For the most part, the criminal justice system does its job the way it’s supposed to. Somebody commits a crime, they are charged, and a jury is selected to hear the defense and prosecution present their evidence as to who should be found guilty and what the proper punishment should be.
There are approximately 100 million court cases started in the United States each year (over half of which are traffic violations), and 99.99% of them go unnoticed by the general public. But every once in a while, a case is thrust into the national spotlight and a large portion of the population becomes very interested in the case’s result. Sometimes, like in the case of Michael Jackson or OJ Simpson, the case becomes famous because the defendant is a beloved celebrity. Other times the defendant is an unknown, but because of the disturbing nature of the crime, the court case will be covered on national news, and suddenly everybody has an opinion as to whether or not the defendant is guilty.
These 15 cases shocked almost everybody who was paying attention because the result was not what we wanted or expected. Whether it’s a wrongful conviction, a rich guy getting away with a crime because he can afford the best defense, or sentences that were far too lenient for the crime committed, these cases all had results that were devastating to those of us that were paying attention.
15 William Kennedy Smith
When you’re born into a family as famous and political as the Kennedys, your life is bound to be more scrutinized than the rest of ours. William Kennedy Smith is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, Senator Bobby Kennedy, and Senator Ted Kennedy.
In March of 1991, Smith was with his uncle, Ted, and a cousin in a bar in Palm Beach, Florida when they brought a couple of girls back with them to a house owned by the family. Smith took a walk down the beach with one of the women, and she later came forward that Smith had raped her. A trial began in which Smith maintained his innocence, proclaiming that their sexual relations were consensual.
Though the court acquitted Smith, the public wasn’t so ready to take him at his word. Three women were ready to testify against Smith with their own stories of sexual assault, but their testimony was excluded from the case. In 2004, Smith was again accused of sexual assault, but the case was dismissed by the courts.
14 R. Kelly
R. Kelly was the king of R&B in the 1990s. His song “I Believe I Can Fly” was an inspirational anthem that took the world by storm and earned the singer three grammy awards. He has sold over 40 million albums, making him one of the top fifty selling artists of all time.
In 2002, the world cringed as it was revealed in a leaked video that R. Kelly had sex with and urinated on an underaged girl. Kelly was arrested by Miami police and charged with possession of inappropriate child videos, maintaining that the man in the video was not him. The trial against him was delayed several times and didn’t officially start until May 2008.
Fourteen charges were officially put against him and it took less than three weeks on trial and a day of deliberation for the jury to find him not guilty on all fourteen counts. Kelly’s legacy had taken a hit, but his music sales barely suffered. R. Kelly has maintained his strong career, but not without some doubts from the public about his secret vice and what he may have gotten away with.
13 Michael Jackson
Although it would be hard to wish that the king of pop be sent to prison, grown men who are suspected of sexually abusing thirteen-year-old boys should always be viewed in the lowest of regards, no matter how good their music is.
Michael Jackson had been known for hosting boys at his Neverland Ranch, but when one finally came forward with allegations that Michael had been taking advantage of him, people faced the uncomfortable reality about one of America’s most beloved pop stars. Jackson had already confessed in an interview to allowing the kids to sleep in his bed with him. He would be charged with seven counts of sexual child abuse and with two counts of administering an intoxicating agent in order to carry out the act.
The trial began in January of 2005 and ended less than six months later after the jury delivered a unanimous 'not guilty' verdict on every single charge. It is said that some 2,200 reporters were outside of the court building each day, making it the most highly covered trial in U.S. history.
12 Robert Durst
It takes one hell of a defense team to convince a jury that their defendant killed his neighbor, cut up his body, and threw the parts into a bay as an act of self-defense. But that’s exactly what the defense team of Robert Durst, the millionaire heir of one of New York’s most powerful real estate families, did when he was charged with the murder of Morris Black near Houston in 2001.
Durst found the best defense team money can buy, and they quickly went to work on his story that in self-defense, Durst had killed someone— and carved up the body to hide it only because of the suspicion it might have caused. Fan’s of HBO’s The Jinx know all too well that this was not the only murder Durst was suspected of committing. In 1982, Durst’s wife went missing and her body was never found. And when that case was brought up again in 2000, Durst’s friend Susan Berman was found shot to death in her home, right before she was supposed to testify about the disappearance. Followers of the initial trial were hoping to see this man finally get convicted, but jurors were convinced by the defense, and Durst was acquitted.
