A Brief History
On February 13, 1633, Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome to stand trial before the Catholic Inquisition for heresy. The main point of the Church was that Galileo espoused the Copernican theory of Heliocentrism, that is, the Sun is the center of the solar system and the Earth orbits the Sun. According to the Church, such an idea was “foolish and absurd… formally heretical.” Forced to recant, Galileo was spared, but lived the remainder of his life under house arrest. Several times throughout History a trial has been described as “The Trial of the Century” or other such superlative indicating that a particular trial was of extraordinary importance or interest. Today we list 10 of those momentous court cases. (Note: There is no significance to the order listed. We apologize for the American-centric nature of the list, but that is our background. A separate list would be needed just for Supreme Court cases, so we limited our input to just a couple high profile ones, no disrespect to the other important topics.)
1. Catholic Church v. Galileo, 1633.
The Catholic Church was perhaps the major power in Western Civilization at the time and had been for centuries. The Church sought to limit scientific inquiry into anything seen as undermining Church doctrine. Although it is relatively easy to figure out that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around, the Church stubbornly held on to the myth and misunderstanding that the Earth was the center of the Universe, an idea that supported the belief that Mankind was the primary invention of God. Poland’s Nicholas Copernicus had convincingly described reasons for believing otherwise, work confirmed by Galileo, but stifled by the Inquisition. The Vatican did not admit Galileo was correct and the Church was wrong about persecuting him until 1992! (Honorable mention: Catholic Church v. Joan of Arc, 1431.)
2. Tennessee v. Scopes, 1925.
Substitute high school teacher ran afoul of the Tennessee Butler Act that had made teaching human evolution illegal in any Tennessee public school when he taught a biology class about the Theory of Evolution and discussed eugenics. The sensational trial pitted William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) against Clarence Darrow (defense) and was broadcast nationwide on radio (no television back then). Bryan had 3 times been the Democratic Party nominee for President, and Darrow was a famous ACLU lawyer, having defended Leopold and Loeb in the lurid murder trial of 1924. Scopes was eventually found guilty and fined a token amount, but Darrow had clearly dominated the logical issues in the case. The conviction was later overturned on appeal because of a technicality. Darrow, of Kinsman, Ohio, went on to prominence as the most famous and respected lawyer in the US. The Scopes Trial brought the Theory of Evolution to widespread exposure in the US.
3. California v. OJ Simpson, 1995.
Accused of the gruesome murders of his ex-wife and her friend, OJ Simpson was perhaps the biggest celebrity ever put on trial for murder in the US. One of the all-time greats of college and professional football, Simpson had enjoyed a lucrative and successful career in movies and television and as a commercial spokesman. The live television spectacle of the infamous slow speed chase of Simpson in his white Ford Bronco was seen by millions of Americans and others around the world. The presumption of guilt was high, with overwhelming physical evidence of Simpson’s guilt. The trial was televised and closely watched by a hypnotized nation, especially in light of the aftermath of the racially charged Rodney King LA riots of 1992. The specter of a large Black man brutally killing (savagely cutting the throats) of a pretty blonde White woman and her White Jewish friend enraged much of White America and convinced much of Black America that another Black man was being sacrificed to racial discrimination. The stunning not guilty verdict was derided by many as a phony result in order to preclude more race riots, and a subsequent civil trial found Simpson liable for the murders. Simpson eventually ended up in prison for a robbery/kidnapping incident in Las Vegas.
4. Athens v. Socrates, 399 BC.
According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, but apparently the folks that ran Athens did not think so, because they put him on trial for polluting the minds of Athens’ youth. Socrates was the teacher of Plato and was a famous thinker and philosopher. When his ideas questioned the value of the Athenian democracy those in power decided he had to go. It did not help Socrates that Athens had been defeated militarily by Sparta and Socrates had praised aspects of Spartan life. Socrates was also accused of undermining belief in the approved Gods of the Athens. Of course, his trial was a public spectacle, and also a foregone conclusion that he would be found guilty since he did not recant his ideas. Given the opportunity to choose his own punishment, Socrates chose to be fed for free the rest of his life by the Athens elite! Of course, that choice was not accepted, and Socrates was made to drink poison (Hemlock), lecturing to his students while he died. Socrates had refused his followers urging to flee prior to his trial, not wanting to display fear or disrespect of the law.
