Not Guilty: Famous Successful Defense Cases

When a person goes to trial for a crime, he or she is represented by a criminal defense attorney. It is the defense attorney’s job to speak for the defendant and to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case. Because a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, the defense attorney does not carry the burden of proving that his or her client is innocent, although they may present witnesses that can help their client’s defense. The job of the defense team, however, is often a challenging one. This is because the defense must be aware of all evidence gathered and review it to determine any weakness or inconsistencies that could result in an acquittal. High profile cases often prove even more challenging. When a celebrity or a politician is charged with a crime, the defense must also contend with public opinion. This can make it difficult to select a jury that is impartial, particularly if the defendant is someone who is not viewed favorably. Despite the challenges that the defense team faces, there have been numerous high-profile cases that have ended with an acquittal.

O.J. Simpson (Murder Trial)

Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was a famous National Football League player accused of killing both Nicole Brown-Simpson, his ex wife, and Ronald Goldman, a crime which occurred on June 13, 1994. For O.J.’s defense, he hired a team first led by Robert Shapiro, then later by Johnnie Cochran. The defense argued that the evidence had been tampered with in efforts to make it look as if O.J. Simpson had committed the murders. One of the most famous and memorable quotes from the trial, by Johnnie Cochran, was “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” which pertained to the bloody gloves that were supposedly used in the murder. Simpson was found not guilty on the morning of October 3rd, 1995. As a result of his acquittal, a wrongful death civil trial took place in 1997 where OJ Simpson was held liable for both deaths. The civil suit awarded the victims’ families over $33 million, much of which came from selling O.J. Simpson’s prized belongings. O.J. Simpson faced years of ongoing legal troubles stemming from this lawsuit, due to the fact that his pension and other assets were immune to seizure to satisfy his liabilities.

Bill Clinton (Perjury Trial)

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States, and served two terms, from 1993 to 2001. During his second term, the United States House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton over lies he allegedly told during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. The charges were obstruction of justice and perjury, and stemmed from claims that he lied to the United States Congress about an investigation involving alleged extra-marital affairs. President Clinton’s defense team made the argument that the trial was politically motivated and the prosecutors’ evidence was both circumstantial and lacking in substance. In addition the defense argued that the charges did not meet the Constitutional standards required to convict, much less unseat the President. President Clinton was acquitted of the charge of perjury by a United States Senate vote of 45 to 55, and then acquitted of obstruction of justice by a vote of 50 to 50. Despite his acquittal during the impeachment trial, in the aftermath, President Clinton was levied a $90,000 fine in 1999 by a Federal district judge, and his license to practice law was suspended for five years in 2001. After leaving office, Clinton settled out of court with Paula Jones, paying her over $800,000. Some political activists contend that candidate George W. Bush won the 2000 Presidential election because of nationwide concerns about character and honesty, as a result of the Paula Jones lawsuit and the subsequent impeachment proceedings.

LAPD Officers in Rodney King Beating Trial (Initial State Trial)

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Stacey Koon were involved in a videotaped incident involving a motorist named Rodney King on March 3, 1991. The four officers were charged by the Los Angeles district attorney with the use of excessive force as a result of the video footage which showed the officers beating King with metal batons and kicking him as well. The strategy of the defense for the four officers began with moving the trial to Simi Valley. Simi Valley, a conservative area with a mostly Caucasian population, was an ideal area to pick jurors that were sympathetic to the defendants. Jury selection was another part of the defense, in that 10 of the jurors were Caucasian, with one Asian and Hispanic juror as exceptions. The jurors were also either security guards, ex-military, or other demographic groups sympathetic to the police. During the trial, the defense’s case revolved around the assertion that the police officers’ actions were justified, and that Rodney King’s actions justified the level of force used against him. The jury agreed with the defense, completely acquitting three of the officers and acquitting Powell of all but one charge, on which the jury was hung. Following the acquittal of the LAPD officers, angry rioters took to the streets of Los Angeles, looting and burning businesses along the way. During the protests, rioters assaulted a truck driver by the name of Reginald Denny, beating him severely. In retaliation for the Rodney King trial, the jury refused to find two participants in the attack guilty of most charges. A federal investigation of the Rodney King beating followed and the police officers were retried. All four officers were fired from the LAPD.

Aaron Burr (Treason Trial)

Aaron Burr was the third Vice President of the United States, and is famous for his duel with Alexander Hamilton, which he won. He was accused of participating in the “Burr Conspiracy,” an alleged treasonous plot against the United States. The charges were based on claims that Burr was gathering an army to take territory from Spain, in what would have been an act of war. Burr’s attorney, Edmund Randolph, offered the defense that Burr had never committed an actual act of treason. Burr argued that his cause was peaceful and patriotic, and that he never fled from justice, but rather, faced trial in various courts where he was acquitted of similar charges. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the trial, and declared that Aaron Burr hadn’t committed treason because he didn’t commit an act of war. As a result, the jury found him not guilty of treason. After his acquittal his political career disintegrated, and he was forced by circumstances to flee to Europe to escape his infamy. He became buried in debt and lived the rest of his life under the surname “Edwards,” living in obscurity.

Michael Jackson (2003 Child Molestation Trial)

Michael Jackson was a world-famous musician, dancer and choreographer who is often referred to as the “King of Pop.” The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as history’s most successful entertainer. In 2003, however, he was charged with what eventually became 14 criminal counts related to allegations of child molestation. These charges included abduction, false imprisonment, sharing pornography with children, giving liquor to minors, and molestation. Michael Jackson’s defense attorneys contended that at least one of the parents who accused him of molestation was a con artist. They accused one mother of raising her children to trick celebrities into giving them money out of sympathy. Arguably the strongest defense for Michael Jackson’s claim of innocence came from the witnesses that the prosecution attempted to bring against him. For instance, a former bodyguard for Michael Jackson, had amassed an extensive criminal record involving robberies of various stores, and declined to testify. Another witness dropped out of the case after being caught stealing a drawing of Elvis Presley. A third potential prosecution witness was caught offering to testify against Michael Jackson for $100,000. The jury deliberated for a week, after which they acquitted Michael Jackson on all 10 felony counts and 4 misdemeanor charges. When the trial was over, the biggest loser turned out to be the media, which was roundly criticized for its biased coverage of the trial. Michael Jackson, according to his brother Tito, became more distrustful of people, and he eventually closed his Neverland ranch where his accusers said the molestations took place.

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