Ninety-four years before O.J. Simpson held court from behind the defense table, the gavel fell on the first “Trial of the Century.”
Few remember his name, but long before O.J. ever dashed into the record books, Leon Czolgosz was tried and executed for shooting President William McKinley to death as the president pumped hands at the opening of the PanAmerican Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 6, 1901.
In fact, since the 20th century began, there have been at least 32 “Trials of the Century.”
“We average a new ‘Trial of the Century’ every three years,” noted one of Simpson’s lawyers, Gerald Uelmen, the retired dean of Santa Clara University Law School, who put together a list for a recent speech. The Simpson case is the latest.
But there probably will be more: The century’s not over yet.
Throughout American history, trials often have served as a source of entertainment. The intrigue dates to the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. By the 19th century, the local county courthouse was a stage. Even in the Victorian age, there was all-consuming interest in the fate of Lizzie Borden, who took an ax and gave her father 40 whacks.
But since the advent of Court TV, Americans can stay home and be couch voyeurs instead of waiting in line for an uncomfortable wooden seat in the courtroom.
Experts say the onus for determining what constitutes a “Trial of the Century” lies with the media - not legal historians.
“The primary element of criteria in calling something the ‘Trial of the Century’ is the amount and breadth of publicity it gets,” Edward Knappman, editor of a reference book on the subject, “Great American Trials,” said in a phone interview. “When you look back at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann (for the murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son), the streets were crammed with reporters. Tourists were coming around, trying to find anything as souvenirs. It was described at the time as a circus.”
Knappman found nearly 100 cases worthy of being called “Great American Trials.” Uelmen said his research uncovered 32 dubbed “Trial of the Century” by the media. One of the many to make both lists was Hauptmann’s.
That trial turned Flemington, N.J., into the media capital of America in 1935. About 700 reporters and photographers descended on the courthouse, 40 telegraph wires were installed and hucksters sold models of the ladder used by the kidnapper to get into the baby’s nursery as well as locks of what was supposed to be the baby’s hair.
These days, the media capital of America is downtown Los Angeles, where at “Camp O.J.,” television trucks with satellite dishes surround the county courthouse each day. O.J. Simpson buttons and T-shirts are hawked on the sidewalk. And, instead of maps to the homes of stars, vendors sell maps to the crime scene.
“If there is any lesson to be gleaned from reviewing all 32 of the ‘Trials of the Century,’ … it is that absolutely nothing that has happened in the Simpson case thus far has never happened before,” Uelmen said in a speech to the California Society of Newspaper Editors. “But you wouldn’t know that from the hype. The best cure for hype is history. Unfortunately, television reporters don’t seem to read too much history. They all seem to think history began the year they graduated from high school.”
In the 60 years between Hauptmann’s trial and Simpson’s, many “Trials of the Century” have transpired. Charlie Chaplin was sued for paternity. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying. A spate of political assassins, from Jack Ruby to Sirhan Sirhan to John Hinckley Jr., has stood trial.
But the biggest difference between then and now is television. And there’s a lot of controversy about that.
“One of the things television has done here is convert the (Simpson) trial into a kind of celebrity game,” said Lawrence Friedman, a Stanford University law professor. “Anybody who walked the dog on the right night becomes one of the most famous people in the country. We even have celebrity jurors.” But they have to get thrown off the panel first.
There is much debate whether in 50 years, people will be asking, “O.J. who?”
“The Simpson case is going to be a footnote in history,” Ronald Kuby, the Manhattan law partner of William Kuntsler, who has represented such clients as World Trade Center bombing defendants and commuter train gunman Colin Ferguson, predicted. “It will be remembered for its several entries in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”’
Others predict the O.J. Simpson case will provide sociologists, maybe even archaeologists, with some keen insight into our time. Peter Keane, San Francisco’s chief public defender and vice president of the California Bar Association, likened the Simpson trial to the tablet found in 1799 that helped decipher ancient Egyptian writing. “This will be the Rosetta stone into our society,” he said.
Still others think it will be overshadowed by even bigger trials in the coming century.
“I don’t think it’s going to be something like Sacco and Vanzetti or the Lindbergh kidnapping or Lizzie Borden,” said Ronald Allen, professor of criminal procedure at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “All Simpson is is a former football player and B-movie actor. … It’s going to be an interesting test of the power of money in the criminal process.
“But I think its fame will subside.”
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