07.08.11

20 Biggest Trials of Past 20 Years

Casey Anthony’s murder trial is over, but how does it compare to America’s other legal circuses? The Daily Beast ranks the 20 biggest trials, by media saturation, of the past two decades.

After more than a month of testimony, a jury this week found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. In the end it was the evidence—or rather, lack of it—that set Casey free. Working only with circumstantial detail, the jury wasn’t convinced that this mother had murdered her daughter.

Whenever a trial is covered day and night as the Casey Anthony case was, it’s hard not to think of the granddaddy of all made-for-media court cases: O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder in the mid-1990s. That got us thinking—how does the Casey Anthony case stack up against the O.J. trial, and others of its ilk, in terms of mass media coverage?

To find the most-watched, most-covered cases of the past 20 years, The Daily Beast looked at dozens of high-profile trials since 1990, from mobsters to terrorists to pimps—from John Gotti to Ramzi Yousef to Heidi Fleiss. Only the top 20 made it to the final list.

Gallery: 20 Biggest Trials of the Cable Era

We used a two-tiered system for this ranking. Our timeframe for all cases was from indictment (or from arrest likely to lead to indictment that brought the case to the public eye) to 180 days after sentencing, to provide an indication of the importance of the trial in the aftermath, and the total amount of time it took to prosecute each case.

Using this timeframe (different for each case) and LexisNexis, we gave 1 point for each mention of the case from available newspapers and magazines with a circulation over 600,000—including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today—and 1 point for each mention on the nightly news programs on ABC and CBS (NBC Nightly News transcripts were unavailable before 1997). We gave a half point for each mention of the case in newspapers and magazines with a circulation between 200,000 and 600,000—outlets like the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and Newsday. Modern forms of news dissemination—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—were omitted because the Internet was not a mass media force when many of the cases took place.

Finally, these media-mention scores—again scored at a full point for major national media and at a half point for smaller media outlets—were divided by the total number of days for each case’s aforementioned timeframe, to avoid favoring cases that took longer to play out.

Casey Anthony, you may own the media this week, but historically, you didn’t make a dent: just 26th over the past 20 years. Who made the top 20? Click here to find out.

Research by Clark Merrefield