Despite 10 foot high shrubbery walls that buffer them and their princely Malibu estates from the rest of the world, celebrities are not immune to the backhanded slap of the law when trouble rolls around. Who can forget, or keep count of for that matter, Lindsay Lohan’s fitful run ins and/or hit and runs? How about Justin Bieber’s drunken CCTV footage when being processed at a police station? And when isn’t Chris Brown sitting before a judge? Those are lightweight celebrity fare in contrast with some of the most shocking and equally tragic celebrity trials to roll through the halls of justice over the years. Here are 5 of the most jaw-dropping celebrity court cases that have ever riveted and stunned the public.
5. Oscar Pistorius – The Blade Runner
The first entry on this list is also the most recent as it continues to play out in a South African court of law. Oscar Pistorius, aka the blade runner, is world renown for his athletic feats of greatness in the sprints in the Paralympics and world athletic competitions.
His life outside of the track was that of a golden boy showered with brand endorsements, fame and money. Yet behind the flashbulb facade of stardom and notoriety, Pistorius hid a troubling preoccupation with guns. Not just your run of the mill handguns for simple protection from burglars, but semi-automatic weapons he’d test out at the firing range or from the front seat of his convertible when speeding down the highway.
His model and TV personality girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp seemed to overlook these startling aspects to Pistorius’ personality. In fact, despite the arsenal of guns Mr. Pistorius kept on hand in case of a home invasion, Steenkamp professed her love for him in a Valentine’s Day letter. Tragically, it would be the last day of her life. The prosecution contends that on the night of February 14, 2014, Steenkamp locked herself in the couple’s bathroom after a loud dispute. Pistorius pursued her with gun in hand and shot 5 times through the bathroom door, riddling her body with bullets and killing “the love of his life.” For his part, Pistorius and his defense contend that they actually thought there was a burglar in the bathroom. When he confronted the burglar through the closed door, he instantly fired five times without hesitation. He assumed his girlfriend was asleep in bed.
If the prosecution fails to prove that Pistorius willfully killed his girlfriend in cold blood, there is enough damning evidence to prove he willfully killed what he assumed was an intruder barricaded behind a closed bathroom door.
4. Natalie Wood
The murder of Natalie Wood is a blood-stained tale tinged with equal parts tragedy and horror. And for all its lead and bit players, it may never be solved or brought to resolution. Wood was probably most famous for her star turn in the film version of West Side Story. Beautiful, charismatic and talented, Natalie Wood had all the makings of a superstar. Yet at the age of 43 she died in what was originally ruled a yachting accident. On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and friend Christopher Walken boarded a yacht off the coast of Catalina Island, California. The next morning, Wood was found drowned. The initial reports and stories from actors Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken say that Wood fell off the yacht and drowned.
However, new DNA evidence, shocking asides from Wood’s sister Lana Wood, and taped testimony from the ship captain Dennis Davern suggest foul play may have ultimately been involved.
Furthermore, Robert Wagner, her husband, waited four hours before contacting the coast guard or police to save Wood after she fell into the water. An even more puzzling wrinkle in the story? Several bruises were found upon Ms. Wood’s body.
And perhaps what may have been most damning are the taped testimonies of the ship captain. The captain suggests the death was related to an argument Wood had with her husband Wagner on board the ship. He says that Wagner became enraged and shoved Wood over the side of the yacht. According to Davern, Wagner told him, “Leave her there. Teach her a lesson.” Christopher Walken who was also aboard the ship when Natalie Wood died has been accused of two varying accounts of extramarital affair. The first account says that Wagner confronted Walken on the yacht, saying “Do you want to f— my wife?!” Another account states that actually it was Natalie Wood who walked in on Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken engaged in a secret love affair.
Whatever the case may be, neither Walken nor Wagner have ever been named suspects. Yet in the court of public opinion, their hands are dirty with some involvement in Natalie Wood’s mysterious undoing. The investigation is still ongoing. The cause of death has been recently changed from “accident” to “undetermined.” The LA County Sheriff’s Department has determined that the bruises found on Wood’s body were inconsistent with that of an “accidental drowning.” For his part, Wagner has refused an interview by detectives in the reopened case. And while no suspects have been named, new life has been breathed into the investigation.
3. Robert Blake
Robert Blake has notched an acting career that spanned over 60 years on celluloid before the Hollywood film cameras. He’s most famous for his Emmy winning role in the 70’s cop series Baretta. But it is his life after film that has sullied his Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame. Blake’s wife of several years Bonnie Lee Bakely was murdered on May 4, 2001. She was brutally shot to death in what could appeared to be an execution style murder. Who would want to murder the aspiring model turned celebrity wife? According to both Blake and a long list of past flames, Bakely was a con-artist who bilked rich and powerful men of their money in order to get ahead in the entertainment business. Even so, her murder did not befit the crime.
