1901 - 2000 What was the trial of the century?

Come on in and give your opinion, humble or otherwise, as to the TRIAL OF THE [echo chamber]CENTURY![/echo chamber]


Leopold and Loeb?

The Nuremburg trials?

I’m torn between Scopes and the Nuremburg trials. I would rate both of those over Fatty Arbuckle, Lindy Baby Killer, L & L, OJ, Mike the Jackson, etc… cases because of how much more they actually impacted people’s lives outside of those directly involved in the trial than those mere rape and murder trials.

OJ’s trial and the other LA area trials of note involving race and the police did impact that city and race relations outside of LA for a little while, but I saw that as reaction and not causing a lasting, widespread change. (imho, ymmv)

Are we restricted to just criminal trials? If not, I’d say that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the frontrunner.

Roe v. Wade

I’ll go with the OJ trial. Not so much for the significance of the case itself, or the issues involved, but for the massive coverage. I don’t know of another trial in my lifetime that generated that level of interest. I was studying for the Bar Exam at the time, and spent many hours watching the trial–yeah, there were huge problems there. A Judge that lost control of his own courtroom, a bungled prosecution, both sides whoring to the cameras. At the same time, the process was so open, analyzed in minute detail, and exposed much of the nation to the basics of criminal procedure.

It also included a textbook example of effective cross examination–Bailey’s destruction of Mark Furman, and a masterful closing argument by both Cochran and Scheck.

Okay to count Supreme Court decisions?

Roe v Wade

I wouldn’t consider that even in the running for “Trial of the Century”. It just wasn’t a very “sexy” case. I would consider it clearly the most significant Supreme Court decision of the century, but appellate decisions and trials are entirely different animals. Lawyers that excel at one don’t necessarily excel at the other. Very different skills involved.

I’ll go with a civil case: Donoghue v Stevenson, given the effect that Lord Atkin’s “neighbour” principle has subsequently had on negligence law.

I don’t have an answer, but I do have some more highly-publicized trials for consideration:

Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

The Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial.

Leo Frank trial.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial.

Charles Manson trial.

Chicago Seven trial.

I mentioned that one already.

I’d go with Nuremburg.

Domestically, I’d pick Roe v Wade.


I’ll guess we should break it down into catagories.

War trials

Criminal trials

Civil trials

Things to consider

Effect of the outcome of the trial on the nation short term (caused riots)
Effect of the outcome of the trial on the nation long term (changed laws)
How ‘sensational’ the trial was (how much coverage it got in the popular media)
M. Knight Shyamalan award for the trial with the best twist. (aquitted?!?! WTF!)

Oh Striped One, what about the distinction between actual trials, and appeals?

Kramer v Kramer?

Appeals of the Century? Hmm, lacks pizazz (is that spelled right?)

Criminal: My first choice would be Scopes, but that’s probably because I’m a godless liberal. I also like the OJ trial for all the reasons **Oakminster ** said. (Slight hijack: I was teaching a college class on newswriting during that trial, and on the day of the verdict, we suspended class to watch the verdict on TV. My students were dumbfounded when OJ was acquitted on all charges. The day started out being one kind of education, ended up being quite another.)

One case, one entry. If a trial has several appeals, they all constitute the entry.

I don’t think Roe v. Wade counts. Looks like it was decided on affidavits and motions, not a trial.

That’s not really what I’m getting at. Some cases are most famous for the final holding on appeal, ie Roe v. Wade, but they don’t really have much in the way of drama at the trial level. Appeals are generally decided on written briefs, with some oral argument on points of law. No live witnesses, no introduction of evidence, no “Perry Mason Moments”…that all happened below. As noted above, Brown vs Board was a huge case…but not so much at the trial level.

As a historian, my tendency would be to vote for “Brown v. Board,” and bugger any considerations of how exciting or sexy it was.

If we’re going to leave out these type of appelate cases, i’d probably plug for the Scopes trial.

By the way, for those interested in this sort of stuff, Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law has put together an excellent Famous Trials website, combining original documents, images, and timelines with judicious interpretation.