The Ugliest Court Cases in History
Several notable court rulings have single-handedly revolutionized the legal industry and the lives of ordinary Americans. These were tumultuous, public cases that were widely recognized as U.G.L.Y. Many of these court rulings have influenced race relations, human rights, free expression, and a variety of other issues. The judgments were not always broadly accepted; the court was chastised for making decisions that widened the social class divide and harmed the poor and minority groups.
Some of these cases resulted in legislation that is still in effect today, while others resulted in triumphs for the key parties involved. All of these cases were and continue to be viewed as contentious by the public. Many people believe this because their trials spurred the nation, others because the ruling should have been obvious, and yet the court might not have thought the same. All who read this article will be one page wiser about their own legal system.
Let everyone who reads these short words understand the torn and deep history of our wonderful United States. The job of the United States Supreme Court, according to James Madison, is to be "an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive." These have been some truly ugly court cases that, regardless of the outcome, have endured the test of time and continue to have an impact on the rights of Americans today.
Texas v. Rubenstein AKA Jack Ruby
Lee Harvey Oswald's arrest for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was widely broadcast on television. On a Saturday night in November 1963, news of Oswald's transfer from the local jail to a county institution had been announced.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday, while officials were preparing to transport Oswald by automobile from police headquarters to the neighboring county prison.
Jacob Rubenstein aka "Jack Ruby" pulled out a pistol and fired a snub-nosed Colt Cobra.38 (a law enforcement grade gun at the time) into Oswald's belly in full view of witnesses and cameras.
Oswald was transported to the hospital in an ambulance, the same hospital where physicians had attempted to save JFK's life two days before.
In less than two hours, Oswald was dead. Local, national, and international news outlets covered the trial extensively.
The prosecutor was Henry Wade (that Wade). The defendant, who was defended pro bono by renowned attorney Melvin Belli, requested that the trial be moved out of Dallas due to the high level of media attention.
This application was turned down. Some observers believed the case may have been resolved as a "murder without malice" accusation (approximately equivalent to manslaughter), carrying a maximum jail sentence of five years.
Instead, Belli tried to show that Ruby was legally insane and that he came from a family with a history of mental illness (the latter being true, as his mother had been committed to a mental hospital years before).
Ruby was found guilty of murder with malice on March 14, 1964, and was sentenced to death.
Belli said to the court that the trial was essentially a sham. Ruby's conviction and death sentence were reversed by the appellate court, which ordered that he be retried in a locale other than Dallas County.
When Ruby was hospitalized in Dallas in December of 1966, suffering from pneumonia, plans were in the works for a second trial to be held in February 1967 in Wichita Falls, Texas.
It was then that doctors discovered he had cancer in his liver, lungs, and brain. On January 3, 1967, he passed away leaving a wake of unanswered questions.
United States v. Ghislaine Maxwell
Ghislaine Noelle Marion Maxwell is a convicted sex offender who was born into wealth. In July of 2020, federal officials in the United States charged Maxwell with the crimes of enticement of minors and sex trafficking of underage girls in connection with her relationship with Epstein, a financier, and convicted sex offender. She was found guilty on five of the six counts, including one of sex trafficking of a minor, in December of 2021.
Since 2015, Maxwell has been accused of obtaining and sexually trafficking minors for Epstein and others, which she has denied. In July of 2020, the FBI detained Maxwell in Bradford, New Hampshire, using an IMSI-catcher ("stingray") mobile phone tracking device on a phone that she used to call one of her lawyers, her spouse Scott Borgerson, and her sister Isabel. Her ties to Epstein, and so many of the wealthy elite, raised questions about the true power of money. The citizens of the world desired to know who she dealt with and what her deals were. Her ties and dealings have not been made public, despite the fact that she has been convicted.
This raises the larger question of whether all members of a criminal ring should be made public when a famous character is convicted, or whether the information should be kept hidden until all members of the ring are captured and convicted, especially in the case of sex trafficking.
Hauptmann v. Wilentz
Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German-born carpenter, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh's 20-month-old son. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. became renowned as "The Crime of the Century." Charles Lindbergh Jr. was taken from his house in Highfields, New Jersey, in March of 1932; a handmade ladder was discovered under the window of the child's room. A sum of $50,000 was demanded in a ransom note. Alas, the infant's body was discovered on May 12th in the woods four miles from the family's home.
