Four Trials That Changed the World

Austin Sarat

Even if we know little about the law, most of us know something about one of law's great rituals, the trial. We are regularly fascinated when this or that legal case is played out in a courtroom and proclaimed in the media to be "the trial of the century." Courtroom contests pit good versus evil, right versus wrong. But, in addition to their dramatic quality, they also are educational moments, occasions on which some of our most important political and social issues get played out before judge and jury. In this lecture we will consider four trials that changed American history during the twentieth century.

We will start by examining the so called "Scopes Monkey Trial." In this 1925 case, a high school teacher was accused of violating a state law that made it illegal to teach human evolution in public schools. Next we take up the Nuremberg trials, held by Allied forces after World War II to prosecute the leaders of Nazi Germany. Our third trial occurred in 1995 when the state of California prosecuted O.J. Simpson for the murder of his wife. The final of the four trials that changed America occurred four year later when the United States Senate took up the impeachment charges against President Bill Clinton arising out of his conduct during and after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Each of these trials crystallized crucial issues of the day. And, the decisions reached in each of them had a profound impact well beyond the boundaries of the courtroom. If you are interested in such pressing issues as freedom of speech and religion, the responsibilities of perpetrators of war crimes, the legal treatment of celebrities, and the private lives of public figures, or if you just want to have the fun of revisiting some of the most riveting moments in recent American history, this lecture will give you considerable food for thought.