5. Bush v. Gore, 2000.
After 8 years as Bill Clinton’s vice-president, Al Gore enjoyed a strong economy and a nation at peace, conditions that seemed to assure his easy election to the Presidency in the 2000 election. The unfortunate choice of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and failure to use the popularity of Bill Clinton to campaign for Gore allowed George W. Bush to finish the 2000 election with a possible Electoral College victory over Gore, despite Gore winning the popular vote. Voting irregularities in the pivotal state of Florida resulted in a disputed result from that state, and a Supreme Court case was forced to mediate the disputed results. In a highly partisan and disputed ruling, the Supreme Court voted in favor of Bush, who with Florida’s 25 Electoral votes got 271 Electoral votes, a mere one vote more than the 270 needed to win the election. If the Supreme Court had voted to allow a recount of the entire state vote, Gore would have won the election and been the 43rd President of the US. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on December 11, 2000 and decided the next day! The rapid decision left Democrats stunned and enraged, but all that is now part of History and will not be changed. (Honorable mention: Some other momentous Supreme Court decisions include Brown v. Board of Education, District of Columbia v. Heller, Miranda v. Arizona, and Tennessee v. Garner.)
6. Roe v. Wade, 1973.
Many hotly disputed Supreme Court cases become less contentious over the years, but not this one! The decision that made abortion legal across the United States is one of the hottest topics in each congressional, senatorial, and presidential election that comes up. Plus, some state elections become platforms for debating one side or the other of the abortion question. Repeated attempts to undermine this decision continue to take place with the passage of state and local laws seeking to make abortion difficult if not impossible to occur, with predictably vociferous opposition. Opponents of this decision seek a Constitutional Amendment to undo the effects of this case. (Honorable mention: Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling making Gay Marriage the law of the US.)
7. Nuremberg Trials, 1945-1949.
After the devastation of World War II, a time for reckoning had come after the Allied victory, with the leaders of Nazi Germany clearly in the sights of international prosecutors. Obviously, the victors decide who is and is not a war criminal, but in these cases the distinction seems pretty obvious based on the depravity of the Germans in instigating the Holocaust and waging aggressive war. Many leaders of the Third Reich escaped trial by committing suicide, including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler, while Martin Borman had to be tried in absentia because the allies could not find him. Important political, military, and industrial figures were tried, a total of 24 defendants. One of those, Robert Ley, killed himself and thus did not receive a verdict, nor did Gustav Krupp, the industrialist, who was paralyzed years prior to the trial and accidentally indicted instead of his own son. Only 3 men were acquitted. Of those convicted, 12 were sentenced to death, although Goring killed himself prior to being hanged. A major Hollywood motion picture, Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), was made of the trials. Other World War II war criminals were tried in other proceedings, but certainly the Nuremberg Trials were the most famous. A result of the trials was that a defense of “only following orders” would no longer be acceptable in international court. In a side note, all 24 defendants were found to have an IQ over 100 (the lowest being 106), and several (8) had IQ’s of 130 or more.
8. Salem Witch Trials, 1692-1693.
These trials are so exceedingly idiotic that ever since a travesty of justice has been called a “witch hunt.” Although collectively known by the name, Salem, the trials occurred in several close by towns, and the Salem of trial fame is not the same as the current Salem, Massachusetts, although that city has appropriated the history of the witch trials for its own! Of those “convicted,” 20 were executed (6 men, 14 women), 19 of those by hanging, the remaining other “witch” executed by pressing to death. Another 5 people died in prison awaiting trial, 2 of which were infants. One convicted witch died in prison, another escaped, 3 that were convicted were pardoned, and 2 that had pled guilty were also pardoned. Many others were indicted but not tried or had fled to avoid prosecution. All this incredible turmoil and human misery was caused by religious extremism resulting in mass hysteria aggravated by the false accusations of a 9 year old and an 11 year old girl! Further accusations are believed to have been levied by people at odds with other people accusing those others of witchcraft as a form of attack or retribution. Although Europe had seen alleged witches burned at the stake, in America witches were usually hanged. These trials remain among the most, if not the most, famous in History.