11 Amanda Knox
Whether or not Amanda Knox is guilty is still up in the air. However, her acquittal of the murder of her roommate left many angry and confused, especially Italian citizens who came to view her as a manipulative, pretty American girl with a very dark secret.
Knox had been studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, when her British roommate Meredith Kercher was found stabbed to death inside their villa. Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, instantly became the prime suspects in the case. A messy, convoluted trial began that saw a Knox confession, then a withdrawal of the confession, and several other suspects appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Knox and Sollecito were found guilty, then later acquitted. Knox had to stand trial again in 2013, where her acquittal was overturned. Finally, the Supreme Court of Italy overturned her's and Sollecito's convictions in 2015.
10 Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius had been an inspirational athlete from South Africa who’s legs had been amputated below the knees since he was a baby. Running with carbon-fibre prosthetics, Pistorius started out as a champion of disabled sports events but would eventually compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London as a “non-disabled” athlete.
In 2013, on Valentine’s Day, Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend inside their home. He shot her three times (in the head, arm, and pelvis) and used special bullets designed to cause the most amount of damage. Questionable arguments were brought up, like the sound of a gunshot being "very similar" to the sound of a cricket bat striking a door by a leg-less Pistorius. The woman was in the bathroom and Pistorius’ claim was that he thought she was an intruder hiding from him; so he acted in a panic and in self-defense.
Though he was arrested and charged with her murder, he was ultimately found guilty of culpable homicide. His sentence of five years came off as very light for many, and to top it all off, after just one year in prison, the remainder of his sentence was carried out under house arrest.
9 Lorena Bobbitt
Look, revenge against your sexual abuser is something most of us can root for. But few can sympathize with the manner in which Lorena Bobbitt carried out her sweet revenge. She married her husband, John Bobbitt, in 1989. Five years later, she chopped off his penis with a kitchen knife, took it with her for a ride and threw it out the window of her car.
She claimed that her husband had been raping her throughout their marriage, and enough became enough when she grabbed a kitchen knife and performed the surgery on her husband while he was asleep. Her defense team pleaded insanity, that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to years of sexual abuse. They convinced the jury of her innocence and she was found not guilty, sentenced only to spending 45 days in a psychiatric ward. The couple, unsurprisingly, divorced the next year.
8 Robert Blake
Robert Blake rose to fame as a child actor in the 1940s. His steady Hollywood career peaked in the 1970s with the TV show Baretta, in which Blake played an undercover police detective, and lasted until the late nineties for one of the longest acting careers Hollywood has ever had.
Blake had been out of the limelight for a few years when in 2001, his newly-married second wife Bonnie Lee Bakley was shot to death in her car outside of a restaurant that she and Blake had just dined at. Nearly a year later, Blake was arrested by police after two separate stuntmen came forward and claimed to have been hired by Blake to murder his wife.
The trial began in 2004 as many people watched and grew more and more suspicious of Blake, who had been suspected of also having a history of fraud. In march of 2005, Blake was acquitted, though a jury in a civil suit found him liable for the murder, and was forced to pay $30 Million to Bakley’s children.
7 George Zimmerman
Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law was thrust into the national spotlight after George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old African-American boy walking back from the store to his father’s house.
It was a gated community and Zimmerman was the appointed coordinator of the Neighborhood Watch. After calling the police to report a suspicious-looking Martin— suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie— Zimmerman was urged to stay in his car and let the police handle it; of course, he didn’t listen. Since Zimmerman survived and Martin didn’t, we only get his side of the story. And it goes like this: Martin had tried to fight him and take his gun, so Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot the boy to defend himself.
The “Stand Your Ground” law, which states that every person has a right to defend themselves with lethal force if they must, prevented the police from bringing any charges against Zimmerman. But after widespread outrage over the lack of a charge, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter, though the jury eventually acquitted him of both charges.
6 Steven Avery
Outside of Wisconsin, Steven Avery’s story remained local news— until the release of Netflix’s Making A Murderer, a documentary series, in 2015. Avery was convicted and is still serving out his sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach. His defense failed even though there were multiple arguments to support Avery's innocence. For example, the key to Halbach’s car somehow being found in Avery’s room after repeated searches, the confession out of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey (who was convicted but recently released), and Avery’s lawsuit against Manitowoc County for his first wrongful conviction. That’s right, Avery was in the middle of suing the county because he had just been released from prison after serving 18 years for a rape and attempted murder that he did not commit. Evidence suggests that police knew who the real perpetrator was, but went ahead with convicting Avery anyway. Whether or not Avery murdered Halbach, something many people have a very hard time believing, he was unequivocally innocent in his first conviction, and potentially served time for a second wrongful conviction.
