A Brief History of Some of America's Most Notorious Televised Trials
Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson are among the suspects whose high-profile trials gained even more attention on TV
The 'Lady Killer' on TV
Reportedly the first time a murder trial was ever broadcast nationally to American homes was in 1979, when serial-killing rapist Ted Bundy was tried and convicted of bludgeoning, mutilating and strangling four sorority sisters in Tallahassee, Florida. He was sentenced to death a year later and, following two escapes from prison, died by an electric chair in 1989.
The perversely charismatic killer enjoyed being in the national spotlight as he represented himself in court. His murder trial remains one of the most watched of all time.
Before his execution, Bundy confessed to killing 30 people, though some speculate he may have slain more than 100.
The Menendez Brothers' Murder Their Parents
In 1993 and 1994, the nation watched with morbid curiosity as two brothers stood trial for the first time in the shotgun slayings of their wealthy parents. For months, Lyle and Erik Menendez dominated the programming of Court TV (now truTV). The well-to-do siblings from Beverly Hills, California, went on an elaborate spending spree following their parents' deaths in 1989.
In court, Erik and Lyle alleged they acted in self-defense after suffering years of abuse. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury, but on retrial (which was not televised) jurors convicted them both of first-degree murder.
Erik and Lyle remain incarcerated, serving life sentences, but continue to speak out about the case and their lives now. In the fall, producer Dick Wolf dipped his toes into the true crime water with a Law & Order series about the trial.
The World Watches O.J.
It's remembered as "the trial of the century": In 1995, seven months after his Bronco ride down the 405 Freeway was watched by an estimated 95 million people, footbal hall-of-famer, celebrity pitchman and actor O.J. Simpson went on trial for allegedly murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Their bodies were found outside her condominium in Los Angeles' tony Brentwood neighborhood. Their throats were slashed.
Simpson spent millions on his defense and, with 100 million people around the world watching the court proceedings, was acquitted of murder nine months later. The public’s fascination with the case has persisted in the decades since, including being the basis of the award-winning TV series The People vs. O.J. Simpson in 2016.
A Longtime Serial Killer Is Brought to Justice
Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, the year he was finally arrested. Investigators eventually learned that Dahmer had postmortem sex with many of his victims and consumed portions of several of them.
Dahmer was charged in 15 of the killing and his trial began in early 1992, with his lawyers arguing insanity as their defense. The televised proceedings lasted two weeks, and Dahmer was eventually sentenced to 15 life terms. He was killed in prison in late 1994, though his life and murders remain objects of true-crime fascination.
A Florida Mom Charged With Murder
During the summer of 2011, many Americans were caught up in the murder trial of Casey Anthony, a young mother from Florida who was accused in the 2008 death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Said one analyst at the time, of the feedback loop created by viewers who then took to social media to dissect what had just happened in court: "The O. J. trial may have had broader media attention; however, social media platforms were not in place at that time, so the collective echo chamber has been unprecedented."
Though jurors acquitted Casey of that most serious charge, they did find her guilty of lying to investigators. She was sentenced to four years in prison but was given credit for time served and released days later. One prison spokeswoman described her as "the most hated mom in America."
She has kept a low profile in Florida since her acquittal, speaking out only once.
Music Producing Legend Twice Tried for Murder
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Phil Spector was tried twice for murder in the death of actress Lana Clarkson.
The first trial, which ended in a mistrial, was televised. The second, which ended in a guilty verdict for second-degree murder after about 30 hours of jury deliberations, was not.
Spector, whose defense argued Clarkson had possibly killed herself, was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison.
George Zimmerman Faces the Nation
During his headline-generating trial — which was carried live on cable TV — neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman said he shot 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin in self-defense, invoking Florida's "stand your ground" statute. Critics instead argued Martin's race (he was black) as a motivating factor, both in the shooting and how the case was widely perceived afterward
The jury’s 2013 verdict acquitting Zimmerman of murder sparked protests nationwide.
A Murderous Relationship in Arizona
Before she was tried in the brutal 2008 murder of her former boyfriend Travis Alexander, Jodi Arias boasted that no jury would convict. Once her prosecution began in late 2012, Arias testified that she killed Alexander in self-defense because he was allegedly abusive.
Six months later, the trial concluded with a guilty verdict. Arias was sentenced to life without parole.
Her conviction was watched by viewers of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, among others, and the total live TV audience was reportedly almost seven million. Two sets of juries were unable to agree on the death penalty, however, resulting in Arias' automatic sentencing to life in prison.