11 Trials That Caused a Media Frenzy

The jury for Lizzie Borden's trial in 1893. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

There have been countless criminal cases that have captured our attention, some for the fame of the accuser or the accused, some for the nature of the crime itself.

Our fascination with justice goes way back. Historians are still puzzling over the details of Socrates' trial and his subsequent execution in 399 B.C.; in more modern times, a search on Amazon.com returns more than 1,200 book results for the Salem Witchcraft Trials. But it’s the criminal cases in the last century that seem to have taken on a life of their own, mostly due to the inordinate amount of coverage by the media, which feeds the public a diet rich in gory details and makes us ravenous for more.

The following trials stand out not only for sheer volume of media coverage, but for the notoriety of the crime and/or their surprising verdicts.

1. Lizzie Borden: 1893

On an August morning in 1892, the badly hacked body of Andrew Borden, an extremely prosperous businessman, was found in the parlor of his Fall River, Mass., home. The body of Abby Borden, his second wife, was discovered upstairs shortly thereafter.

After a week-long investigation, Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie, was arrested for the double murder. The gruesomeness of the crimes, combined with the wealth of the Borden family and the singularity of the suspect – a young, Sunday school-attending woman – was irresistible to the media. Newspapers around the world published hundreds of stories about the case complete with explicit details, musing on possible motives and even alternative perpetrators.

After deliberating for a mere 90 minutes, the jury found Lizzie not guilty. To this day, speculation persists about whether or not Ms. Borden got away with murder.

2. Oscar Wilde: 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde was heaven-sent for newspapers, what with its celebrity, sex, witty repartee, intriguing twists, and how it addressed moral issues. The Irish writer, who penned "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," was charged with “gross indecency.” In other words, for being homosexual. Although Wilde's homosexuality was known by many – an open secret of sorts – the Marquis of Queensberry held a grudge and brought evidence of his "crime" to the attention of the court. Homoerotic passages from Wilde's literary works, as well as his love letters to Alfred Douglas (son of the Marquis) were used against him at trial. Wilde was convicted in 1895 and sentenced to two years in prison. Upon his release, he was physically depleted, emotionally spent and broke; he died from meningitis in 1900.

3. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: 1911

On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly teenaged Jewish and Italian immigrant girls. The high death toll was blamed on locked doors, said to be secured to discourage theft and unauthorized breaks. Outrage ensued, and two weeks after the fire, a grand jury indicted Triangle Shirtwaist owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck on charges of manslaughter. During the trial 155 witnesses were presented, but the owners were ultimately acquitted. Three years later, 23 individual civil suits were pursued. The plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The public outrage and the unthinkable loss of life at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory led to the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission and heralded a new age of workers’ safety.

4. Lindbergh Kidnapping: 1935

On March 1, 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the 20-month-old son of world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped from the nursery of the Lindbergh’s home near Hopewell, N.J. After the 12th ransom note, a sum of $50,000 was delivered to a stranger who revealed the supposed whereabouts of the toddler. The child was not there, and it wasn’t until May 12 of the same year that the body of the baby was found, partly buried, and badly decomposed, about four and a half miles southeast of the family home. An investigation was started, resulting in the apprehension on Sept. 19, 1934, of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Hauptmann was indicted in the Supreme Court of Bronx County, New York, on charges of extortion later that month and on Oct. 8, 1934, in Hunterdon County, N.J., he was indicted for murder. After a sensational five-week trial, the jury returned a verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree, with a sentence of death. Hauptmann was electrocuted on April 3, 1936.

5. Patty Hearst: 1979

On Feb. 4, 1974, three armed members of a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped Patty Hearst, the daughter of media honcho Randolph Hearst and the granddaughter of legendary William Randolph Hearst. Nearly two months after Patty's kidnapping, the SLA delivered a tape in which Hearst says: "I have been given the choice of being released ... or joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight." It would seem that at that point she joined the SLA in a number of crimes. After a dramatic takedown of the group, Hearst was captured and charged with armed robbery of the Hibernia Bank. In the days following her arrest, she maintained her allegiance to the SLA, but changed her story by the time of the trial. The defense of Hearst was headed by F. Lee Bailey who tried to prove that Hearst had been brainwashed and suffered from "Stockholm Syndrome" — a phenomenon in which victims of trauma or kidnapping sympathize with their captors. The jury found Hearst guilty of armed robbery and use of a firearm to commit a felony. She was sentenced to seven years in prison, but President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence to time served and she was freed after serving 22 months. On Jan. 20, 2001, on the last day of his presidency, Bill Clinton granted Hearst a full pardon.

