A court room isn’t quite a theatre, but there’s something inherently dramatic about it all the same, and there always has been. Ever since the dark old ages of the Salem Witch Trials, court proceedings have been public affairs. The premise is the very worthy one of transparency. It makes sense that a crime against society should be tried and convicted before the eyes of that same society. But somewhere along the line, that public interest became public entertainment. Trials began to be televised, in a slightly edited fashion. Commentary on trials came to resemble the commentary on a major sporting event. For high profile cases, crowds gather outside courtrooms in a frenzy barely distinguishable from a rush for One Direction concert tickets. And last year, the floodgates opened completely and the line between reality TV and criminal trial became blurred in an unprecedented manner. The trial of Jodi Arias, then accused of the murder of her ex boyfriend Travis Alexander, was streamed in its entirety on Youtube. The only censored information was the sidebars. Prosecutor Juan Martinez actually signed autographs outside the courthouse, and posed for pictures with ‘fans’ who travelled from across the globe to attend the lengthy trial. Courthouse seats went on sale to the highest bidder. 'Lifetime' made a biopic of Arias and Alexander's relationship during the trial itself. It was, in short, a circus.
But this really isn’t one we can blame on the media. The entire Western World was desperate for information, making this a genuine case of supply meets demand. This might be one of the higher profile murky murder cases to hit our screens of late, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Indulging one's morbid fascination has become a thoroughly legitimate pursuit. Maybe it’s unhealthy to care so much about social ills; maybe it’s unhealthy to follow crime like an episode of American Idol. Either way, prosecutors like Martinez are fast becoming the Elvis Presleys of our era, and he isn’t leaving the building anytime soon. So, in honour of the 'reality TV' cult of true crime, here are ten of the most shocking, bizarre and frankly unsettling murder trials in recent history.
10 Anders Behring Breivik
The murder trial of Anders Behring Breivik is officially over. In August 2012, this mass murderer was sentenced to an indefinite incarceration by the Norwegian authorities. We're all horrifyingly familiar with the details of Breivik’s crime; his 2011 unprovoked attack of young children attending a Norwegian Youth Labour Party Summer Camp and killing 69 people, some as young as 14. We’ve heard about his earlier bombing of government buildings in Oslo. We’ve heard about his bizarre defence in which he outlined his Extreme Right manifesto opposing Islam, Feminism and Zionism. And we've heard how he was declared sane, and given a strange sentence of at least ten years, and up to 21 years, in a facility that might, sort of - maybe? - keep him longer (insert raised eyebrow here).
But what we haven’t heard so much about is the latest phase in Breivik’s waltz with Lady Law. Just this month Breivik issued a communication to the Associated Press stating that his present prison conditions amount to torture and that, unless the authorities are willing to give in to a precise list of demands, he will go on hunger strike. To the death. Among the conditions he calls ‘torture’ is his access to an out of date Playstation 2. Playstation 3, he writes, will give him a better selection of games. They left this sort of gruesome thing out of Deer Hunter didn’t they?
9 Katie Nichols
This one could be the next big thing, if it doesn’t turn out to be a monumental hoax in very poor taste. It isn’t quite a murder trial, thankfully, but the Attempted First Degree Murder and Kidnapping charge is already making waves across the web. Katie Nichols is a troubled young woman who recently made her debut TV appearance on WLVT, a Tennessee USA news channel. She appeared on screen, uninvited, while reporters were covering the stabbing of her 61 year old mother. She did it, she told reporters, because her mother was the leader of a Satanic Cult, out to kill her. But, she went on, the problem is her mother is just too powerful a summoner of the devil and refused to die, despite the ‘exhausting’ stabbing efforts of Nichols. Nichols was arrested on camera, and her mother remains in intensive care. Stay tuned.
8 Siert Bruins
Siert Bruins is a 92 year old Dutch man. He has made a living for himself building garden fences. He is a little stooped, and walks with the aid of Zimmer frame. He’s also a Nazi. This Dutchman was known, in his heyday, as the Beast of Appingedam. Bruins slipped under the radar after the fall of Germany to the Allied forces in the aftermath of WW2, and was sentenced (in absentia) to death.
He has only recently been located, and has been controversially put on re-trial in Germany for those same crimes for which he was tried in 1949. There is something terribly unsettling about watching Bruins be helped into the dock to give testimony. The vulnerability of old age is hard to reconcile with the horror of SS genocide. Questions have already been asked as to whether it is humane to put the elderly man through a trial like this. It seems certain the debate will rage on, perhaps longer than Bruins himself.