A strike to the head was blamed for his death, which some speculated happened by accident during the kidnapping. Hauptmann was dubbed "The World's Most Hated Man." Although the evidence against Hauptmann appeared insurmountable, it has been maintained that the evidence was entirely circumstantial. Hauptmann, on the other hand, was found guilty and sentenced to death. Hauptmann maintained his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936.
The case against Hauptmann later came under serious scrutiny - from those involved subsequently admitting they lied under oath, to evidence being planted, witnesses being intimidated, Hauptmann being misidentified, and so much more. Jana Bommersbach, an investigative reporter, said that Hauptmann could not have received a fair trial because of the press prejudice against him due to his German ancestry. His wife fought until she died at the age of 95 to clear his name. The verdict still stands.
The Federal Kidnapping Act (also known as the Lindbergh Law) was passed in June 1932. This made kidnapping across state lines a federal crime, allowing police to pursue suspects beyond state lines, and stipulated that the crime could be punished by death.
People v. Anna Sorokin, also known as Anna Delvey
Anna Sorokin is a Russian-born German. Sorokin claimed to be a wealthy German heiress named Anna Delvey between 2013 and 2017. To that purpose, and during the intervening years, everyone around her believed her. Everything she did, from the way she held herself to the way she spoke and dressed, was a reflection of what society had taught many others to do. The wealthy write, sing, and tell others in interviews, "Just quit being poor." Ms. Anna went ahead and did exactly that. She persuaded everyone in her vicinity that she was, in fact - not destitute.
In 2017, she was arrested in the United States for scamming or willfully manipulating large financial institutions, banks, hotels, and associates for a total of $275,000. It should be noted that Netflix paid Sorokin $320,000 for the rights to her life story. Sorokin was convicted of attempted grand larceny, larceny in the second degree, and theft of services in a New York state court in 2019 and sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison. Inventing Anna, a Netflix series dramatization of her story, was released in 2022 and starred Julia Garner as Sorokin.
Though she has been released from prison, Ms. Anna is presently being held in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, awaiting deportation.
Obergefell v. Hodges
Four states filed federal district court cases between January 2012 and February 2014, which culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges. The district courts' decisions in favor of the plaintiffs were appealed to the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio. Following findings that same-sex marriage restrictions at the state level were unconstitutional that year by the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits - the Sixth Circuit held that it was bound by Baker v. Nelson (same-sex marriage restrictions "do not offend" the US Constitution) and deemed such bans to be valid in November.
This created a split between circuits and led to a Supreme Court review. Obergefell overturned Baker on June 26, 2015, and now compels all states to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex weddings performed legally in other jurisdictions. This paved the way for same-gender marriage in the United States and its territories. Some people were outraged by the decision, with a few regions even refusing to issue any marriage licenses at all rather than comply.
Prior to Obergefell, same-sex marriage had already been established by law, court ruling, or voter initiative in thirty-six states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. This ruling included all "governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities" that typically accompany marriage, including birth certificates. This came two days before the 46th year anniversary of the stone wall riot, recognized by most as the first pride parade.
Minnesota v. Derek Michael Chauvin
Derek Chauvin was one of four officers from the Minneapolis Police Department that arrested George Floyd on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill on May 25, 2020. Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds while Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the street. Two more officers knelt on Floyd's back for part of this time.
Floyd was still and had no pulse for the final two minutes. Floyd was "terrified, panicked, begging for his life" and shouting "I can't breathe," according to a witness who captured a widely distributed video that questioned the first police report. Floyd's treatment when he was apprehended is not included in the initial police report. Floyd's death was determined to be a homicide by two autopsies. It was Minnesota's first completely televised criminal trial.
It was widely covered in the media, with over 23 million people viewing the verdict on live television and online. Chauvin was found guilty of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The trial court sentenced him to 22+12 years in jail for second-degree murder. The verdict was met with strong criticism from conservative media, who claimed it was "fixed" or influenced by "mob rule," while many in the international community hailed the fact that the murderer was brought to justice.
This case was Minnesota's first conviction of a white police officer for the murder of a black individual in the history of the state.
