richard Robinson was arrested and put on trial. The “penny press” flexed its muscles for the first time and ran exaggerated and sensational accounts of the murder. New York was screaming for Robinson’s blood. And when he was acquitted, there was great outrage. And the fascination has continued. Starting with the wall to wall TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, we are now accustomed to trial by press and TV coverage.
These are the verdicts that surprised, perhaps outraged, just about everyone.
10. Colin Stagg: Murder of Rachel Nickell
On a warm day in July 1992, Rachel Nickell took her three year old son and their dog for a walk on Wimbledon Common. There, in broad daylight and in front of her son, she was brutally knifed to death and sexually assaulted. National tabloids are thick on the ground in England and angry headlines and pictures of the pretty young mother were splashed across every front page. The police were under great pressure to get a result. An unemployed local man named Colin Stagg was arrested. As part of the investigation, the police had launched what was dubbed “operation honeytrap”, in which an undercover female police officer pretended a romantic interest in Stagg in the hopes of getting him to confess. She failed. Angered by the undercover operation, the judge threw the case out of court. A guilty man had walked free, the headlines screamed, and the press hounded Stagg mercilessly. If the acquittal was shocking, then what happened next was astounding. In 2008, Robert Napper – who was questioned at the time of Nickell’s murder, but was released and went on to assault and murder a woman and her daugher in ’94 – pled guilty to the manslaughter of Nickell. Stagg received over a $1 million in compensation.
9. Lorena Bobbitt: Attack on husband
This story has it all. An abused wife (Lorena), an abusive husband (John Wayne Bobbitt) and an incredible twist. In 1993, Lorena cut off husband John Wayne’s penis. Her story was that he had been abusive, violent and cruel. His story seemed less convincing and she was acquitted by the jury who believed her to have been insane at the time of the attack. The story doesn’t end there. John Wayne had the appendage reattached and went on to a career as an adult entertainment star…
8. Lizzie Borden: Murder of father and stepmother
“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks . . .” So goes the little rhyme. In 1892, Lizzie’s father and stepmother were hacked to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. Lizzie was arrested and tried. Her case was the subject of fierce tabloid speculation. Her guilt was assumed. But there was almost no physical evidence and the defense managed to hide the fact that dear Lizzie had tried to buy poison in the weeks before the murders excluded. Lizzie was acquitted. The case is still debated, with many thinking Lizzie got away with murder. She certainly had nerve, as she continued to live in Fall River after the trial.
7. George Heron: Murder of Nikki Allen
In 1993 Yorkshire, a seven year old English school girl named Nikki Allen was murdered in a frenzied knife attack. The case caused a media frenzy. A neighbor, George Heron, was arrested and held in prison pending trial. In a vicious attack, another inmate slashed Heron’s face so badly that he was permanently deformed. The tabloids proudly announced that Nikki’s mother, Sharon Henderson, had gone to the prison to thank the assailant. The police were under extreme pressure to get a result. Their questioning of Heron was so heavy handed that, at the trial, the judge excluded Heron’s confession. When he was acquitted, angry shouts of “We’ll kill you” rang out from the gallery. Heron was given a new identity and moved away. In February of 2014, another man was arrested and charged with the murder.
6. Amanda Knox: Murder of Meredith Kercher
Famously convicted and charged in the Italian courts for the 2007 murder of her English roommate Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox served four years in an Italian prison before being released on appeal and returning to the U.S. She was then retried (in her absence) and in September of 2013 was once more convicted. American lawyers have been openly critical of the Italian system, stating the original verdict would have been unsound in an American court – focusing as it did on Knox’s private life and character – and that Knox’s retrial flew in the face of the time honored legal precepts. Knox has great popular support in the U.S., but many legal experts believe that fact won’t prevent her eventually being extradited to Italy to serve her sentence. It seems this case is far form over.
5. William Kennedy Smith: Rape
America doesn’t have royalty. But they have, or rather had, the Kennedy’s. William Kennedy Smith is the son of John F. Kennedy’s sister Jean, a golden boy who got a medical degree from Georgetown University. In 1991, he was drinking in a Florida bar with his Uncle Ted (as in Senator) and his cousin Patrick. They met some girls, went back to the Kennedy house and William and a girl went for a walk on the beach. She claimed rape. He denied it. Testimony from three women who had reported sexual assaults by Kennedy Smith in the 1980’s was excluded from the subsequent trial and he was acquitted. Hints of privilege and contacts in high places abounded.
4. Robert Blake: Murder of his wife
Blake was a kind of bad boy movie star. Dark and slightly threatening, he played a crazed murderer in the film In Cold Blood. In May of 2001 his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, was shot in the head as she sat in their car in Studio City, California. The couple had had dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant and Blake had gone back to the Italian restaurant to retrieve a gun. It was later shown that his gun was not connected to the case. But then things got a bit strange. It was claimed that Blake had tried to hire two men to kill Bakley and Blake’s bodyguard was arrested for conspiracy to murder. Many said there was too much smoke for there not to be a fire. But there were no witnesses and there was no forensic evidence and so Blake was acquitted. Afterwards, bankrupt Blake expressed the hope of a return to acting…
3. George Zimmerman: Murder of Trayvon Martin
George Zimmerman’s trial was a wall to wall TV event. In February of 2012 Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year old African American, inside a Florida gated community. He was tried for second degree murder and, claiming self defense, was acquitted. Angry protests against the ‘stand your ground’ legal caveat – which allowed Zimmeman to go free – erupted across the country when Zimmerman was acquitted in July of 2013. Later in 2013, his girlfriend called police, claiming he had pointed a shotgun at her. A self styled artist, Zimmerman has attempted to cash in on his fifteen minutes of infamy by selling his “paintings”.
2. Casey Anthony : Murder of her daughter
Casey was accused of murdering her 2 year old daughter Caylee in July of 2008. The trial was a media circus. Casey’s stories had been inconsistent and her guilt was virtually universally assumed. When she was acquitted, there was an angry outpouring of hatred for the woman most assumed was a murderer. The tabloids continued to skewer her, with claims that she had made millions. One of the jurors at her trial subsequently said that the verdict made her sick to her stomach. Casey has since declared bankruptcy.
1. O.J. Simpson: Murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman
In June of 1994 Nicole Simpson, O.J.’s ex wife, and her “friend” Ronald Goldman were knifed to death. After a farcical slow speed chase down a California freeway, O.J. was arrested and charged. In his nine month trial for the double murders, O.J. employed just about every legal heavy hitter there was, including Robert Kardashian and F. Lee Bailey. Television coverage made the 1995 trial an international event. At the end of the day, in spite of pretty conclusive DNA evidence, he was acquitted, largely – one of the jurors has since said – because the glove that the prosecution claimed had been used by the murderer didn’t fit. Pictures of O.J. trying to pull on the glove and mouthing “It doesn’t fit” went global. He has since been convicted of robbery and is in prison.