Top 5... - September 2, 2016

The People vs OJ Simpson (and five other trials that deserve their own series)
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

The People vs OJ Simpson (and five other trials that deserve their own series)

Ever since the murder trial of Harry L. Washburn in 1955 in Waco, Texas – the first time in history that a criminal trial had been televised in its entirety – high-profile court cases have continued to draw huge television audiences, with millions tuning in to watch the unfolding of criminal cases for a variety of crimes, from murder trials like that of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy to the conviction of former mafia boss John Gotti. Few of these, however, have captured the attention of the public in quite the same way as the infamous trial of O.J. Simpson.

On June 12 1994, two bodies identified as those of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole-Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found at the former's home in Los Angeles, along with a white Ford Bronco belonging to the former Buffalo Bills running back. Blood stains found in the vehicle were enough for the Los Angeles Police Department to issue a warrant for Simpson's arrest, marking the beginning of one of the most bizarre spectacles in the history of American television.

Five days later, NBC was preparing to screen a hotly-anticipated NBA game between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks when their newsroom received a call to the effect that Simpson, who had welched on his promise to hand himself in to police for questioning, was currently being pursued by police and helicopters equipped with news cameras. The network switched from live coverage of the basketball game to follow the police chase and over the next two hours a staggering 95 million people watched in amazement as the pursuit unfolded, with Simpson rumoured to be threatening to kill himself in the back of the white Bronco being driven by his friend Al Cowlings.

The highly publicised car chase was just one of several factors that made the resulting trial the following year quite unique. Even if you weren't a fan of American Football, the sport in which O.J. made his name, you could hardly have missed his many stints as a sportscaster, or his acting roles in films like The Naked Gun. Simpson was so famous that putting together a jury became a monumental task in itself, with several jury members being ejected and replaced at various points in what became known as the 'trial of the century' in an attempt to ensure there would be no bias on their judgements. The trial would last from January 1995 until October that year, culminating in a verdict of 'not guilty' that became the source of a polarising and heated debate for months to come.

It was perhaps inevitable that a dramatised version would end up on our screens sooner or later and last year the FX network delivered just that. Based on the book by Jeffrey Toobin, the show was created by writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose previous credits as a pair include Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flint and Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Cuba Gooding Jr. takes on the role of Simpson, while David Schwimmer stars as his friend, attorney and patriarch of the Kardashian clan Robert Kardashian. As for the other main players in this long-running real-life drama, John Travolta takes on the role of showbiz lawyer Robert Shapiro while the inimitable Johnnie Cochrane is played by Courtney B. Vance. On the prosecution side, Marcia Clarke is portrayed by American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown tackles the role of her partner Chris Darden.

While the series obviously reenacts all of the trial's key moments, where The People vs O.J. Simpson really comes into its own is in detailing all the thing the public didn't get to see; what's happening inside the Bronco during that famous car chase, the infighting amongst Simpson's team of lawyers, and Robert Kardashian's private turmoil in reconciling his friendship with Simpson with some of the more damning evidence, particularly the absence of any alternative suspects.

Cuba Gooding Jr. does a good job of portraying the fragile mental state of Simpson throughout the various stages of the case, but he's almost completely upstaged by Paulson and Vance, both of whom are excellent. While many of the details of the case are well-known to the public after such an exhaustive trial, the showrunners deserve a lot of credit for filling in the blanks and offering a more rounded picture of the events that took place, from the initial discovery of the victims' bodies to the aftermath of the verdict. If crime dramas are your thing, they don't come much more intense and politically charged than this.

You can find a trailer for the series below, beneath that we've picked out five other high-profile court cases that could easily be candidates for their own TV series...


