Law and Famous Trials

Nicolae Ceausescu

What was the trial of the twentieth century?

As the century drew to a close, American historians, legal experts, and the public considered which of the many trials hailed as the trial of the twentieth century actually was. But the criteria used by each person varied: some believed the most important trial was the most highly publicized; others believed it was a trial in which the verdict affected everyone; some thought it was a trial that most epitomized an era; and some believed the most important trial was the one that inspired the most public debate. Still others looked for a single trial that seemed to “have it all”: notoriety, impact, reflections of society at large, and a controversial outcome.

Other trials routinely mentioned in considering the question included the cases of convicted murderers Leopold and Loeb; the infamous Scopes “monkey trial,” which pitted faith against reason, religion against science, and tradition against modernity; the Nuremberg trials, which established a process that brought war criminals to justice; the case of Alger Hiss, who was “either a traitor or the victim of a framing for political advantages at the highest levels”; and the Rosenberg espionage case. Undoubtedly there are trials missing from even this long list; there can be no definitive answer to the question.


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