The Leo Frank trial, day one, in Atlanta 1913
The Leo Frank trial, day one, in Atlanta 1913

10 Looks at What Happens When Murder Trials Play Out in the Court of Public Opinion

"Americans love to talk about crime, to read about it, relive it and revel in it.”

So says (so say?) the father-and-daughter writing team of Mark Phillips, an L.A. attorney, and Aryn Phillips, currently a graduate student of sociology at Harvard. They've collaborated on Trials of the Century: A Decade-By-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes (released by Prometheus Books earlier this summer), a true-crime book with an angle, and maybe even with an ax to grind. It’s a look at some of the most sensational American murder trials from circa 1900 to the present, with an emphasis on how the press, especially newspapers, handled and in some cases inflamed and exploited these cases. Most of the old crimes summarized here are well-known even now, with the possible exception of the oldest: the killing of stylish New York architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw back in 1906 (Ragtime, novel, movie and play, is based on this case), and the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner in Atlanta accused of a rape-murder in 1910 (Thaw, a cuckolded husband, was committed to an insane asylum; Frank was tried, convicted and subsequently lynched anyway). 

The authors give a perfunctory background account of the pre-WWI origins of sensationalism (back then known as Yellow Journalism) in the American press (especially among the Hearst and Pulitzer newspaper chains). Sensationalism seems to be the authors’ especial bête noire (they warn here of the dangers of an “unrestrained” press), but to complain about sensationalized news coverage in the United States, I would submit, is to complain about the character of the American public over the last, say, 125 years. As the authors admit more than once in this book, “the public simply could not get enough” when a particularly juicy crime was the story; and this extends all the way from Harry K. Thaw to O.J. to “tot mom” Casey Anthony to right now.

back then was known as Yellow Journalism As an anthology of true-crime stories, this book is like a nice, hefty box of See’s Candies; you can pick out your favorites and savor them, let them roll around on your tongue. Personally, I find that the 1940s and ’50s have an inherently less appealing flavor than the 1920s and ’30s, so I’ll pass on the (ho hum) Sam Sheppard case (Chapter 6) as well as “Wayne Lonergan (who?) and the Bludgeoned Heiress” (Chapter 5), and stick with the treats I like best.

For some true-crime fans, the “best” cases by far are those that still have some unresolved mystery attached to them, and you can do no better than two entries in this book: “Fatty Arbuckle and the Dead Actress” (Chapter 3) and “Bruno Hauptmann and the Lindbergh Baby” (Chapter 4). The controversy that even now hovers over these two cases can be summed up thusly: Was silent-movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle guilty or not guilty of violently raping a young starlet at a 1921 party in San Francisco, in an attack that allegedly led to her death? (He was acquitted, but the American public decided he was guilty anyway.) And was German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann really the kidnapper and killer of the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932? (Hauptmann was executed, but many people today believe he was innocent, the victim of overzealous police, prosecutors and press driven by the worldwide sympathy for Lindbergh.)

Trials, it has to be said, doesn’t really shed any new light on these cases, though the Arbuckle chapter vividly re-creates what probably did take place at that sex-and-booze orgy of a “Hollywood” party up north, at the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921. In this telling, all the later rumors of Arbuckle having ravaged the young actress Virginia Rappe with a large bottle are shown to have been a total fabrication. (Arbuckle apparently was crucified by a public increasingly intolerant of the fast lifestyles already “rampant” in Hollywoodland, and these lies were taken as gospel.) Despite his acquittal in court, the whole thing was just too wretched for the public to laugh at Fatty Arbuckle in films anymore, so he was put out to pasture.

10 Looks at What Happens When Murder Trials Play Out in the Court of Public Opinion (2)EXPAND
Courtesy Prometheus Books

If you’ve read any books about the Lindbergh kidnapping case, the facts presented in Trials will be familiar to you. That some eyewitnesses clearly lied about seeing Hauptmann near the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey, late at night on March 1, 1932 (one was apparently legally blind), is only one of the tragedies of this mysterious, multifaceted case.

The Phillips concede that the Lindbergh case is probably the trial of the century. Both the crime and the trial itself were worldwide sensations; the trial was a circus, what with a courthouse surrounded by souvenir vendors hawking miniature “kidnap ladders,” and only circumstantial evidence used (and in some cases faked) to convict the already-damned defendant.

Newspapers and radio pretty much convicted Hauptmann from the start; if the authors’ thesis that an “unrestrained” press can at times whip up a “toxic” atmosphere that can distort and even ruin the chances for a defendant (especially a universally vilified defendant) of getting a fair trial is true, they are clearly on solid ground here.

The authors don’t take a position on Hauptmann’s guilt, and new books battle it out on this question all the time.

As the Phillips note herein, the tumultuous ’60s represented a free-for-all for both the best and the worst human impulses. What they can’t explain is our fascination, then and now, with that ultimate layering of bad-on-bad in the personality spectrum: psychopaths who have an urge to kill. And so we descend lower and lower into the murky depths of the genetic cesspool, and what do we find there? Men like Richard Speck, a drifter and petty criminal from Dallas who killed eight student nurses, one-by-one in their dorm, one hideous night in Chicago, in the violent, bloody, riot-torn year of 1966.

Trials may be the first book to describe in minute detail what happened that night, and despite the matter-of-fact tone of the writing, it makes for a vividly frightening read (and also frustrating; at one point, two of the nurses began fighting with Speck while the other six were tied up on the floor not knowing what was coming. The two must have tried wresting his gun away, so the massacre almost didn’t happen). The case of Speck, the mere existence of someone like Speck, must have caused people in 1966 to wonder about a lot of things, for instance how low a human can go in terms of callousness, cruelty and bloodlust. “Never before had Americans experienced the soulless mass slaughter of strangers without reason,” Phillips and daughter claim here (not exactly true, but I shan’t quibble). Then, three years later, along came Charlie Manson.

There are so many books out there on the Manson Family that it’s almost surprising the Phillips bothered to include this case, but there it is; at 35 pages, it’s the longest chapter in the book. Why? “There is something about the case that continues to captivate. The crimes … were some of the scariest in recent memory, perhaps in the last century. It is almost as if we still cannot believe that it actually happened,” the write. True, true.

Whether the authors approve of it or not, the local news coverage of these shocking L.A. murders was, needless to say, saturation-level. It’s not clear whether the Phillips are giving the L.A. press at that time their due on this score, either: “[The] press was so ubiquitous that it often beat out investigators when trying to get a story,” they write (and yes indeed, it was a KABC-TV news crew that found the bloody clothing the killers had tossed over a hillside off of Benedict Canyon). Now, that wasn’t exactly a bad thing, was it?

John Lennon, a future crime victim, is quoted herein from 1970, regarding the Beatles’ would-be fifth member: “If I were a praying man,” he told Rolling Stone, “I’d pray to be delivered from people like Charles Manson … I don’t know what ‘Helter Skelter’ has to do with knifing somebody. He’s cracked, all right.”

The book also covers O.J., Casey Anthony and Jean Harris, who murdered her ex-lover, creator of the 1980s fad the Scarsdale Diet, all of them cases that were covered unrelentingly by the media. 

“Unrestrained, the press will so inflame a community that the environment becomes toxic, inhospitable to a fair judicial process,” the Phillipses write. Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. But who, we could ask, will restrain the restrainers?

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