10 Famous Court Cases In History

List of 10 most famous Court Cases in History that had the most significant impact on history and society

1. Amistad Trials (1839-1840)

In 1839, fifty-three illegally purchased African slaves being transported from Cuba on the ship Amistad managed to seize control of the vessel. They killed two crew members and ordered the remainder to head for Africa. But by altering course at night, when the position of the sun did not reveal the ship's course, they sailed in a northeasterly direction. Eventually, the Amistad was intercepted by an American brig off the coast of Long Island. The two Spaniards who had enslaved the Africans were freed by the Americans, and the slaves were imprisoned. President Martin Van Buren, along with many newspaper editors, favored extraditing the Africans to Cuba. But abolitionists and other northern sympathizers won an American trial for them.

The improbable voyage of the schooner Amistad and the court proceedings and diplomatic maneuverings that resulted from that voyage form one of the most significant stories of the nineteenth century. When Steven Spielberg chose the Amistad case as the subject of his 1997 feature film, he finally brought it the attention the case had long deserved, but never received. The Amistad case energized the fledgling abolitionist movement and intensified conflict over slavery, prompted a former President to go before the Supreme Court and condemn the policies of a present Administration, soured diplomatic relations between the United States and Spain for a generation, and created a wave of interest in sending Christian missionaries to Africa.

2. Earp (O.K. Corral) Trial (1881)

The Old West's most famous gunbattle lasted all of about thirty seconds, but it left three men dead, three other men shot, and enough questions to occupy historians for more than a century.  The gunfight also led to criminal charges being filed against the three Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan) and Doc Holliday who, near the O. K. Corral on October 26, 1881, decided to enforce the law against four notorious "cowboys."  The hearing that followed the shoot-out considered the question of whether the Earps and Hollidays killed out of a justifiable fear for their own lives or simply to rid themselves of troublemakers and personal enemies.  After listening to weeks of testimony, Judge Spicer gave his answer (in favor of defense), but whether his answer was the right one remained a subject of considerable debate.

3. Three Trials of  Oscar Wilde (1895)

On November 30, 1900, the world lost one of its most important literary figures, Oscar Wilde. Wilde died from meningitis, a complication of an ear infection sustained in prison, where he was serving a two-year sentence for having committed "gross indecencies."
The events that led to Wilde's tragic fate are told in three trials that took place at Old Bailey in London in 1895. 

 4. Al Capone Trial (1931)

Al Capone, head of the most profitable crime syndicate of the Prohibition Era and mastermind of the notorious 1929 "Valentine's Day Massacre," seemed above the law.  In the end, however, Capone would be brought to justice not for murder, extortion, or bootlegging, but for failing to pay his income tax.  Credit for his conviction is due less to Elliot Ness and The Untouchables than to the dogged work of Bureau of Revenue investigator Frank Wilson and a clever surprise pulled by a federal judge, James Wilkerson.  Al Capone once complained about the bad reputation of his criminal enterprise: "Some call it bootlegging.  Some call it racketeering.  I call it a business."  The lesson of The People vs. Al Capone is that a profitable businessman, no matter how he earns his income, does have to pay his taxes.

5. Nuremberg Trials (1945-49)

Held for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, the Nuremberg trials were a series of 13 trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, between 1945 and 1949. The defendants, who included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, were indicted on such charges as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) committed suicide and was never brought to trial. Although the legal justifications for the trials and their procedural innovations were controversial at the time, the Nuremberg trials are now regarded as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with later instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

6. Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby (1963)

Most agree that the trials and investigations surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, are the most controversial in American history. The president was shot three times on Nov. 22, 1963.
Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the assassination after investigators discovered a rifle hidden between two boxes with Oswald's fingerprints on them, along with empty cartridges in the Texas Book Depository. Two days later, Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald.
On March 14, 1964, Ruby was sentenced to death by electric chair for Oswald's murder. But the Texas Supreme Court overturned the ruling on the basis that the case's publicity obstructed Ruby's right to a fair hearing. Before he could be tried a second time, Ruby died from cancer in 1967.

7. The Nelson Mandela Trial (1963-1964) 

It's "the trial that changed South Africa."  In the fall of 1963, Nelson Mandela and ten other leading opponents of South Africa's apartheid regime faced trial for their lives. The charges, in what is often called "the Rivonia trial" for the Johannesburg suburb that was the location of the hideout for a militant wing of the African National Congress, were sabotage and conspiracy, and there was little doubt that but that Mandela and most of the other defendants would be found guilty.  Desperate times had dictated desperate measures. Standing in the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, Mandela announced that "the ideal of a democratic and free society" is one "for which I am prepared to die."

8. Miranda v. Arizona  (1966)

In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court ruled that detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. The case began with the 1963 arrest of Phoenix resident Ernesto Miranda, who was charged with rape, kidnapping, and robbery. Miranda was not informed of his rights prior to the police interrogation. During the two-hour interrogation, Miranda allegedly confessed to committing the crimes, which the police apparently recorded. Miranda, who had not finished ninth grade and had a history of mental instability, had no counsel present. At trial, the prosecution's case consisted solely of his confession. Miranda was convicted of both rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. He appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, claiming that the police had unconstitutionally obtained his confession. The court disagreed, however, and upheld the conviction. Miranda appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1966. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution could not introduce Miranda's confession as evidence in a criminal trial because the police had failed to first inform Miranda of his right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. 

9. The Trial of Charles Manson  (1970-1971)

Charles Manson is a notorious American criminal who started and subsequently led what became known as the Manson Family - a violent commune that arose and eventually terrorized the western region of the United States in the late 1960s. As a result of this formation, Charles Manson was found guilty of conspiracy in conjunction with the Tate/LaBianca murders—these high profile murders were carried out by members of Manson’s disruptive clan.

Charles Manson was convicted of the aforementioned murders in alignment with the joint-responsibility rule, which makes each member of a conspiracy or a criminal organization guilty of crimes that were committed in alignment with the organization’s function. Manson was found guilty under this ruling because he encouraged and persuaded members of “The Family” to savagely murder a number of innocent victims.

10. O. J. Simpson Trial (1995)

Although the 1995 criminal trial of O. J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman has been called "a great trash novel come to life," no one can deny the pull it had on the American public.  If the early reports of the murder of the wife of the ex-football-star-turned-sports-announcer hadn't caught people's full attention, Simpson's surreal Bronco ride on the day of his arrest certainly did--ninety-five million television viewers witnessed the slow police chase live. The 133 days of televised courtroom testimony turned countless viewers into Simpson trial junkies.  Even foreign leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Boris Yeltsin eagerly gossiped about the trial.  When Yeltsin stepped off his plane to meet President Clinton, the first question he asked was, "Do you think O. J. did it?"  When, at 10 a.m. PST on October 3, Judge Ito's clerk read the jury's verdict of "Not Guilty," 91% of all persons viewing television were glued to the unfolding scene in the Los Angeles courtroom.

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