Whether because it involves a famous person or the details are particularly salacious, the American public is fascinated by crime. Thanks to the advent of 24-hour cable news and Court TV, we can even watch trials live on television and get instant analysis of the testimony and evidence being presented.
But fascination with crime and trials is nothing new. Here’s a look at the 15 biggest criminal cases in American history.
In what’s still probably considered the most-watched criminal case ever, Pro Football Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the brutal murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, a waiter at a local restaurant. From the time Simpson was declared a suspect to the day the jury delivered its verdict, Americans from coast to coast watched every twist and turn in the case. Though he was acquitted in criminal court, Simpson was held responsible for the deaths in a civil proceeding and later served time in prison for unrelated crimes.
Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping
Believed to have been taken from his nursery bed while he slept, the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was found dead about two months after going missing from his family’s New Jersey home. An enormous investigation proceeded into the death with public suspicion falling at various points on several different people connected to the family before a handyman, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was tried, convicted and executed for the crime.
Over the course of about three weeks during the fall of 2002, more than a dozen people had been mysteriously shot by an unknown sniper in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. On one single day during the spree, Oct. 3, five people were murdered by the sniper in Maryland and D.C. Eventually, the massive manhunt ballooned to include 400 FBI agents. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad were arrested and convicted. Muhammad was executed in 2009, and Malvo, only 17 years old at the time of the murders, was sentenced to life in prison.
D.B. Cooper Skyjacking
In a case that remains unsolved to this day, a man who said his name was Dan Cooper hijacked a flight bound for Seattle in November 1971, jumping out of the plain with a parachute on his back and the ransom money he’d demanded and gotten in his arms. While the case has captivated the public imagination, nobody has ever faced charges in the case, and Cooper’s real identity, be it Dan Cooper or D.B. Cooper, is unknown.
The Zodiac Killings
We know Ted Cruz isn’t the Zodiac killer, but to this day, authorities have yet to charge any individual with any of the murders attributed to the Zodiac. Operating in northern California at various times in the 1960s and 1970s, between seven and 30 murders are attributed to the Zodiac. The murders remain the source of public fascination, and authorities have said they could use DNA testing services to help solve the case.
When a 1972 break-in was reported at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., few people could have predicted where the investigation would lead. When all was said and done, multiple individuals were in jail and President Richard Nixon left office in disgrace.
The Black Dahlia Murder
The gruesome discovery of the body of a young woman sliced in half at the waist became a national obsession, as both the Los Angeles police and the FBI interviewed dozens of suspects across the country to find the killer or killers of Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the L.A. press, Short was a 22-year-old aspiring actress when she was brutally slain. Her murder remains unsolved.
Once a well-respected math prodigy, Ted Kaczynski came to national prominence thanks to a series of bombings that killed three people and injured nearly two-dozen others. About 16 bombs have been attributed to Kaczynski, nicknamed the Unabomber. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole and remains incarcerated at a supermax prison in Colorado.
Over the course of a five-month trial, much of which was broadcast on television, Jodi Arias was convicted of the brutal 2013 slaying of her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, who had been both stabbed and shot. Arias alleges she killed Alexander in self-defense, but a jury took just 15 hours to decide that Arias was guilty of premeditated murder. She was convicted of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The day after she reported her daughter, Caylee, missing in 2008, Casey Anthony was arrested for child neglect and the following day, authorities say cadaver dogs picked up the scent of human flesh in Anthony’s car. In a trial broadcast nearly every day on cable TV, Anthony was acquitted in the death of her young daughter, though she was found guilty of making false statements to investigators. That conviction was later overturned, and Casey Anthony served about 10 days in jail. Nobody has been convicted in the death of the 2-year-old, whose body was never found.
Manson Family Murders
A bizarrely revered figure in American culture, cult leader Charles Manson instructed his followers to commit a series of grisly murders that killed seven people over the course of two days, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. After a seven-month trial, all cult members charged in the killings, including Manson, were convicted and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life in prison when California abolished the death penalty. While Manson continued to seek parole, it never was granted, and he died in prison in 2017.
Probably because nobody has ever been tried for the murder, the killing of JonBenet Ramsey remains a tragically fascinating crime. The body of the 6-year-old was discovered in her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. While public suspicion has landed on pretty much every member of her family, tragedy, too, has followed. Ramsay’s mother Patsy died from cancer in 2006, and a 2006 claim of guilt in the case by an unrelated person turned out to be false, dashing the family’s hopes of closure. JonBenet’s murder remains unsolved.
New York mob boss John Gotti had been so successful at avoiding criminal prosecution and conviction that he earned the nickname the Teflon Don. But after investigators managed to convince a Gotti confidant and fellow mafioso, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, to turn against Gotti, the FBI in 1991 convicted Gotti of five murders and several other charges. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and died from cancer in prison in 2002.
Modern American audiences are accustomed to comedians who will say and do almost anything to push the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable to say in public. Today’s comedians largely owe this wide degree of freedom to comedy pioneer Lenny Bruce, who faced multiple prosecutions accusing him of public indecency and obscenity, and he was convicted of obscenity in a widely publicized 1964 trial.
Though the King of Pop was never convicted of crimes against children, the shocking trial of Jackson in 2005 was a very public proceeding that followed just about a decade after the singer first being accused of child molestation. The 2005 case was precipitated by a shocking documentary, which led to a stunning raid of Jackson’s Neverland compound. Jackson was acquitted in that trial, but before his death, he did agree to multiple settlements with the families of kids who accused him of abuse.
The human fascination with crime is often a difficult one for those who aren’t interested in true-crime stories to understand. But for those who pore over every detail of trials, the need to understand why people do bad things to each other can never be quenched.
- FBI, History: Lindbergh Kidnapping. (Undated.) Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/lindbergh-kidnapping
- FBI, History: Beltway Snipers. (Undated.) Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/beltway-snipers
- USA Today, Zodiac Killer: Can genealogy help crack the 50-year-old case? (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/05/03/zodiac-killer-investigators-hope-use-genealogy-site-crack-case/579053002/
- CNN, Casey Anthony Trial Fast Facts. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/04/us/casey-anthony-trial-fast-facts/index.html
- CNN, Manson Family Murders Fast Facts. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/30/us/manson-family-murders-fast-facts/index.html
- CNN, JonBenet Ramsey Murder Fast Facts. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/29/us/jonbenet-ramsey-murder-fast-facts/index.html
- People Magazine, Inside Michael Jackson’s 2005 Molestation Trial. (2019.) Retrieved from https://people.com/music/michael-jackson-2005-molestation-trial-not-guilty/