5 Casey Anthony
In the summer of 2008, 22-year-old Casey Anthony was arrested in connection to her missing two-year-old daughter, Caylee. Casey's parents hadn't seen their granddaughter in over a month, and were getting concerned. Casey had provided excuse after excuse as to the whereabouts of her daughter, even making up the identity of a nanny that she claimed had been babysitting Caylee.
The toddler's remains were found in a plastic bag close to the Anthony residence later that year. Casey's highly public trial began in June 2011, and the world watched, hoping to see this woman get justice for killing her own daughter. Casey had proved to be a compulsive liar. Her stories about her whereabouts during the period of Caylee's absence were highly contradictory. Her defense claimed that Casey had been abused as a child, and that Casey's father had helped cover-up Caylee's death after drowning in the family pool. That defense worked, at least to get her off the murder charge, the manslaughter charge, and the child abuse charge. Anthony was convicted of providing false information to law enforcement, and ended up serving three years.
4 Brock Turner
It was only three months ago that Brock Turner’s case was in the national spotlight, and the convicted rapist has already served his sentence. In January of 2015, two Swedish students at the University of Stanford spotted Turner penetrating a seemingly unconscious woman on the ground. The men chased Turner and restrained him until police arrived. Turner was indicted on charges of rape, felony sexual assault, and attempted rape. The convictions carried a potential sentence of up to 14 years, but prosecutors proposed a six-year sentence.
Turner was found guilty, but Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner the notoriously light sentence of six months, of which Turner only served three thanks to 'good behavior'. The judge thought that extended jail time would negatively impact the young man’s life, and because he had proven to be a great swimmer and all-around picture-perfect college student, Turner didn’t deserve a full sentence. Turner’s dad wrote that he didn’t think his son should suffer for getting “20 minutes of action”, proving how far from reality these people were living in. Turner quickly became the poster boy for white, male privilege and showed everyone just how easy you can get off for crimes when you’re white and wealthy.
3 O.J. Simpson
On June 13th, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.'s wife, and Ron Goldman, a restaurant waiter and Nicole's friend, were found brutally stabbed to death outside of Nicole's home. Four days later, after allowing time for O.J. to turn himself in, the famed football star led police on the infamous white Bronco chase. He eventually stopped, turned himself in, and the trial of the century began.
Simpson hired an all-star defense team that included friend and reality-star dad Robert Kardashian, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, and Johnny Cochran, who's statement, "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit", became the defining line of the trial. It referred to the moment the prosecution, consisting of Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, asked Simpson to try on the bloody glove found at the scene. The glove didn't fit Simpson, or so he made it look. Clark and Darden were no match for the heavyweight defense team, who capitalized on the racial overtones of the trial and mistakes made by the police at the scene of the crime to deliver O.J. a "not guilty" verdict.
2 Ethan Couch
In 2013, sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch was driving his father’s pickup truck with seven passengers when he struck a stalled car on the side of the road, killing four people instantly, injuring eleven, and paralyzing one of his own passengers. He was found to have been going 70 miles per hour in a 40 zone, and his blood alcohol level was 0.24%, three times the legal limit for drivers in Texas.
Couch was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Prosecutors were seeking a 20-year sentence for Couch, but Couch’s wealthy parents were able to afford an all-too-competent defense team, which came up with the infamous “affluenza” defense, stating that Couch didn’t understand the consequences of his actions because of the privilege he was born and raised with. It worked, and the judge ordered Couch to rehabilitation and ten years of probation. Outrage immediately followed the announcement of the lenient sentence and stark double standard in the justice system for rich people and poor people.
1 The LAPD
The video depicting the beating of Rodney King, a black man, by several white Los Angeles Police Officers shocked the nation. This was institutional racism and police brutality unveiled in a very public and emotional way.
In 1991, King was speeding on the freeway when officers began pursuing him. After a short chase, King pulled over. Before long, officers had King on the ground, and when he tried to get two officers off his back, the beating began. The officers used their batons to beat the man while he lay defenseless on the ground. He had suffered a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and multiple bruises and lacerations.
Four of the officers at the scene were charged with use of excessive force, but a predominantly white jury (the only 'ethnics' were one Hispanic person and one Asian person) acquitted them. The reaction from the acquittal is what makes this the most devastating courtroom verdict of all time. Riots in LA caused 9,500 arrests and 50 people to lose their lives, plus an estimated one billion dollars in property damage.
Sources: biography.com, bjs.gov, bbc.com
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