6. Bernhard Goetz: 1987

Known as the "Subway Vigilante,” Goetz began carrying a gun for protection after he was mugged in New York City and the criminals escaped prosecution. Then in 1984, four teenagers approached Goetz on the subway and he shot them. None of them died, but one was paralyzed. Goetz became a folk hero.

He was tried in 1987 for attempted murder, but was found guilty only of illegal firearms possession; he served less than a year. In 1996, a civil case was filed against Goetz by the boy who was paralyzed, and the jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him $43 million in damages. Goetz immediately declared bankruptcy. Following the conclusion of his first trial, he became cocky and began pushing for civilians to arm themselves; he went so far as to tell one reporter that the surviving boy’s mother would have been better off if she'd had an abortion. He still lives in NYC, and after failing at a number of attempts at becoming a celebrity, he opened a store called “Vigilante Electronics.”

7. Jeffrey Dahmer: 1992

We all know the story of one of the creepiest men ever: serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, and the later murders included necrophilia and cannibalism. When it came time to be tried for the murder of 15 of the victims, Court TV was there to broadcast ... but on a 10-second delay so that the more lurid details could be edited out. When it came time for the verdict on Feb. 17, 1992, more than 60 international news organizations were on hand to record Dahmer's fate. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences. On Nov. 28, 1994, he was beaten to death by a fellow prisoner.

8. Lorena Bobbitt: 1993

Domestic abuse victims found a new role model when Lorena Bobbitt chopped off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, in 1993 – before tossing it from her car window on a Virginia highway. The defense argued at her trial that John Wayne had been emotionally, physically and sexually abusive to Lorena during their marriage, including raping her on the night of the dismembering. Lorena was found not guilty based on expert testimony stating that her husband's abuse had caused her to suffer from temporary insanity at the time of the crime. She was ordered to spend 45 days in a psychiatric hospital. As for the penis, it was later found and reattached, paving the way for his role as an actor in adult films.

9. O.J. Simpson: 1995

The granddaddy of celebrity trials, ex-NFL star O.J. Simpson was accused and tried for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in 1995. The seemingly made-for-television trial made a household name of Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s animated defense attorney who spat out catchy lines such as “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” in reference to a pair of gloves that didn’t fit Simpson. Amidst seriously compelling evidence that Simpson was guilty, the jury declared him not so, in front of more than 100 million viewers watching from home.

10. Scott Peterson: 2005

Although the first decade of the millennium saw a number of television-worthy trials that the media gobbled up like candy ­– Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Casey Anthony, to name a few – there was something especially compelling about the case of Scott Peterson, the all-American hubby accused of killing his pretty and pregnant wife, Laci, over money and his alleged desire for independence. There was his insistence of innocence and the support of Laci’s family, even in the face of mounting evidence against him. Then there were all of his strange moves and finally, the trial; which was tailor-made for the TV courtroom drama crowd. Peterson was eventually found guilty of killing his wife and unborn child. He remains on death row at San Quentin prison.

11. George Zimmerman: 2013

Ever since neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed Black teen, Trayvon Martin, in a Florida gated community on February 2012, the case has gripped the nation. Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows someone to do whatever they want to protect themselves if they think they are in imminent danger. But after much protest and charges of mishandling, State Attorney Angela Corey charged Zimmerman with murder on April 11, 2012. The five-week trial brought the details of the case to a nationally televised audience. More than 50 witnesses testified, and after 12 hours of deliberation, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. But the story isn’t over for Zimmerman. “There is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon,” Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told CNN. “We know there will be a state phase, there will be a civil phase almost assuredly, and then there will be a civil rights phase.”