If Bill Cosby ever faces his accusers in court, it will most certainly be the biggest trial in years. The public loves a celebrity trial, the more sensational the better.
The media-filtered celebrity image has long been tainted by an unseemly criminal underbelly. Celebrity trials provide a darker look into the real lives and troubles of some of our favourite actors, athletes and the famous-for-being-famous.
These trials tend to bring out hysterical fans and haters, along with shameless paparazzi and the pundits in search of the latest news scoop to fill their 24-hour news telecast. It’s a live circus – but often with a very serious outcome.
As long as there have been celebrities, there have been these show trials. They don’t always make for the best legal cases, but they’re certainly exciting. Here are the sixteen most notorious, iconic celebrity trials throughout history.
16. Fatty Arbuckle
This trial changed Hollywood forever – and not in a good way. It was the most sensational trial in Tinseltown of its time. Silent film star Arbuckle was charged with murdering a woman who had attended a drunken hotel party held by the actor.
The tabloids had a field day speculating on the perverse details of the woman’s death – although none of the salacious rumours turned out to be remotely true. It took 3 trials before Arbuckle was acquitted with an apology from the jury. But it was too late for him to salvage his career, and the trial led to a lot more restrictions on the content of ‘decadent’ Hollywood movies.
15. Phil Spector
The legendary oddball music producer long had a reputation for pulling guns on people. So when a woman, actress Lana Clarkson, ended up shot in his home in 2003, few doubted who the culprit was.
But the trial proved to be anything but clear-cut as the defense claimed Clarkson committed suicide and offered some compelling forensic evidence. And despite Spector’s public histrionics, including wearing his notorious afro wig to court, the trial ended with a hung jury. But a second trial earned him a second degree murder conviction and a sentence of 19 years.
14. O.J. Simpson
It was the TV trial of the 1990s, with a former football great and sometime actor charged with the brutal murder of his wife and a friend. The case seemed like a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but they eventually fell down on forensic mistakes, bad witnesses and general ineptitude.
Still, the case did make celebrities out of players like defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, pool house resident Kato Kaelin and Judge Ito.
A civil trial later found Simpson responsible for the two deaths, and ordered him to pay $33 million in damages. Simpson is currently serving a 33 year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping after he attempted to retrieve some of his sold-off memorabilia.
13. Martha Stewart
It seemed unthinkable that America’s most famous homemaker would end up on trial and in jail. But this did happen, in 2004 when Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction and uttering false statements to federal officials.
The charges all stemmed from Stewart selling off stock based on insider information – a definite no-no. Despite a heated defense, the six week trial ended with her conviction. She eventually spent five months in jail, but her career and company quickly recovered.
12. Robert Blake
The star of Baretta has always had a reputation for a temper and general eccentricity. So when his second wife, renowned con artist Bonnie Lee Bakley, was shot twice while sitting in a car outside a restaurant, many looked to Blake. It didn’t help that Blake’s alibi was that he had returned to the restaurant to fetch a lost gun.
At the trial, evidence included two witnesses who claimed Blake had attempted to hire them to kill his wife.
The counter arguments, however, appealed to the lack of any forensic evidence tying Blake to the murder. His defense – that his wife had many, many enemies she had conned over the years – seemed to work. Blake was found not guilty, though a civil trial later that year did find him libel for Bakley’s death.
11. Robert Downey Jr.
The many trials of Robert Downey Jr. attracted ceaseless media attention. Between 1996 till 2001, Downey spent a lot of time getting arrested on drugs and weapons charges, and standing before a judge. The trials weren’t much of a spectacle as Downey tended to plead guilty. Still, he did achieve lasting legal fame with his statement to one judge that “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”
In all, he spent six months in jail for missing a mandatory drug test. He then spent a year in a treatment facility, only to relapse yet again. It was in 2001 when, facing some real jail time, Downey finally cleaned up his act, seemingly for good. His career has gone from strength to strength since.
10. Oscar Pistorius
The famed South African paralympic runner provided a great story of overcoming adversity, climaxing with his appearance at the 2012 London Olympics. But on Valentine’s Day, 2013, all that good publicity was undone when he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp to death through a bathroom door.
He claimed he thought she was an intruder, but he was still charged with murder. The trial was held up for weeks as the constantly weeping Pistorius’ mental stability came into question. Could he be held responsible for the shooting? The judge ruled yes. Pistorius was found guilty of ‘culpable homicide’ and sentenced to five years in prison.
9. John Landis
It’s not often that a film shoot ends with charges for involuntary manslaughter. But such was the case with the 1982 filming of The Twilight Zone. Actor Vic Morrow and two child extras were killed when an FX explosion caused a helicopter to fall on them.
