It’s in headlines wherever you look: the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. Whether you’re tuning into television news, opening a paper or news app or checking your Twitter, or even scrolling on TikTok, it also seems like everyone has an opinion to share or is at least excited to participate in the thrill of watching it unfold.
As Kent State University criminology professor Dr. Hedi Nasheri explains, a history of court trials that drive entertainment and public discussion dates back to the 11th century during the Middle Ages. Even before there were celebrity trials on TV and scattered across the internet, word of mouth, radio and newspapers drove public fascination with certain cases turning plaintiffs and defendants into celebrities themselves.
Media courtroom coverage as entertainment long predates the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. The Scopes Trial, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was broadcast by WGN radio in 1925 making it the first live broadcast of a trial in American history., That trial was a natural attention-grabber as it brought the argument for public school education of Darwin’s theory of evolution vs creationism up for debate by a jury.1 Although no “celebrities” as we think of them were involved, it featured two of the best-known orators of the era, the battling lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and is still studied for its impact on law and debate across disciplines today.
Why Do People Love Celebrity Trials?
As a professional in any sector of criminology and criminal justice, public cases like these can offer insight into juries, public perception, interpreting the law and more. But what draws the national public eye? As Psychology Today offers, “Celebrities are fascinating because they live in a parallel universe—one that looks and feels just like ours yet is light-years beyond our reach.” This close-but-distant relationship can motivate attention in a couple different ways.
In one way, as the UsWeekly feature boasts, “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” Some experts believe that celebrities inspire people to face their challenges and make it, as their idols have, through poverty, abuse, or discrimination. Second, people are allured by status. And there’s nothing quite like seeing an icon fall from grace or the chance to pass judgment - largely without consequence- on another’s decision. Gossip is a powerful uniting force and when the gossip is being broadcast on every screen in every home, it’s easy to discuss with all sorts of groups from neighbors to coworkers to your closest friends. 3
Finally, to some degree, the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” holds weight when it comes to understanding the intrigue of celebrity trials. When soap operas and cable dramas aren't hitting the mark, there’s the real lives of the actors portraying them to watch.
A History of Celebrity Trials in the Media
Whether you’re studying criminology and criminal justice professionally or like to keep up with pop culture, you’ll likely recognize the following names and cases. These cases, each from a different decade, show the impact of celebrity trials on the law, the general public, and the concept of celebrity entertainment.
1995: OJ Simpson
You likely already know the big points in the timeline of this celebrity case. On June 12, 1994 OJ Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were found stabbed to death outside her home. Several days later when the Los Angeles Police Department went to arrest OJ Simpson under suspicion of the murder, they ended up engaged in a search and hour long car chase to track him down.
This trial was primed to be in the media. Simpson was an ex-NFL player who was still largely in the public eye as a sports commentator and actor. It also took place when race relations were “at a boiling point” in pop culture. The Rodney King arrest and beating by the LAPD had taken place only four years earlier (an incident which also followed a car chase) and the trial of which, in 1992, set off what’s known as the L.A. riots. Simpson was arrested and charged with the two murders on June 17, 1994; he pleaded not guilty and hired a team of prominent lawyers (including Kim Kardashian’s father, Robert) and was acquitted of the murder charges in October 1995. In a separate civil trial decision in 1997, he was found liable for the deaths of his ex-wife and Goldman and was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages to the families.
Overall, the trial is considered to have brought conversation about race back to the forefront of legal cases and cultural understanding as Simpson’s defense team made one argument that he had been targeted because he was Black. Since the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, society had moved toward a stance of ignoring the disparities in life experience and opinions primarily between Black Americans and white Americans and Simpson himself had rebuffed invitations of activists to participate in boycotts and strove to be seen as “a man first, not a black man.” The case and its surrounding conversation remain complex and are worthy of a deeper dive for those unfamiliar.4,,
2005: Michael Jackson
Resurfacing most recently in the 2019 documentary, Leaving Neverland, Michael Jackson faced several accusations of child molestation starting in 1993. In 2003 Jackson was charged with the criminal case going to trial in 2005. The trial was said to have had a “circus-like” atmosphere where Jackson would show up late or dressed oddly, using the media’s fascination with these stunts to distract from the subject at hand. While Jackson was acquitted of all charges in that case, years afterward a key defense witness came forth saying he lied during his testimony to protect Jackson.