 


The Maxi Trial

There have been many high-profile cases involving the Mafia over the years, including those of John Gotti and Bernardo Provenzano, but none have had the far-reaching impact and consequences as those that resulted from the so-called Maxi Trial of the 1980s, in which some 475 mafiosi were indicted under charges relating to organised crime. The trial was conducted in a specially-built bunker inside Palermo prison in Sicily and was not only the largest criminal trial of its kind in history, but also subsequently lead to the death of prosecutor Giuseppe Falcone, reportedly under the orders of the suspected capi di tutt'i capi Salvatore 'Toto' Riina. It was the first time that Cosa Nostra had been judicially confirmed to exist and the trial had severe implications for the Sicilian organisation, with Riina himself later captured and convicted. It's huge story with many twists and turns that deserves to be told properly, and if the success of shows like The Sopranos is anything to go by, it'd probably be a very popular one too.

 

George Zimmerman

The shooting of a young African-American teenager named Trayvon Martin has become one of many recent cases that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, but alongside George Zimmerman's controversial aquittal on charges of second-degree murder there were a number of other factors about the case surrounding the teenager's death. The presiding prosecutor on the case, Angela Corey, had already made headlines over role in the 2012 conviction of Marissa Alexander, a domestic abuse victim who reportedly fired a warning shot after her husband attacked and threatened to kill her. Despite the fact that nobody was killed or harmed, she was sentenced to 20 years on Corey's charges of 'aggravated assault with a deadly weapon' (she was released three years later). In addition, Zimmerman, who shot Martin while on neighbourhood watch duty after reporting the teenager acting 'suspiciously', stirred up further controversy when he sold the murder weapon at auction, reportedly for a sum in the region of $250,000, while one of the jurors on the case also signed a publishing deal for a book about the case, only for the resulting Twitter backlash to cause the publishers to pull the plug just a day later. It's divisive stuff, but much like Making A Murderer, it also makes for gripping subject matter.

 

Oscar Pistorius

Nicknamed 'blade runner' thanks to his uniquely designed prosthetic legs, the South African sprinter had become a poster boy for Paralympians by becoming the first disabled athlete to compete alongside able-bodied runners at the London Olympic Games in 2012. A few months later however police were called to an incident at his home, where it was discovered that Pistorious had shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp by firing a 9mm pistol through a locked bathroom door. Pistorius admitted shooting her, but claimed that he had mistaken the person on the bathroom for an intruder and had acted in self-defence. The resulting trial was packed with controversy, with the police accused of mishandling evidence and other aspects of the investigation, which many believed led to a much lighter sentence than the athlete deserved. One of the most high-profile and controversial murder trials in recent years, there is plenty to be explored here and recent developments including the upgrading of the charges from culpable homicide to murder, this story isn't done unfolding yet.

 

Phil Spector

Undoubtedly one of the most influential record producers of the 20th century, Phil Spector was behind a string of hits for artists from The Ronettes and The Righteous Brothers to John Lennon and The Ramones, creating an entirely new production style he called the 'wall of sound' and becoming one of the music industry's most powerful figures in the 1960s and 70s. By the 80s however Spector had become something of a recluse and stories about his personal life and bizarre working methods were commonplace (Dee Dee Ramone once claimed that Spector held him in the studio at gunpoint, although drummer Marky later denied having any recollection of this). Then, in 2003, Spector made a spectacular return to the headlines for all the wrong reasons, finding himself on trial for the murder of a young aspiring actress named Lana Clarkson, who was found dead from a gunshot wound in the hallway of his home. Spector was charged with her murder and became the subject of a televised trial in 2007, appearing in court a variety of memorably outrageous wigs before the proceedings were dropped as a mistrial, only to be reattempted at a second trial in 2008 where he was sentenced to a minimum of 19 years in jail for second degree murder. Although the events leading up to the first trial were immortalised in a film starring Al Pacino, there's plenty to Spector's story that is fascinating enough to warrant a TV series on the subject of his meteoric rise and spectacular downfall.

 

The Enron Corporation

Already the subject of Alex Gibney's excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the trial surrounding the Texas-based energy company's fraudulent accounting methods would come to be known as the biggest case of corporate fraud in history, hiding billions of dollars in debt using some highly shady auditing practices until their operation spectacularly unravelled in 2001, Shareholders filed a lawsuit of $40bn against the company, which saw its share prices plummet in the wake of the scandal from over $90 per share to just $1. The story has also been the subject of a play by Lucy Prebble, but we think it would make for great television too.

 

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