At trial, the prosecution portrayed director Landis as reckless, ignoring several warnings about the risks of the shoot. While Landis did admit to violating child labours laws, he denied he was anything but professional on set. The nine month trial in 1986-87 acquitted Landis and other crew members, though family members of those killed did reach settlements with the studio.
8. Wesley Snipes
Pay your taxes people! You don’t want to end up like this action star, who spent 3 years in prison for failure to file. Not that Snipes helped himself out. When the 2006 charges were levied – including conspiracy to defraud the IRS – Snipes claimed he was being made an example of because of his celebrity status.
Maybe that was true, but the trial also proved he hadn’t paid taxes from 1999 to 2004, which is hard to explain. Snipes went to prison in 2010, and was released in 2013, just in time for his cameo in Expendables 3.
7. Mike Tyson
Tyson still can’t believe he spent three years in prison following a rape conviction in 1992. He still claims the sex in which he and beauty queen Desiree Washington engaged in his hotel room was consensual.
But at trial, Tyson came off as angry and uncooperative, playing into the hands of the prosecution. Though it was essentially a He-said-She-said case, Tyson received a five year prison sentence. He was released from jail in 1995.
6. Roman Polanski
This is a trial that still awaits Polanski’s return to the United States. In 1977, the director who brought us Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown was charged with six counts of sexual misconduct for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski never denied it.
After he accepted a plea bargain agreement that would have led to probation, there was a public outcry. The judge overseeing the case was even said to be having second thoughts about the plea bargain. Fearing jail time, Polanski fled to France, and the trial never finished. Attempts to extradite Polanski – including a two month incarceration in Switzerland – have failed. The case remains open.
5. Michael Jackson
This 2005 trial was a circus that rivalled the O.J. Simpson trial. Charged with 14 counts including child molestation involving a 13-year-old boy. Jackson pled innocent. He didn’t deny sleeping in the same room with the boy, but claimed he slept on the floor. Though the trial wasn’t televised, E! went as far as to hire actors and recreated the trial’s daily events.
It was bizarre, though not as bizarre as when an ailing Jackson showed up for the trial wearing pajamas and slippers. The case went badly for the prosecution right from the beginning as the credibility (and criminal records) of many of its witnesses came into question. It was all over in five months, with Jackson found not guilty of all charges.
4. Oprah Winfrey
Who would dare sue the much-loved Oprah? Texas cattlemen apparently. They sued the talk show host in 1998 for libel and hurting their business with a 1996 broadcast. On that show, Oprah discussed an outbreak of mad cow disease in England with cattlemen and a vegetarian advocate named Howard Lyman.
The Texas cattlemen claimed Lyman’s comments and Oprah’s assertion she would never eat a burger again damaged the beef industry, leading to a 10 per cent drop in cattle futures and the loss of millions. Oprah moved her show to Amarillo, Texas for the length of the trial, which ended with Oprah being exonerated.
3. R. Kelly
By the time this sex and pornography trial made it to the courts, the story was already six years old. Singer R. Kelly, most famous for the song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, was charged with having sex with an underage girl and filming it. He claimed he wasn’t the guy in the tape, though he never explained why he allegedly possessed photos of the same woman. And, of course, the alleged illegal marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah didn’t help his case.
But after years of legal wrangling and delays, the trial turned out to be less-than-exciting. It lasted 3 weeks. The defense stuck with the That’s-Not-Kelly strategy and a new, That-Woman-Is-Not-Underage approach. It seemed to work. A jury deliberated only one day before finding Kelly innocent.
2. Lindsay Lohan
The best part about this actress’ many, many appearances in court has to be her attitude. The camera always seems to catch her looking annoyed, outraged, or indifferent while her latest lawyer makes a plea deal. Few of Lohan‘s run-ins with the law (DUIs/Theft/Violating Probation) went to an actual trial without a deal being struck.
Unfortunately, Lohan has an inability to live up to her plea deals. She’s spent days in prison for not showing up to mandatory meetings and not completing community service. Lohan is the poster girl for fifth and sixth chances.
1. Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s many female dalliances had turned the public against the once-loved screen icon by the 1940s. So when a pregnant actress named Joan Barry launched a paternity suit against him, everyone piled on. He was subsequently charged with violating Barry’s civil rights after an incident in which she broke into his house with a gun. He was also charged with violating the White Slave Trafficking Act for paying for Barry’s train ticket to come visit him – both quite bizarre charges.
Chaplin eventually faced two trials on the paternity charge. And although three doctors concluded he was not the father, he still had to pay child support. Unsurprisingly, he soon left for Europe where he lived for the rest of his life.