Robert Blake was ultimately accused of hiring two gunmen to kill his wife. During the 2005 criminal trial, several witnesses, including Bakely’s daughter and a Hollywood stuntman, testified that they either overheard Blake talk about killing his wife or were directly asked to kill his wife. Yet Blake’s defense asserted that an unknown assailant killed Bakely, not Blake. And on March 15, 2005 after 36 hours of deliberation, a jury found Robert Blake not guilty in the murder of his wife.
However the tables were turned in a wrongful death suitfiled by the family of Bakely against Blake. A civil court ordered Blake to pay Bakely’s children $30 million in damages. Blake subsequently filed bankruptcy two months after the wrongful death verdict. His legal team pushed for a retrial but the motion was rejected by a judge. Since that time Blake has been paying towards the multimillion dollar verdict awarded to the family and appearing on numerous chat shows professing his innocence.
2. Phil Spector
Before his name became synonymous with one of the ghastliest celebrity murders on file, Phil Spector was credited as being a music industry pioneer. Having created the wall of sound, a technique for music engineering and producing that would later influence legions of musicians to follow, Spector rattled off hits for a who’s who of music stars. And yet for all his musical genius and prowess in the studio, it was his life outside of the flashing lights that ultimately became the one salient credit to his name. On February 3, 2003 actress Lana Clarkson was found shot to death in Spector’s Alhambra, California home. Police described the actress being slumped in a chair with several shattered teeth strewn about the floor and a gunshot through the mouth.
What was clear in the initial investigation was this: the gun was certainly Spector’s and undoubtedly placed in Clarkson’s mouth. Had she been executed or was it a bizarre sexual game turned deadly? According to Spector, Clarkson had “kissed the gun” and it accidentally fired. According to one of his drivers, Spector had said “I think I killed someone.” And he was seen exiting the back of his home with a gun in hand. Spector was set free on bail for $1 million. And the trial was a media circus which saw Spector run through 3 different defense attorneys using everything in their arsenal from asserting that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease to it being a mere accident. The first trial was declared a mistrial due to a hung jury. However the second trial foundSpector guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced him to 19 years to life in prison. His legal defense team’s petition to appeal the case was ultimately rejected.
In a bizarre turn of six degrees of separation, Al Pacino portrayed Spector in a 2013 HBO film dramatizing the murder of Lana Clarkson and the murder trial that later ensued. Clarkson for her part actually had a bit part in the Pacino film Scarface. Spector is currently serving out his sentence in prison.
1. OJ Simpson
OJ Simpson once had it all. He was the golden boy of sports and screen, having racked up records on the gridiron and a number of successful endorsement deals to last a lifetime. Yet his life ultimately spiralled out of control in what would later be detailed in court as a history of spousal abuse and drug abuse. The murder of his ex-wife and her friend would be deemed the trial of the century. And with every shocking detail that was dredged up to the surface, it certainly seemed to be just that.
On June 13, 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found murdered outside her Los Angeles home. The crime scene was a horrific display of cold-hearted murder and brutal violence. Four days later on June 17, 1994 OJ Simpson got into a white Ford Bronco, pointed a gun to his head, while his friend Al Cowlings drove with a police chase on their heels. Simpson was expected to turn himself in to police of his own volition, despite the fact that as a suspect in a double murder he was facing no bail and possibly the death penalty. The car chase was filmed live on multiple news stations around the world and riveted the public from beginning to end.
The trial that followed was even more explosive than the police chase that brought the murder into the international spotlight. Tales of extramarital affairs, drug use, abuse, and possible mafia involvement all swirled around the case. But even more so than that, while the case itself painted OJ Simpson as the clear and only suspect in the case, it ultimately became a disturbing discussion about race in America. The defense team was a who’s who of celebrity attorneys that had represented the likes of Michael Jackson and Jack Nicholson. Defense Attorney Johnnie Cochran had famously slam dunked the case when he had Simpson try on a pair of gloves used in the murders of the two victims. When Simpson’s hands were too large to fit the gloves, Cochran asserted infamously, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
As much as the majority of the public believed that Simpson was guilty of the crimes, the prosecution was struggling to compete in a courtroom led by famed defense attorneys Cochran, Robert Shapiro and Robert Kardashian (father of Kim Kardashian). At times the judge even seemed star struck. When a jury returned with a not guilty verdict, there was both jubilation and dismay in the streets split evenly down racial lines. The LAPD feared that race riots would erupt in Los Angeles if Simpson had been convicted. A few jurors said in post trial interviews that they believed that Simpson probably did commit the murders but that the prosecution failed to present their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman brought a civil trial wrongful death suit against Simpson. The families were victorious and OJ and Nicole’s children were awarded $12.6 million while Goldman’s family was awarded $33.5 million. In an unrelated turn of events Simpson was later sentenced on October 3, 2008 to 9 to up to 33 years in prison for armed robbery. He and several accomplices forcefully entered a hotel room, stole several items of sports memorabilia and held Bruce Fromong at gunpoint. Simpson is currently serving out his sentence.