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Court Cases

Learn about 10 famous court cases in American history.

Certain court cases catch the attention of Americans for various reasons. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Certain court cases catch the attention of Americans for various reasons.

Court cases become memorable for many reasons. Some court cases are so politically charged, it seems every person in America takes a side. Some court cases involve a celebrity, and that element is often enough to forever cement the case into America's collective memory. Supreme Court rulings are well-known because of their far-reaching impact on how lives are governed by the U.S. Constitution. No matter how they earned their notoriety, these 10 court cases stand out in America's history.

Historical Court Cases

The trial, and ultimate acquittal, of Aaron Burr was one of America's first courtroom dramas. Although Burr was indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, it was the charge of treason that brought Burr to trial in 1807. With President Thomas Jefferson leading the crusade, many believed Burr was conspiring to secede the Southwest from the Union and planning on forcefully taking New Orleans as his capital. Chief Justice John Marshall presided over Burr's controversial trial, eventually ruling that evidence was insufficient to convict Burr of treason.

Outrage over the 1857 Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford was the catalyst that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, according to PBS. Scott was a slave who fought for his freedom upon returning to the slave state of Missouri, after living in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. After a 10-year battle in the courts, the Supreme Court decided that all blacks, no matter if they were freed or in slavery, were not United States citizens and could never become citizens. Because he was not a citizen, Scott could not sue. The decision also overturned the 1820 Mississippi Compromise, which claimed the prohibition of slavery in certain territories was unconstitutional .

The 1893 murder trial of 33-year-old Lizzie Borden was so infamous that a disturbing nursery rhyme about the crime emerged. Borden was accused of bludgeoning her father and stepmother with an axe. Despite the compelling evidence against her, including testimony that Borden was the only person in the house with the victims at the time of the murders, a jury of 12 men found Borden not guilty of the murders .

Supreme Court Cases

The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education played a fundamental role in the advancement of human rights. The court ruled varying degrees of segregation within five school districts violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of laws to all citizens. The groundbreaking case set the standard of overturning laws based on discrimination and prejudice .

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that significantly impacted police interrogation protocol. In Miranda v. Arizona, the court decided individuals taken into police custody have certain inalienable rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. If a suspect chooses to invoke these rights, the interrogation must cease. Because of this ruling, it is now standard for every suspect to be read the Miranda rights when being taken into custody.

The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade remains one of the most highly contested court cases in United States history. Roe, a pregnant, single woman, filed a class action law suit claiming Texas laws criminalizing medically unnecessary abortion were unconstitutional. The court agreed with her, declaring that state criminal abortion laws violate women's 14th Amendment right to privacy. However, the decision also recognizes the state's legitimate interest in protecting a pregnant woman's health and the potential for life. Under the court's ruling, states are allowed to place limitations on the stages of pregnancy during which an abortion can be performed .

Famous Trials

Charles Manson is one of America's most notorious killers, and his nine-month 1971 murder trial set records with both its length and expense, according to the University of Missouri, Kansas City Law School. The trial included bizarre testimony about Manson's plan to set into action a revolution against the white establishment by murdering Los Angeles socialites. The tone of the trial was set when Manson entered the courtroom on the first day of opening statements with a bloody "X" carved into his forehead. Cult leader Manson stood trial with three other defendants, all of whom were convicted of several counts of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced the four defendants to death, but the sentence was overturned when a 1972 California Supreme Court ruling declared the death penalty was unconstitutional.

In 1992, several members of the Los Angeles Police Department stood trial for using excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King. The March 31, 1991, arrest was videotaped by a witness George Holliday. The videotape showed King on the ground, covering his head, while officers hit him repeatedly with batons and kicked him. The jury acquitted all of the involved officers and sergeant, and soon after the verdicts were read, the streets of Los Angeles had succumbed to riots and looting. Fifty-four people died in the riots that followed the not-guilty verdicts .

Perhaps no trial in America's most recent history is more memorable than the O.J. Simpson trial. An estimated 150 million viewers watched the televised verdict on Oct. 3, 1995, according to Maurer School of Law. The ex-NFL star, Simpson, was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The televised 133-day trial, which broke the record set by the Charles Manson trial for longest in California's history, was viewed by so many Americans that the attorneys, witnesses and judge became household names. Simpson was later found guilty in a civil trial of the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

In 1997, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh was convicted for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. During the trial, witnesses for the prosecution painted a picture of McVeigh as a homegrown terrorist who became disillusioned and critical of the government. McVeigh was particularly critical of the government's attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Witnesses confirmed the date of the Oklahoma City bombing was chosen because it was the anniversary of the Waco siege. After 23 hours of deliberation, the jury found McVeigh guilty on all counts and sentenced to death.

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