Courtroom junkies, 2013 was your year.
High-profile cases stuffed dockets across the country and around the world. There were trials that tested Americans’ morals and values, judgments that ended political careers and celebrity cases that provided fodder for tabloids.
Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (No. 6), which precluded same-sex couples from financial benefits enjoyed by traditional married couples.The most influential rulings came from the highest bench: The
[Read more about a landmark year in gay rights]
The high court also weighed in on the adoption case of the 4-year-old Cherokee Indian girl known as “Baby Veronica” (No. 8). The court overturned a lower court’s ruling that had awarded custody of the girl to her birth father based on the Indian Child Welfare Act. The girl is now living with her adoptive parents in South Carolina, and her birth father dropped his fight to keep her.
Another government case resulted in the military sentencing of Bradley Manning (No. 10), who also referred to himself as Chelsea. The Army intelligence analyst received 35 years for sharing classified documents with Wikileaks. His chat logs with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was recently released.
[Related: Scroll through a slideshow of the year’s biggest trials]
The summer trial of George Zimmerman (No. 1) offered a potent blend of morality, guns and race. The Florida man was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. There was no doubt that Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, had pulled the trigger. Questions about his motives and the circumstances that led to the deadly encounter lay at the heart of the nationally televised trial.
The case also fired up a nationwide debate over the “stand your ground” laws in Florida and elsewhere that allow people to use lethal force in self-defense. In Florida, state lawmakers rejected a measure to repeal its “stand your ground” law but will consider a compromise bill. Meantime, Zimmerman’s own story continued to unspool in the limelight. In a stunning post-trial revelation, Shellie Zimmerman said she was “conflicted” about her husband’s innocence and filed for divorce. More than two months later, George Zimmerman was arrested in a domestic violence incident against a girlfriend.
One case that played out like a Hollywood screenplay was the Arizona trial of soft-spoken Jodi Arias(No. 2) in Arizona. After months of testimony, a jury in May convicted Arias of first-degree murder in the death of her boyfriend, Travis Alexander.
And like any good drama, there’s a cliffhanger ending. The same jury that convicted Arias of the grisly murder was unable to agree on a sentence, including the possibility of death or life in prison, so Arias still awaits her fate. Prosecutors are pushing for a new jury to be chosen to decide the sentence while Arias’ attorneys are pushing for a change of venue.
Another Hollywood-esque trial unfolded in a Massachusetts courtroom. The Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (No. 5), who ran a notorious organized crime outfit in the 1970s and 1980s, was convicted in August of 11 murders and other gangland crimes. “The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable,” said U.S. District Judge Denise Casper before imposing two consecutive life sentences plus five years on Bulger.
Bulger, who had lived on the lam for 16 years before being arrested in California in 2011, had inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in the 2006 movie “The Departed.” The Fox TV network is also reportedly developing a series based on Bulger.
The legal saga of Amanda Knox (No. 9) continued to unfurl. Knox, convicted along with her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in an Italian court, served four years behind bars for the murder of roommate Meredith Kercher. An Italian appeals court overturned her conviction in 2011, and Knox returned home to Seattle. However, another court overturned that appeal and ordered a retrial. Knox didn’t return to Italy for the latest trial, which has focused on DNA evidence. Her attorney is representing Knox in absentia.
Shocking attacks on women
Cases local and international roused discussions about the concept of “rape culture.” The statistics on rape convictions in India have long been abysmal, but a 23-year-old medical student’s brutal gangrape by six men aboard a New Delhi bus ignited a national furor and global condemnation. The woman died of her injuries two weeks after the December 2012 attack. An Indian court showed little mercy for four attackers, who were sentenced to death. One had committed suicide, and another was placed in juvenile court.
In the United States, a rape after a Steubenville, Ohio, high school football scrimmage (No. 9) rose to attention after the activist organization Anonymous became involved. Two football players were convicted of sexually abusing a teenage girl, and school officials faced charges for obstructing justice. Also facing a possible FBI investigation: the hacker who helped share damning recordings.
In an unusually speedy resolution, Castro pleaded guilty in August to a long list of charges, including kidnapping, rape and murder. In a televised courtroom hearing, prosecutors provided terrifying details of the women’s captivity, and the verbal, physical and sexual abuse they endured. The former bus driver was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus an additional 1,000 years. But prison guards found Castro hanging in his cell just weeks after sentencing and a coroner ruled his death a suicide.
Overseas cases prosecuting former leaders — among them Italy’s profligate Silvio Berlusconi, China’s fallen princeling Bo Xilai and Egypt’s overthrown leader Hosni Mubarak — provided a glimpse to riveted international audiences of insider country politics.
The United States saw its share of political corruption cases, too, both on Wall Street and in politics. Fabrice Tourre was a rare fraud conviction in the 2008 mortgage crisis.
In Chicago, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was convicted of misusing more than $750,000 in campaign funds to buy such luxuries as fur coats, a Rolex watch and celebrity memorabilia. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In Detroit, which became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, once viewed as a rising political star, was sentenced in federal court to a stunning 28 years in prison for corruption. It was one of the longest sentences ever given to a high-profile elected official.
The sentence was intended to send a messagethat corruption would not be tolerated and “that way of business is over,” Judge Nancy Edmunds said, who added, “He chose to waste his talents on personal aggrandizement and enrichment.”
Cases for 2014
A grievous spate of mass shootings in America has resulted in few public trials. Military courts convicted Nidal Malik Hasan in the Fort Hood massacre and Sgt. Robert Bales for murdering 16 Afghan civilians. Hasan’s sentence is death; Bales’, life in prison.
One of the highest-profile cases, that of James Holmes — who is charged in the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre — will be headed to trial with jury selection to begin February. Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 others during a shooting rampage in July 2012. His defense team and prosecutors have argued over what statements and evidence were admissible into a trial. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
We also expect to see star athletes in court in 2014. Aaron Hernandez, an up-and-coming star tight end for the New England Patriots, was indicted in August in the killing of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, a semiprofessional football player from Boston. The Patriots quickly severed ties with Hernandez after he was charged in the murder.
In March, former Olympian and double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, also known as the “Blade Runner” for the prosthetic legs in which he ran, will face murder charges in Cape Town, South Africa. He is accused of killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his villa in a gated estate in the South African capital, Pretoria, in the predawn hours of Feb. 14.