7 De’Marquise Elkins & Dominique Lang
From elderly convicts, we pan the camera to infant victims with the profoundly upsetting case of Anthony Santiago’s murder. Thirteen month old Santiago was being taken out for a walk in his stroller in Georgia, USA last year, when his mother was confronted by Elkins and Lang. The duo demanded money, which Anthony’s mother didn’t have. Enraged, Elkins shot the baby between the eyes, before firing another shot into his mother’s leg. The trial for what has become known as the Stroller Murder commenced in August last year when the announcement was made that neither culprit would face the death penalty since, at the time of the shooting, Elkins was only 17, and Lang just 15 years old. The chain of blame in a case like this can’t go back far enough.
6 James Eagan Holmes
This case is just horribly unsettling on a whole lot of levels. First, there’s the obvious horror of murder - mass murder no less. Second, the slasher-flick scenario of a crazed killer in the movie theatre sends a few shivers down the spine. But perhaps most worrying of all is the publicity of this crime. Not that every other crime on this list hasn’t also made headlines, but this particular shooting of 82 people, 12 of whom died, coincided with the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. And the killer - well, he was dressed as the Joker.
If it wasn’t so senselessly tragic, this might seem like a well timed publicity stunt. Indeed, some of the audience were slow to react because they believed the attack to be just that. And although, of course, the association with the film is simply a horrible coincidence, some small part of us all must squirm uneasily when we consider the number of mentions the film received during coverage of the crime. Not to mention Obama’s response to the tragedy which just seemed a little too close to cynical for comfort, in light of the then impending elections. It’s hard to know where entertainment ended and news began with this one. The court seems equally undecided, as Holmes undergoes yet another sanity evaluation. Court room sequel on the way.
5 Andrei Lugovoy
On 1 November, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was admitted to hospital in London, England with what seemed to be an inexplicable illness. Later investigations confirmed poisoning by radionuclide-polonium-210. He died on 23 November. Litvinenko was a former member of the Russian Secret Service, who (in 1998) publicly accused the Russian Prime Minister, and other government officials, of murder. In November 2006, Litvinenko met with members of the KGB, in London. They had tea together. And later that day, Litvinenko was on death’s door...
Authorities later recovered a teapot from the hotel where the meeting took place, and confirmed it showed traces of the rare and lethal poison used to kill Litvinenko. The James Bond style murder has proven shocking enough in itself, but it was given an edgier media status because of the lengthy battle the victim fought with death. In the lead up to his death, Litvinenko made a number of TV appearances, from his hospital bed, and implicated the Russian government in the attack on his life. As if this wasn’t enough, the dramatic cover up which followed turned the whole affair into something Sean Connery should have starred in. The Russian government offered protection to the main suspect, Andrei Lugovoy after the bizarre decision of the British government to hand him over to his Russian leaders. So perhaps that would have been the end of it, except in this case TV was a force for good and from public incredulity was born an inquest. Not quite a trial. Probably no conviction to be had. But at the very least a record of the crime and some closure for a man who took on the KGB, single handed.
4 Luka Rocco Magnotta
Canada’s very own Hannibal Lector, this porn star, plastic surgery-enhanced, kitten-torturing killer staged a crime that he had every intention of turning into media fodder. Magnotta was a reality TV wannabe, and in the face of failure as a Hollywood celebrity, he developed an alarmingly prolific internet presence. Magnotta anonymously posted an array of disturbing videos to Youtube and other sites, showing the torture and killing of helpless animals. Many believed the videos to be fakes and so Magnotta flew under the radar for some time.
Perhaps he was testing this incredible ability of ours to see horror and not believe our eyes, because when he lured Chinese International student Lin Jun to his apartment, stabbed him to death, dismembered his body, and engaged in acts of necrophilia and cannibalism before posting a video of the entire proceedings to bestgore.com, he was behaving like a man who thought he was infallible. And, in fact, it took a terrifying while before anyone batted an eyelid. Indeed, it was only upon the mailing of Lin Jun’s body parts to various government buildings that the authorities took notice. Until that point, the 11 minute long video of Jun’s gruesome last moments stayed on the webpage for a number of days, despite one lone police report (ignored) 24 hours after it was posted. This murder case doesn’t belong on the list just because of how shocking it is. It belongs here because of how un-shocked we all were by the actual, honest-to-goodness evidence of the crime. In this case, the apathetic, desensitised viewers are the shocking ones. But it’s still Magnotta who goes on trial this Autumn. Believe it or not.
