ESPN’s cameras were there when O.J. Simpson went before a Nevada parole board on Thursday. Modern audiences have grown accustomed to seeing the biggest and most sensational trials on television, but it wasn’t always that way.
Adolf Eichmann: The first to be televised was the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel during World War II, for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted to broadcast the trial to educate a generation that had come of age after the 1940s about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
The emotionally explosive trial revealed for the first time to a shocked world audience details of the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews. Eichmann sat enclosed within a bulletproof glass booth and was referred to as “The Man in the Glass Booth.” More than 100 witnesses testified during the 16-week trial of Eichmann, whose defense was that he was “simply following orders.” He was found guilty on all 15 counts of the indictment and later hanged.
Since then, audiences have been galvanized by trials involving horrific crimes, the rich and famous and bizarre defendants and testimony burned into our collective consciousness (“If the glove doesn’t fit …”).
Here’s a brief look back at some of the most highly rated TV trials:
Ted Bundy, 1979: The Miami hearing was the first U.S. trial to be televised nationally. The handsome and charismatic former law student chose to represent himself on charges of breaking into the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University and murdering two women. Bundy, who later confessed to killing at least 30 women, was found guilty and received two death sentences.
William Kennedy Smith, 1992: The 30-year-old Kennedy family member charged with rape following what he claimed was a consensual sexual encounter in Palm Beach, Florida. CNN’s broadcast of the trial—in which Smith was acquitted of all charges—and detailed analysis was praised for giving viewers an up-close look at how the justice system works.
Jeffrey Dahmer, 1992: Court TV, then just recently launched by Steve Brill, used a 10-second delay when it broadcast the murder trial of the cannibalistic serial killer accused of killing 15 boys and men, so that exhibits and discussions deemed too disturbing could be edited out. Dahmer was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences for his crimes but was beaten to death by a fellow prison inmate in 1994.
LAPD Officers Who Assaulted Rodney King, 1992: A video of the four white L.A. Police Department officers beating King, an African-American, after a high-speed chase ignited a national debate on the use of police force. Their acquittal sparked rioting that ignited more than 7,000 fires in the city. Fifty-four people died and nearly $1 billion in property damage resulted.
Lyle and Erik Menendez, 1993: Court TV scored a coup by landing the rights to the murder trial of the brothers, accused of killing their parents. They testified that their dad was a pedophile and mom was a vindictive drug addict. Separate juries—empaneled even though the boys were tried together—deadlocked. A new trial was held in 1995, without TV, and the brothers were convicted of first-degree murder in four days.
O.J. Simpson, 1995: The trial seemed made for TV with the once-hugely popular former football star turned actor and TV pitchman accused of stabbing to death his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. It made mini celebrities of prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, colorful defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Judge Lance Ito and even featured a wacky sidekick (Simpson’s houseboy Kato Kaelin). The announcement of Simpson’s acquittal was seen by 150 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched events in TV history.
Phil Spector, 2007: The legendary music producer was prosecuted in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, whom he claimed committed suicide at his Alhambra, California, residence. Court TV was there as Spector wore a series of garish wigs during the hearing, which ended in a hung jury. There were no cameras at his 2009 retrial, and Spector was found guilty of murder in the second degree.
Lindsay Lohan, 2007: More than 2.3 million logged on to TMZ.com when it live-streamed the probation hearing for the young celeb gone wild. Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 90 days in rehab for repeatedly violating the terms of her probation after two drunken driving arrests.
Casey Anthony, 2011: The 5.2 million viewers that tuned in to see the 25-year-old Florida mom acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter remains a record for HLN. The relentless commentary by the network’s legal authority Nancy Grace had a lot to do with that ratings number.
Dr. Conrad Murray, 2012: HLN was back in court just three months later for the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician accused of involuntary manslaughter via prescription drugs in the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson. More than 2.1 million people tuned in to watch the guilty verdict.
Jodi Arias, 2013: Nearly 7 million people tuned in to Fox News, HLN, CNN and MSNBC as the seductive young Arizona woman was convicted in the first-degree murder of her former lover Travis Victor Alexander. A subsequent made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime network, “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret,” drew 3.1 million viewers.