Americans are fascinated with court drama. This is evident in the large number of TV shows where the bulk of it takes place in a courtroom. In recent years, there have also been a number of real life trials that had millions of Americans on ‘pins and needles’ awaiting the outcome. Here are five trials from recent decades that nearly everyone who was around at the time watched:
The "If I Did It" Trial: O.J. Simpson
Much like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, the O.J. Simpson trial is famous for being famous. The trial had more media coverage than any other that came before it, and for no apparent reason. But the aftermath is what makes the trial so fascinating, because O.J., after being found innocent,wrote a book about how he did it and then tried to sell it as though it were 'hypothetical'.
Nowadays, most everyone basically understands that the man got away with murder, but the law of double jeopardy (and the fear of another media frenzy) keeps the state from trying him again.
The "Erin Brockovich" Trial: Pacific Gas and Electric
You know someone who loves the movie Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts made class action sexy when she took on the role of the trial lawyer that took it to Pacific Gas and Electric. In the real trial, PG&E was accused of knowingly contaminating the groundwater supply of Hinkley, California with a number of harmful chemicals, predominantly hexavalent chromium. This resulted in widespread cancer, infertility, and other health issues.
At the end of the trial, PG&E was left saddled with what was at the time the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit. The court ruled in favor of the citizens of Hinkley and directed PG&E to pay $295 million(or just over $250,000 per person) to the affected families.
The "Coffee Is HOT!" Trial: McDonalds
This trial may well be one of the most often-distorted trials in American history, mostly because of its infamy on the Internet. Stella Liebeck spilled a freshly-poured cup of McDonald's coffee into her lap while trying to put some creamer in it. She suffered 3rd-degree burns and deep-tissue burns that actually did nearly kill her due to complications with her skin grafts.
McDonalds' defense, to be fair, wasn't much of a defense at all. The company admitted that it knowingly sold coffee that was too hot to drink, or even touch, with the expectation that customers would add creamer or ice cubes to bring it down to a safe-to-drink temperature. The plaintiff won a $2.7 million dollar judgment against them (though a judge later reduced the penalty to less than half a million.)
The "Call This Number" Trial: Asbestos
This isn't actually a trial that many people today remember, because it took place back in 1971. But if you were there at the time, you most likely watched it. East Texas trial lawyer Ward Stephenson spent five years of his life trying to prove that asbestos caused lung cancer, and he died of lung cancerwhile the jury was deliberating. After systematically demolishing an entire industry's claims of 'innocence by ignorance', Stephenson lie dying in a hospital, waiting for a phone call that came hours too late -- the call that said he had finally succeeded.
From Stephenson's sacrifice to today, lawyers have been seeking out anyone and everyone with mesothelioma, gathering them in groups large enough to form class action suits, and sending out mass torts against anyone in the asbestos industry that may have interacted with their clients.
The "I Was Just Learning To Fly" Trial: Zacarias Moussaoui
Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person to ever go on trial for the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, despite the fact that he was sitting in jail in Minnesota awaiting deportation when they happened. His trial was a foregone conclusion; the American people needed someone to be punished, and Moussaoui was the only would-be hijacker that never made it into a plane (and thus didn't die in the crashes).
The thing that made his trial so amazing wasn't that he was found guilty, but rather that he wasn't executed. The jury deliberated for weeks and came to the agonizing conclusion thatwanting to be a terrorist wasn't enough to warrant the death penalty. Moussaoui is currently alive and in a Supermax facility near Florence, Colorado, considered the "most secure holding facility in the USA."