3 Amanda Knox
We all know Foxy Knoxy, and her boyfriend Harry Potter. The genuinely appalling slaughter of British student Meredith Kercher happened in idyllic Perugia, Italy in 2007. The blame fell, almost immediately, on Kercher’s room mate, American student Amanda Knox. The trial that followed the rape and murder of Kercher was international news for a very long time, and ultimately Knox was found guilty. But doubt was cast on the legitimacy of the trial, which seemed to play out like a bad soap opera, and the evidence used to convict Knox and her boyfriend was finally considered flawed.
The trial was thrown out and, after four years in an Italian jail, Knox was able to go back home to Washington, USA. But the story didn't end there. The Italian authorities don't take no for an answer it seems, and the trial was reopened, in Knox’s absence. In January this year Knox was, once more, found guilty, and sentenced to 28 years in jail. The trouble for the Italian court is, Knox is still in America and not looking likely to visit Perugia any time soon. Public opinion is split but Knox has sufficient support to make an extradition seem unlikely. So while this case is closed, with the Italian court it seems ‘closed’ is a little lost in translation. We haven’t heard the last of this one.
2 Oscar Pistorius
Nobody wanted to believe it. Oscar Pistorius was the South African golden boy - the first double amputee to compete in the Paralympic Games and an all round hero of the against-all-odds variety. Handsome, successful, and courageous, he and his supermodel girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp seemed every inch the darlings of the moment. But when, in February last year, Steenkamp was shot dead in their shared home, things went sour for Pistorius and his dazzling career. The details of the case have been gratuitously pored over since the second the news broke, and the case has already raised a few eyebrows with defence lawyers claiming a 'trial by media' despite the lack of a jury in this case, not to mention the embarrassing revelation that the Chief Investigating Officer in the case was facing his own murder rap. Pistorius’ claims regarding a suspected burglary have failed to tally with the locked bathroom door behind which Reeva was hidden, and public opinion continues to vacillate. But, taking their cue from the good old US of A, South African TV Channel DStv announced last month that they will be providing 24 hour coverage of the trial this year. Soda with that popcorn?
1 Jodi Arias
Murder Most Foul is always shocking. But when it comes at the hands of a buxom blonde and involves sex, lies and Mormons, it’s bound to be even more gasp-inducing. Jodi Arias was found guilty, this year, of the murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander, in 2008. Arias’ case has been one of the most infamous trials of the decade, with the proceedings becoming America’s favourite daytime drama. Arias and Alexander enjoyed an illicit affair, all the more illicit since their shared Mormon faith - to which Arias converted for her boyfriend - takes a fairly dim view of lustful misbehaving.
When the relationship came to an official end, Arias was a little piqued by Alexander’s seeming willingness to continue making hay, while dating other women. Most women might cry over a cocktail. Maybe sob down a phone during an ill advised post-breakup phonecall after said cocktail. But Arias…well she went a bit further. She killed Travis. Three times. The three potentially fatal wounds Alexander suffered have been examined and re-examined, but no expert has yet been able to say which one was the finally fatal blow. It could have been the gunshot to the head, it may have been the near decapitating slit throat, or it might have been the the stab wound to the heart (one of 29 to his body in total). This is all shocking enough, but Arias’ bizarre conduct just amped up the shock factor. She asked for makeup upon being arrested, posed for her mugshot like she was on a modelling shoot, and changed her story a total of three times. One of her stories involved two intruders, a story which spiralled into media reports of Mormon blood atonement.
In the end of course, she pled guilty to the murder, but not before attempting to justify it by accusing Alexander of abuse and paedophilia. Despite her efforts to claim self-defence, Arias was found guilty of First Degree Murder in May last year. But wait, the Shock Factor series isn’t over yet. Arias awaits the penalty phase of her trial, when she faces rock and hard place possibilities of death or life without parole. What makes this so riveting is that Jodi gave two interviews during which she asked for the death penalty. She later retracted the statement but prosecutor Martinez made sure to remind the jury. And so we await the much postponed penalty phase. Arias’ Twitter feed should keep you in the loop between now and then.