Welcome to Famous Trials, the Web’s largest and most visited collection of original essays, trial transcripts and exhibits, maps, images, and other materials relating to the greatest trials in world history.
“Famous Trials” first appeared on the Web in 1995, making this site older than about 99.96% of all websites. In 2016, the site seemed to be showing its age. So Famous Trials 2.0 (thanks to my great support team) debuts in 2017 with a cleaner look, additional video and audio clips, and new features that should improve navigation around the site.
You will not find every trial deserving of being called “famous” on this site. If the famous trial you were hoping to find is not included, click on the “Other Famous Trials” link for information about additional famous trials. Decisions as to which trials to include on Famous Trials were entirely mine and inevitably reflect my interests and biases.
What criteria guided my choices? Many trials might be called famous. Each century, at least several dozen trials are heralded by someone as “the trial of the century.” Quite a few trials create a huge buzz in the months following verdict, but then slip quickly—and, in many cases, justifiably—from the public’s mind.
I’d point to two benchmarks that most guided my decision to include a particular trial. First, the trial must have grabbed the public’s attention. In other words, every one of the trials I’ve chosen was famous in its own time and place. But being a famous trial is not enough. To land a spot on Famous Trials, the trial must also have shaped history in some significant way or, alternatively, be an especially good window for observing and understanding a particular time.
And trials can provide a wonderful way to study history. Trial transcripts are rich source material, full of vivid detail that comes from a variety of perspectives. The words in a transcript of a great trial sometimes seem to leap at you off their pages—and these are words not filtered through the biases of any reporter or historian.
Visitors to Famous Trials will note that the vast majority of trials on the site are criminal trials. A few, technically, are not criminal trials but are part of the criminal process (e.g., the sentencing hearing in the Leopold and Loeb case or the coroner’s inquest in the Wyatt Earp case). Not all of the trials took place in civilian courts. The site includes trials by an international tribunal (Nuremberg), a military court-martial (Calley), and two sets of trials by military commissions (Lincoln conspirators, Dakota trials).
There are a few civil trials on the cite including the Falwell v Flynt tort trial and the civil rights trial of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. The two impeachment trials (Andrew Johnson, William Clinton) are also civil in nature. Visitors who come to the site looking for famous Supreme Court decisions such as Marbury v Madison or Roe v Wade will be disappointed. This is a famous trials site, not a famous appellate decision site. (Information about many Supreme Court decisions, landmarks or otherwise, can however be found on my companion website, “Exploring Constitutional Law.”)
A few critics have suggested that my trial selection ought to be "more focused." One critic noted that my trials ranged from ancient times (Socrates) to very modern times (Simpson), and included trials from both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific and from various types of courts. Other critics have complained that their favorite trial has been inexcusably omitted while some other frivolous and inconsequential trial (say, the Chicago Black Sox trial) has been included. To such critics I can only say, "I'm not getting paid a penny for this--I put up the trials that I, with all of my idiosyncrasies, find interesting or compelling in some way."
Finally, some critics complain about coverage of some trial or another as not being balanced. I'm equally likely to be charged with placing a conservative slant on a trial as a liberal slant. I try to “call 'em as I see 'em,” but to minimize my editorializing. If I think (as I do) the facts compellingly suggest that Julius Rosenberg or Alger Hiss provided information to the Soviets that compromised our national security, I'll say so--knowing that a few true believers will condemn me. And when I think (as I do), the California Parole Board has failed to provide fair process to the convicted female followers of Charles Manson, I'll say that as well--knowing that any showing of sympathy for persons who long ago committed such heinous acts is not going to go without criticism. It's generally good to be balanced, but it's also generally good to speak out against evil and hypocrisy.
History and Goals
For the curious, a few words about the history and goals of this site. My original purpose in creating the Famous Trials site was a modest one. I wanted to post a variety of background materials for students enrolled in my Famous Trials Seminar. There is no single text that works for such a seminar, and requiring my students to purchase, say, fourteen books about fourteen trials seemed out of the question. Soon, however, I discovered through e-mails that there was a wider audience for such materials.
My purpose shifted over time. Now, I see my primary audience as high school, college, and law school instructors and students. Sure, I also hope the site will serve as a useful starting point for the serious scholar working on a major book or paper. But the site does not pretend to be archival in the traditional sense. Most of the trial transcripts for the 75-plus trials on the site run into the thousands of pages. Without grants and without significant university resources, there is simply no way that I can scan such voluminous materials and post them in complete form on the site. In fact, such a massive posting of materials would run counter to my basic goal of providing a clear, concise, and balanced understanding of the trials. Transcripts can be overwhelming. I've tried to present some of the most important and compelling testimony, and leave out materials that are less significant--and often mind-numbingly repetitive. Editing transcripts is time-consuming work--but work that I have found important enough to justify several trips to the National Archives and other archival libraries where such transcripts are found.
My goal is to lay out the materials in an obvious and understandable way, using my trial commentary as the anchor to understanding. To be useful and engaging for sixth-graders as well as graduate students, the materials posted must vary considerably in their structure and sophistication. I fully understand that few twelve-year-olds will get much out of some of the full appellate opinions posted on the site, for example. By the same token, some of the materials on the site (comics, jeopardy games, and various "fun facts") may seem insufficiently serious to some especially serious people.
One of my regrets about the Famous Trials undertaking is that I cannot respond adequately to the individuals who send e-mails. Nearly half of the e-mails I receive contain questions (some include many, many questions) about specific aspects or implications of famous trials. Some of those questions I could answer, but often not without pulling a book of the shelf and spending a number of minutes leafing around until I find the critical passage. For the most part, I don’t do it. There isn’t time; I’m sorry.
There is one type of e-mail that is especially fun to discover in my inbox: e-mails from persons connected in one way or another with the trials covered on the site. I’ve received messages from a man who took Nathan Leopold’s Sociology course at the University of Puerto Rico, and from attorneys who worked on the Chicago 8 trial, the Mississippi Burning trial, and the Simpson trial. I’ve been contacted by the son of heroic Scottsboro judge James Horton, and by from the grandson of the legislator who wrote Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute--and who discovered in his attic a shoebox full of his grandfather’s speeches on the subject. I’ve heard from people who either were defendants in famous trials themselves (Ray Buckey) or were the sons of famous defendants such as Sam Sheppard or Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg. I received an email from an octogenarian who, as an eight-year-old child, attended all but one of the eight court sessions of the Scopes trial. I’ve learned much from these people. Also, as you might expect, I’ve communicated with dozens of people writing books or plays (and even songs) about famous trials, as well as some people with—what shall I say?—very interesting, if highly implausible, theories about some of the trials I cover.
I know you visit this site for many different reasons. I hope that you find the Famous Trials site of value. If the materials on the site stimulate people to think more seriously about both our legal system and the nature of justice, then I can call my work a success.