Wyoming v. Kyle Rittenhouse
In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident, shot and killed two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shootings occurred amid the upheaval that erupted following the shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake, by a white police officer. Rittenhouse had joined a group of armed men in Kenosha who claimed to be there to protect businesses and was armed with a semi-automatic AR-15 style weapon. During a verbal altercation, Rittenhouse was chased into a parking lot by Joseph Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old unarmed man.
After attempting to disarm Rittenhouse by gripping the barrel of his rifle, Rosenbaum was shot four times at close range, and killed. Rittenhouse took off running and was pursued by a crowd. He tripped, and at that moment Anthony Huber (26) approached and struck Kyle with his skateboard and was then fatally shot in the chest. Rittenhouse shot Gaige Grosskreutz, a 26-year-old man with a handgun, in the right arm, during this skirmish. All of this, as well as much more, was brought to the attention of the court.
Rittenhouse was cleared of all charges after asserting the affirmative defense of self-defense at trial. The shootings inflamed public opinion, and media coverage was both polarized and politicized. Conservative politicians and figures applauded Rittenhouse's acquittal, claiming that the shots were self-defense, while others decried the verdict as a miscarriage of justice. They claimed that the acquittal exemplified the American justice system's racial double standards.
Kyle did not want the weapon in question to become a political symbol or trophy, therefore the Kenosha police department destroyed it in February of 2022.
Trump v. Hawaii
This was a Supreme Court case involving one of former President Donald Trump's proclamations prohibiting people from several nations, as well as refugees without proper travel documents, from entering the US. Hawaii, along with a slew of other states and groups, challenged Trump's proclamation and two previous executive orders on statutory and constitutional grounds. They argued that the proclamation and its preceding orders were motivated by anti-Muslim attitudes, citing Trump's and government officials' stated sentiments.
The president's travel ban did not violate the Free Exercise Clause, according to the court, since the comments he makes are reasonably understood to be justified by reasons other than unlawful grounds. National security was the independent justification in this case. This ruling reaffirmed the president's broad authority over immigration issues.
Casey Anthony v. State
Caylee Marie Anthony was a three-year-old toddler who lived in Orlando, Florida with her mother, Casey Marie Anthony. Casey's mother, Cindy, called 911 in July 2008, proclaiming she hadn't seen Caylee for 31 days, and her daughter's car smelled like a corpse. Casey told the police that her daughter was kidnapped by her nanny on June 9, and she has been searching for her ever since. This was later proven to be a lie. She was charged with first-degree murder in October 2008 and pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The prosecution sought the death penalty. In the six-week trial, they alleged that Casey had killed her daughter with chloroform and taped over her nose and mouth to avoid parental responsibilities. The defense purported that Casey's father had disposed of her child's body after her toddler drowned in her family's pool. They went on to say that Casey lied about these and other issues because of her tragic background, including sexual abuse by her father. That was the winning argument.
On July 5, 2011, the jury found Casey not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child, despite all evidence (including a web search for "foolproof suffocation"). Since the trial, many states have enacted "Caylee's Laws," which make it a felony for a parent or legal guardian to fail to report a missing kid if the parent knew or should have known the child was in danger.
Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard
Soon after their divorce from their two-year marriage, Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, accusing her ex-husband of assault without naming him. She highlighted how he became "a public figure representing domestic abuse" and "saw, in real-time, how institutions defend guys accused of abuse" in the piece. Depp disputed the charges and blamed the article for ruining his reputation and career, as well as forcing him to lose a lot of cash money.
John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard was a defamation trial that began on April 11, 2022, and finished on June 1st of the same year, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Plaintiff Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation on three counts, seeking $50 million in damages. Heard filed a counterclaim for $100 million against Depp. The jury determined that Mr. Depp had proven all of the elements of defamation with real malice for all three assertions from Heard's 2018 op-ed.
From Heard, the jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The punitive damages, however, were limited to $350,000 due to a Virginia state law. Regarding Heard's counterclaim, the jury determined that the second of three contested remarks published in The Daily Mail by Depp's former lawyer Adam Waldman was defamatory and that Ms. Heard had proven all of the elements of defamation with actual malice for this statement.
The jury granted Heard $2 million in compensatory damages, but no punitive damages. You can find out more dirty details on this case here.
The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson
Nicole Brown spent seven years with Orenthal James Simpson, a former NFL player, broadcaster, and actor. Simpson pursued and tormented her after they divorced, she claimed. He watched her have sex with her new partner and recorded it. She stated she was afraid for her life because Simpson had threatened to kill her. Brown called Sojourn, a women's shelter on June 8, 1994. She was refusing to communicate with her ex-husband and had recently reported a set of keys missing from her home.
