The criminal justice system is arguably one of man’s most sophisticated and admirable social constructs; yet, it’s also a complex and sometimes bewildering apparatus. There are innumerable criminal cases tried each day – many, unfortunately, involving murder of some kind. However, not all of these cases gain huge media attention. Many go under the radar but some murder cases leak into the public consciousness due to their controversy, their brutality or the charisma of the players involved.
In a criminal trial, a prosecutor holds the responsibility of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a crime and is deserving of punishment. This is the highest standard of proof that must be met in any trial. Furthermore, a defendant has a right to be tried by a jury of their peers (unless otherwise specified) – and all the following controversial cases were trials by jury. All of the members of the jury must listen to the evidence and decide unanimously on a verdict. While this can result in conflict, a jury tempers prosecutorial power and ultimately ensures a fair trial.
Yet, part of what makes tricky cases so contentious is the nature of the justice system itself. Sometimes it seems all too easy for big cases to garner scandal because the general public, understandably, acts on emotion and subjectivity; a jury cannot bow to these influences. Even the most controversial verdicts have the ability to raise important questions about our nation at large. For instance, many of the following cases call into question the roles that race, gender, and celebrity play in court politics and the perception of guilt or innocence. The following five cases are examples of murder trials whose unraveling twists and turns left the public eager for more, and whose verdicts are widely and bitterly disputed across the world, even to this day.
5. Robert Blake
Robert Blake is an American actor most famous for his starring role in the film “In Cold Blood” and the television series “Baretta.” However, in May of 2001, Blake’s acting history in the genre of crime drama took a dark, if ironic, turn. On May 4th, Blake took his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, out to dinner. Shortly thereafter, Bakley was killed by a gunshot to the head while sitting in the car, which was parked around the corner from the restaurant.
Retired stuntman Ronald Hambleton agreed to testify against Blake, stating that Blake had tried to hire him to kill Bakley. Another associate of Hambleton’s soon came forward with a similar story. This being sufficient reason to believe Blake committed the crime, the LAPD arrested Blake in April 2002 and charged him in connection with the murder of his wife. His bodyguard was also arrested for conspiracy. In court Blake pled not guilty to the array of charges set against him, including one count of murder with special circumstances, an offense eligible for the death penalty in California. However, Blake’s defense team convinced the jury that there was not enough forensic evidence implicating Blake and that he could not be tied directly to the murder weapon. In March of 2005 Blake was found not guilty of the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley and was acquitted.
4. Amanda Knox
On November 2nd 2007, American student Amanda Knox reported an apparent burglary in her flat in Perugia, Italy, where she was studying abroad. Her roommate, Meredith Kercher, lay dead in her room, with a knife wound in her neck; there was also evidence of sexual misconduct. Within hours, police concluded that signs of a break-in had been staged, and immediately named Amanda Knox as the prime suspect.
In Italy, Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of the murder. The couple was accused of participating in what prosecutors called a “drug-fueled sex game” along with Perugia native Rudy Guede. It took four years of headlines, another murder trial, and an appeal before Knox walked free in October 2011. (In Italy, a guilty verdict in a serious case such as this one is not regarded as a definitive conviction until the accused has fully exhausted the appeals process.) Guede was convicted in a separate trial and is currently serving his sentence for murder. Amanda’s case drew enormous media attention, especially in Italy and the United Kingdom. A group calling itself “Friends of Amanda” acted as her advocate in the press in the United States and abroad. In 2013 Knox published a memoir about her experience entitled “Waiting to be Heard.”
3. Casey Anthony
On July 15, 2008, Casey Anthony’s mother, Cindy Anthony, called the police to report 2-year-old Caylee Anthony missing. She had not seen her granddaughter for 31 days, and even reported a strange smell coming from Casey Anthony’s car. On December 11, 2008, Caylee’s remains were found with a blanket inside a trash bag in a wooded area near the Anthony home.
Casey Anthony was charged with first-degree murder, to which she plead not guilty. She did not testify. The prosecution argued that evidence such as DNA matches on hair and blood found in Anthony’s car and google searches of ‘chloroform’ and ‘neck breaking’ on a computer accessible to Anthony suggested that Casey Anthony murdered her daughter. Prosecutors portrayed the murder as Anthony’s wish to escape parental responsibilities and enjoy her personal life.
Anthony’s defense argued that the child’s death was an accidental drowning, and that Anthony’s father had attempted to cover up the death. The defense also claimed that Anthony failed to report the incident for 31 days after her daughter’s disappearance because of her sinister relationship with her father, who had allegedly sexually abused her (though there was no evidence of this). Ultimately, the jury ruled that the defendant was not guilty, and Anthony was eventually acquitted and released. When interviewed retrospectively, members of the jury have stated that there was not enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict Anthony. They also found the motive that the state provided to be “weak.” Due to the emotional nature of the case as well as the mysterious nature of the evidence, the verdict caused enormous backlash in the public sphere. TIME magazine called it “the social media trial of the century.”
2. George Zimmerman
The infamous case of the shooting of Trayvon Martin turned from a local killing to a contentious national spectacle. In February of 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old African American student Trayvon Martin in the Twin Lakes community of Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator for the community. (The program was organized through the local police department and not registered with the National Neighborhood Watch Program.) Before the shooting, Zimmerman had called the police to report a “suspicious guy” near the convenience store where Martin had picked up a bag of skittles and an iced tea. Police responded to Zimmerman’s call, but arrived two minutes after the fatal gunshot.
During a brief altercation, Zimmerman shot Martin, who did not possess any weapons. Zimmerman was taken to the police for questioning, but was released on the grounds that there was no evidence to refute his claim of having acted in self-defense; Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute prohibited police from making an arrest. Zimmerman was eventually charged with murder, but a jury acquitted him of charges of second degree murder and manslaughter. The case raised myriad questions about racial prejudice and gun control, questions that are becoming more and more pressing in modern America.
1. OJ Simpson
Orenthal James “OJ” Simpson is generally considered one of the greatest running backs in football’s history. Simpson earned All American honors at the University of Southern California and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 as the nation’s top college football player. However, OJ has probably gained the most publicity from his alleged murder of his second ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Robert Goldman.
On June 13th, 1994, Brown was found dead with multiple stab wounds outside her condo on Bundy Drive. The evidence led police to believe that Simpson was the murderer. The case became a media sensation; the so-called “trial of the century” spanned from opening statements on January 24th to the announcement of a verdict on October 3rd, 1995. Despite significant controversy regarding what had in fact happened, the jury ultimately decided that there was reasonable doubt about the DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime. Simpson was not convicted. Ten years later, he published a book that puts forth hypothetical descriptions of murdering Brown and Goldman. The book is called, somewhat chillingly, “If I Did It.”