A History of Celebrity Trials, from Woodward to Pistorius

We've been taking a prurient interest in the private shame of others since the 90s.

Are we living through a new golden age of celebrity trials? It seems like every week now someone else who has been to an awards show is put on trial for something unspeakable. If it's not Chris Huhne's ex-wife being banjaxed by one of Britain's special needs juries, it's Young Vito's ongoing trial for the murder of Atlantan rapper Slim Dunkin. To say nothing of events in South Africa, where the sad plight of Oscar Pistorius has captured the public's imagination only slightly less than the news that Desmond Tutu's son is up on contempt of court charges after failing to pay child maintenance.

Are these glory days for our prurient interest in people's private shame? Let's refresh our memory by looking back at some of the better "celebrity" trials that have taken place since that word was hammered into meaninglessness. By which I mean: the 1990s.


Louise Woodward's trial was an ultimate 90s moment, to the extent that I'm amazed she's never been asked to present one of those clips shows where she counts down a list that starts with the Guinness horses ads and ends with Spike Island.

Part of the fascination of it was that it instantly became a microcosm of the frail state of the transatlantic Special Relationship. America, of course, thought this titty English witch was definitely guilty: a sort of anti-Poppins who blagged her way in on an au pairing visa purely so she could force spoonfuls of arsenic down the throats of as many Yank children as possible. Britain, of course, knew she was innocent – she was British, after all, and this was yet another case of gung-ho North American justice arresting the nearest person to the corpse and making up some charges to go along with it. We'd all recently seen The Fugitive. We knew how it went.

This is how much of a clash of cultures it was: the whole trial at times hung upon the differences between US and British English. The word "popped", in particular. When Louise told police she'd "just popped" the kid down on the bed, we knew this to mean a gentle putting-down. Americans assumed she had choke-slammed the poor lad down in his cot like those wrestlers they loved watching on their televisions. It was like a global tribunal had been called to decide what the proper distinction between "trousers" and "pants" was.
Entertainment Rating: 8/10


Photo by Alan Light

The genius of the OJ trial was to arrive at a time when there was literally nothing happening in the world. As the globe greedily ate up a post-Cold War peace dividend, 1996 was a year of economic growth, progress and enlightenment, none of which anyone has ever "crossed live to from The Skycopter".

So, to hide this embarrassing lack of ripped up shards of baby strewn along Middle Eastern highways, the OJ trial pretty much invented the idea of using boring procedural events involving celebrities no one in Britain had heard of to fill up late-night space on rolling news channels. Pretty soon we were "hooked". Or at least, pundits kept telling us we were "hooked". Mainly, we were "hooked" because it was 1996 and nothing else was on TV after 11.15PM.

In the end, perhaps the most startling aspect of the OJ Trial was that no one ever released a cash-in novelty pop song that hinged on what is seen as the trial's pivotal line: “If the glove does not fit, you must acquit.” It's a neat phrase. It even rhymes. Johnnie Cochran really should have made more of that. If the trial had been taking place today, you know a million people on reddit would have taken care of it for him.
Entertainment Rating: 6/10


Photo by sylartinitaly

The world seemed to be getting a bit carried away with the whole idea of celebrity trials by the late 90s, and hence, in 2001, this briefly became the media's hottest ticket. “Did Puff Daddy kill her?” was the question no one was asking, because Sean Combs was only ever charged with "gun possession". That's right: a man in America was about to be charged with possessing a gun. And this was international news.

Of course, there was a complicating factor: Puffy was dating Jennifer Lopez, an actress and occasional singer who had become popular within the key "slutty Beyonce" demographic. Now, the sort of people who get their grip on the West Bank situation via US Weekly seemed to be worried that Lopez was damaging herself by consorting with the most hardcore gangsta in North American history. What if her sponsors gave her slightly less money? She might end her days giving blowjobs for pennies in a by-the-hour Bronx hotel. So, after initially being all "stand by your man", she broke up with him halfway through the trial. No one knows if she actually used the words "My publicist just isn't in love with you any more."

And then, despite having clearly possessed a gun, Diddy walked free from court thanks to OJ's lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. Perhaps if Cochran had trademarked another of his little rhymes it would have been easier for him to get Sean off. Something like: “If the cunt does not have wit, you must acquit.”
Entertainment Rating: 4/10


Thriller will be forgotten soon enough. Jackson's true legacy to the world of entertainment was to introduce the planet to the genre of the nightly trial re-enactment video transmission. E! Entertainment Television led the way with theirs. But pretty soon, there was a Dynasty to its Dallas, courtesy of Sky News. If you were an out-of-work actor who bore a close resemblance to celebrity witness Chris Tucker, you'd never had so many people bidding for your services.

Of course, by that point in his career, Chris Tucker probably would've been glad of the chance to play Chris Tucker. Sadly, that role went to an unknown. Whereas once the role of "Michael Jackson impersonator" had involved doing the Moonwalk, grabbing your balls and twisting the brim of your fedora, now it seemed to chiefly involve perfecting the permanently surprised expression of a man who'd endured too many facelifts, and looking sad and betrayed in a courtoom while your Andy Warhol-lookalike defence attorney prevaricated over phone logs.

It's how he would have wanted us to remember him.
Entertainment Rating: 8/10


Saddam Hussein had done some unspeakable things in Iraq. Failed to reform the tax code. Reduced the number of penalty points before you lost your drivers' licence from 12 to 9. Something about genocide. War crimes. Blah blah. And so it was inevitable, really, that he'd one day end up being hanged by the neck until dead after a big-screen trial that Amnesty International hailed as "unfair", and Human Rights Watch lauded as "flawed".

Around our house, we generally described it as "not quite as entertaining as you'd imagine". Even the climax, where this leathery osprey of a judge pronounces a sentence of death upon him somehow lacks pathos, as Saddam pre-emptively tries to shout him down like a bolshy tot. The problem was that Slobodan Milosevic had already pioneered the same sort of shit during his own trial at The Hague for not-dissimilar war crimes. Slobodan was already king of the "I'm going to just keep on shouting and shouting even though it's not my turn to speak." Saddam had jacked his flow, and in truth it wasn't working for him.

Perhaps the best thing about the Saddam trial was that, for safety reasons, you weren't allowed to show the faces of his legal team, or the prosecution, or the bailiffs. So the whole thing ended up seeming a bit like a two-man play. Like Saddam and the judge were Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, forever bickering with each other over who used the last of the milk and who actually won the 1957 World Series. Unlike Matthau and Lemmon, one of them got the upper hand in the end by pronouncing a sentence of death on the other. I still maintain that this ending would've saved Grumpier Old Men from seeming a tad formulaic.
Entertainment Rating: 6/10

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Image by Marta Parszeniew.

Previously: Why I Feel Sorry for the Pope Who Hung Up On God