9. France v. Mata Hari, 1917.
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876 in the Netherlands, this Dutch beauty left a bad marriage to go to Paris and become a Circus rider in 1903, and then an exotic dancer in 1905. She took the alias Mata Hari and claimed to be Javanese and a Hindu. Fantastically popular, she also became the mistress of a millionaire. Her success sparked many imitators in the exotic dancing circuit. Not surprisingly, her success waned as she aged, and by 1915 was done with exotic dancing, but her sexual allure was still strong, and she became a courtesan to the rich and powerful. Able to travel freely due to her Dutch nationality during World War I, she went back and forth between allied and neutral nations, sparking distrust about her intentions. Her latest lover, a Russian pilot named Captain Maslov flying in France was shot down and injured, and Mata was told she would only be allowed to visit him if she spied against the Germans. Mata agreed, and did just that. Hari was first arrested in England in 1916, suspected of spying for Germany, but was released. She was again arrested in France in February of 1917, this time tried as a spy on trumped up charges, convicted, and sentenced to be executed by firing squad. When she was shot, she refused a blindfold and blew a kiss to the firing squad. Her embalmed head was sent to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but disappeared at an unknown time, perhaps as early as 1954. Likewise, the rest of her body is also unaccounted for. She most certainly was a scapegoat tried and shot for political reasons, as France had suffered mutinies in its Army in 1917 and the French people were restless and tired of war. The sealed French records concerning her case were supposed to be released in 2017, but we could not find French records released in 2018. Recently released British records seem to indicate Hari was not guilty. Numerous officers and important people begged for clemency for Mata Hari, but the French government was intent on making a big show of the trial and execution, and did exactly that.
10. California v. LAPD Officers, 1992.
After the high speed chase of convicted felon Rodney King through the streets of LA, 5 LAPD officers were video taped fighting with King in a physical confrontation that resulted in King suffering numerous injuries, including a fractured cheekbone and a broken ankle with multiple bruises and lacerations. (King later alleged in a lawsuit of more numerous injuries.) King, 6 feet 3 inches tall and 250 pounds was only 26 years old at the time of his arrest and had already done time in prison for robbery. Larger and younger than the 4 police officers that tried to arrest the resisting man, believed to be on PCP and or cocaine and alcohol, the officers tried to TASER the suspect twice, with no effect. Since the LAPD had their Mace taken away because of citizen complaints, and they were not allowed to use a choke hold to subdue a suspect, the next step in their use of force procedure was to use their batons (nightsticks), which they did. Every time King went down, the police eased up, and the fight resumed, causing the cops to have to beat the enraged felon into submission. The video of the arrest and beating of King became an international sensation and caused widespread animosity toward police throughout the US. (A portion of the video not shown to the public was King rushing at the police, a factor in the jury’s decision.) When the 4 officers involved in the beating plus their sergeant in charge at the scene were tried for assault, the country watched the proceedings with bated breath. When all 5 officers were found not guilty, African Americans in LA were enraged and began a riot that would end up taking 63 lives (8 killed by police, 2 killed by National Guardsmen), well over 2300 injuries, over 7000 fires and over 3100 buildings damaged or destroyed. Over 12000 arrests were made. Riots lasted 6 days until finally controlled by police, Army, Marines, and National Guard troops. Of the stores looted and/or burned, about 45% were Korean American owned and another 40% were Hispanic American owned. Among the dead were 28 African Americans and only 14 White Americans. Race relations between all races suffered even more than prior to the rioting, and 1992 became the deadliest year in Los Angeles history with over 1000 murders. The 5 LA cops were later tried in Federal court on civil rights violation charges and were convicted in a trial seen by many White Americans as sacrificing those officers for the “good” of the community and race relations. Obviously, this second trial was watched even more closely than the first (state) trial. King continued to live a life of crime and violence, even after being awarded $3.8 million (plus another $1.7 million for legal fees) in his lawsuit. He was arrested several times and even shot, and ended up drowning in his own swimming pool in 2012, with marijuana, cocaine, heroin and PCP in his system. (Note: 23 of the riot related homicides remain unsolved.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Which cases would you add to our list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Healey, Tim. The World’s Greatest Trials. Bounty Books, 1990.
Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002
Stone, IF. The Trial of Socrates. Anchor, 1989.
Taylor Gibbs, Jewelle. Race and Justice: Rodney King and O. J. Simpson in a House Divided. Jossey-Bass, 1996.