That witness along with another who accuses Jackson of sexual abuse, both brought charges against Jackson’s estate after his death in 2013 and 2014. While those charges were also dismissed, the two men are at the center of Leaving Neverland, in which they detail their grooming and assault by Jackson.4 The documentary, which is generally well-regarded, has swayed some public opinion and beliefs about Jackson’s guilt.
One interesting piece that emerges is a look at the power Jackson had over not just the boys, but their families, due to his fame and wealth. This sort of celebrity power, as well as the fact that a power dynamic exists in all relationships, has also been widely investigated as a main contributing factor to victims of sexual assault remaining silent in countless Me Too cases over the last several years.
2020: Erika Jayne and Tom Girardi
While the names of these individuals may ring less familiar than OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson, the events for which they’re being tried might strike a chord. The layers to this case are particularly relevant to modern pop culture and make it worthy of investigation for all criminology and criminal justice professionals.
Tom Giardi became famous long before his most recent scandal. As one of the real-life lawyers who partnered with Erin Brockovich to win a landmark case against Pacific Gas & Electric, Girardi became well-known to lawyers and politicians everywhere as a voice for citizens going to bat with corporations in class action lawsuits. Along that line of work, he took on the 2018 Lion Air suit against Boeing when one of the company’s planes crashed killing all 181 passengers, two pilots and six crew members. When his co-counsel on the case experienced months of evasive maneuvers by Girardi to pay him his fees, he began to dig and found that not only was he not being paid for his work but Girardi was skimming from the victims’ settlement as well. This was just the beginning of uncovering decades of complaints against Girardi for withholding money won in court from his clients, many of whom were already experiencing chronic illness, pain, extreme loss and suffering that had prompted the suits in the first place. In September 2020 under deposition for withholding funds from one set of victims, Girardi revealed he was broke and that what once had been a store of $50 million or more had been whittled away to nothing.
Back when he was still in the good graces of the public, Girardi married Erika Jayne, a cocktail waitress who, with Girardi’s pilfered wealth, would go on to become a cast member of The Real Housewives Beverly Hills. Jayne’s bursting multi-room closets, lavish meals and fabulous vacations were all on-screen for the public to scrutinize and became a signal of her and Girardi’s abhorrent selfishness. After Jayne filed for divorce from Girardi, her behavior, comments and spending on the show came under further scrutiny as it could be used in court against her both for divorce proceedings and as she also was held responsible for some of the stolen money from the Lion Air suit. Early this year Jayne was dismissed from the embezzlement case, and as Girardi, who is 82, continues to decline in health (he’s currently in an assisted living facility and reportedly has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease), it remains to be seen if the victims and their families will ever see the money they were owed.
Add More Context to the Trials on TV
Dig deeper into the field and become an expert on the behind-the-scenes of future celebrity trials with the online Master of Arts in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Kent State University. Learn about the theories that have formed our justice and correctional institutions, become an expert on the latest trends in global security, and pursue research and the latest developments in victimology. Schedule a call with an Admissions Advisor to find out more about the online master’s in criminology.
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/monkeytrial-wgn-radio-broadcasts-trial/
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200407/seeing-starlight-celebrity-obsession?collection=1138318
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from history.com/this-day-in-history/police-brutality-caught-on-video
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from history.com/this-day-in-history/o-j-simpson-leads-l-a-police-on-a-high-speed-chase
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from britannica.com/biography/O-J-Simpson
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from npr.org/2019/03/05/699995484/michael-jackson-a-quarter-century-of-sexual-abuse-allegations
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from lamag.com/culturefiles/the-surreal-saga-of-tom-girardi-and-erika-jayne/
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from pagesix.com/2022/01/29/erika-jayne-dismissed-from-fraud-lawsuit-against-tom-girardi/
- Retrieved on May 26, 2022, from yahoo.com/video/famed-erin-brockovich-lawyer-tom-013305338.html