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).
9 Katie Nichols
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.
7 De’Marquise Elkins & Dominique Lang
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.
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...
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.
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.
2 Oscar Pistorius
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.
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