The keys were discovered on Simpson when he was apprehended for the murders of Brown and Ron Goldman. Near the bodies, authorities discovered a glove that matched one recovered on OJ Simpson's property when they went to inform him of his ex-wife's death. OJ later fled in his white Bronco, with police pursuing him. He was apprehended and tried, splitting the country. The media covered every aspect of this case, from the vehicle chase to the documentary on his life.
Speculation was rife in bars, restaurants, barbershops, and local schools. The longer the case dragged on, the more fears of riots intensified. The pronouncement of the judgment was watched or heard by an estimated 100 million individuals throughout the world. Productivity was lost to the estimated tune of $480 million. On October 3rd, 1995, Simpson was acquitted of both counts of murder after an eleven-month trial.
Roe v. Wade
"Jane Roe" (Norma McCorvey) became pregnant with her third child and sought an abortion in Texas, where such procedures were illegal. She recruited two female lawyers who filed a lawsuit against her local district attorney, Henry Wade, in federal court in the United States on her behalf. He was defeated. So, do you have any idea what this person did? He took his case to the Supreme Court. This man sought to force this woman, who was unrelated to him, to bear this child.
The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of "Jane Roe" on January 22, 1973, ruling that women in the United States have a basic right to choose whether or not to have abortions without unreasonable government restrictions and declaring Texas's abortion law unconstitutional. The ruling was delivered alongside a parallel case, Doe v. Bolton, in which a similar challenge to Georgia's abortion laws was made. For what human, we may ask, has any right to another human's body.
Brown v. Board of Education
For six decades, racially segregated public facilities were considered legal as long as the facilities for black and white persons were equal. These "Jim Crow" rules made it illegal for black people to use facilities alongside white people on buses, in schools, and in other public places. A plaintiff named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, after his daughter, Linda Brown, was denied admission to Topeka's all-white elementary schools.
Brown argued that segregation violated the 14th Amendment's "equal protection provision" because black children's schools were not equal to white children's schools in his case. To be a part of the litigation, all plaintiffs faced significant personal risks, including losing their jobs, houses, and lives.
In a unanimous verdict against school segregation swayed by a newly appointed supreme court justice, they declared that “in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place, as segregated schools are inherently unequal.” The Brown v. Board of Education decision elicited a wide range of reactions, from exuberant support to vehement dissent.
White political leaders in the south condemned the decision, vowing to fight it. Shortly after this case, the children who went on to attend white schools were faced with vehement hostility and harassment.
Korematsu v. United States
Executive Order 9066 was signed shortly after the United States entered World War II. The order authorized the military to transport roughly 120,000 persons of Japanese descent to detention facilities run by the government, where they were kept for nearly 14 weeks. Fast forward to Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old Japanese-American citizen who refused to leave his home and work. To hide his heritage, he got plastic surgery on his eyes, changed his name to Clyde Sarah, and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian ancestry.
Korematsu was arrested by the FBI six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for failing to report to a relocation center. Korematsu was tried in federal court in San Francisco, convicted of violating military orders, and sent to an assembly center. Naturally, he tried to overturn the decision. In a 6-3 judgment on December 18, 1944, a split Supreme Court concluded that the detention was a "military necessity" and not based on race.
A district court decision, nearly 40 years later, cleared Korematsu's reputation, but the Supreme Court decision stands. That is to say, in the United States, internment camps have been declared legal.
Dred Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott petitioned for his freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County in April of 1846 after being unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase his freedom. A companion petition was filed for his wife Harriet, making them the first married pair to file freedom claims simultaneously. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in their judgment that enslaved people were not citizens of the United States of America and could not expect protection from the federal government or the courts.
Furthermore, the ruling concluded that Congress lacked the authority to prohibit slavery on federal land. Scott v. Sandford is widely regarded as the worst Supreme Court judgment ever. It was thankfully repealed by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and declared all people born in the United States to be citizens.
The Dred Scott decision enraged abolitionists, who saw it as a way for the Supreme Court to put an end to the debate concerning slavery in the territories. The North-South divide over slavery deepened until southern states seceded from the Union and the Confederate States of America was born.