The recent trials of the Steubenville, Ohio high school football players as well as the Jordan Johnson trial got a great deal of media attention. Both were rape cases, which are big in the mainstream media right now as our society and culture attempt to define the crime more clearly. The Steubenville football players were found guilty while Johnson was not, both of which were surprising to some people. There have been a number of high profile court cases in recent years and even centuries ago that had what could be deemed “shocking” outcomes.
In 1893, Victorian America was rocked by the most high profile case of the time. It even inspired a rather gruesome little song that people still know today:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Despite the ditty, Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of the murder of her parents, although there was overwhelming evidence that seemed contrary. To this day, the crime is considered to be unsolved. The hatchet murders occurred the year prior in 1892 when Lizzie was thirty-two. The victims were Lizzie’s step-mother, Abby Durfee Gray Borden, and her father, Andrew Jackson Borden. The victims were believed to have been killed as much as ninety minutes apart. The blows were not anywhere near as many as in the rhyme, but were gratuitous no less. Lizzie was the only suspect with the opportunity to commit the murders and there was no forced entry. Lizzie claimed to have been downstairs while her step-mother was murdered upstairs with nineteen blows to the head, but she heard nothing. Lizzie also had motive and was known to have a bad relationship with her parents. A neighbor even witnessed Lizzie burning a dress in a fire a few days after the murder.
The not guilty verdict is often attributed to the times. At the turn of the century it was unthinkable that a woman could commit any manner of violent crime, much less one so bloody as the Falls River, Massachusetts murders. Regardless of Lizzie’s shaky testimonies and whether or not she committed the acts, the well-known song came about because most believed her guilty.
The American public was entranced again in 1995 by another murder trial. OJ Simpson, a former NFL football player for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. They divorced in 1992 after separating in 1989 following accusations of domestic violence which Simpson plead no contest to. He was acquitted of the murders after a 133 day trial.
After the bodies were found, Simpson proceeded to flee in his Bronco, resulting in a televised police chase that got the public’s attention if the murders themselves did not. Simpson’s behavior was not only suspicious, but there was a breath of incriminating evidence from blood, to the famous white gloves, to footprints at the scene of the crime.
Simpson did not even testify at his own criminal trial at any point. He published a book in 2007 called “If I Did It,” in which he more or less confessed to the crimes. The trial was highly televised due to Simpson’s celebrity status and 80% of people polled following the trial said they watched the trial at least on the day of the verdict. Then in a 1997 wrongful death civil trial, contradicting the criminal trial, Simpson was found liable for the deaths of Brown and Goldman and ordered to pay over $33 million in damages. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 74% believed he either probably or definitely committed the murders.
Even more recently, the media got the public enrapt by another criminal murder case. Infamous bad mother, Casey Anthony, whether she killed her daughter or not was believed to have done so by two out of every three people polled. Anthony was accused of killing the two-year-old Caylee Anthony, stashing the body in the trunk of her car, and then dumping it before partying for a month before reporting the child as missing at all. In July 2011, twenty-four year old Casey Anthony was acquitted, but later convicted of four counts of lying to police regarding the case. Two of those counts were dropped due to double jeopardy.
Following the disappearance of Caylee in June 2008, Casey’s mother, Cindy Anthony reported her missing first. Cindy Anthony also reported Casey for stealing her car and saying it “smelled like a dead body.” Casey was almost immediately pegged as untrustworthy because she lied to authorities about her employment and she was arrested. She claimed she dropped off her child with a fabricated babysitter, changing the name of the babysitter twice during the trial, and was reported to have “woeful disregard for the welfare of the child.” Evidence of human decomposition and chloroform were found in the trunk of the car. Caylee’s remains were found a quarter-mile from her home six months after she was reported missing. The remains were skeletal so cause of death could not be concluded, but a piece of duct tape was found over the child’s mouth and chloroform was found near the body.
To some, Anthony’s general unreliability, to her behavior, to the forensics all pointed to guilt. Her own parents flip-flopped about her involvement. Regardless, she was found not guilty in one of the most surprising jury outcomes of recent years.