Famous Trials That Changed History

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Although ancient Egyptian law prevailed in 3000 BC, King Hammurabi’s Codex Hammurabi seems to be the first law code in recorded history. This Babylonian law was developed by King Hammurabi in 1760 BC and carved on stone slabs; it was spread throughout the kingdom. Chinese and Indian traditions of laws are well documented in ancient books. A trial is a legal tool to resolve such disagreements which cannot be resolved by usual and informal methods.  In the USA and most countries of the world, the legal system in practice currently is known as the ‘adversary system.’ In this system, the opponents collect and submit evidence, argue, question, and present their case to the resolver, usually a judge. The neutrality and fairness of this system has been subjected to criticism. The critics opine that there is an inherent flaw in this system, and it is not possible in this system for a true but less privileged, accused person to prove the truth against a wealthier and more influential opponent. Right from the trial of Socrates to the 9/11 trials, the ruling parties had been biased,  and many judgments became so controversial that it is almost impossible to find the truth except after the lapse of many years as is customarily done in the case of war crimes.

1. The Trial of Socrates

The Trial of Socrates
The Trial of Socrates

Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher who would impact Western philosophy for thousands of years wrote Apologia meaning ‘defense’ in Greek. Socrates’ pupil, Plato, wrote it in remembrance of how his teacher offered his defense for the charges leveled against him, the foremost being misguiding the Greek youth and blasphemy for the Greek gods of that time. His trial was conducted at the age of 70, and he was found guilty of impiety and sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock extract. The verdict was not unexpected for Socrates. According to Plato, he said in the last moments of his life, ‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways, I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.’

2. The Eichmann Trial

The Eichmann Trial

Otto Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi commissioned officer who was involved in the Holocaust, the state-sponsored, systematic killing of over six million European Jews during World War II. He fled to Argentina at the end of the war and worked with Mercedes-Benz until 1960 when he was captured by the Mossad agents and brought to Israel. His trial was conducted in Jerusalem and was witnessed by hundreds of reporters from all over the world. He was convicted for 15 charges including crimes against humanity. During the hearing, he was in a glass showcase and looked quite composed unlike the brute people had imagined him to be. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging in 1962.

3. The Conversos Trial

The Conversos Trial
Seal for the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spain)

For centuries, Spain had been a meeting place for people belonging to different faiths and cultures. Things, however, changed after the launching of the Reconquista by the Spanish monarchy.  In connection with the restoration of Catholic orthodoxy in Spain, the Supreme Council of the Inquisition, Suprema, was formed in 1483. The converted Muslims or Christians, the Conversos, were subjected to trial without counsel. People found guilty were tortured brutally, and many thousands were sentenced to death.

4. The Nuremberg Trials

The Nuremberg Trials
The Nuremberg Trials

The excesses and crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis during World War II culminating in the deaths of six million European Jews came into the spotlight and shook the world. A military tribunal was set up in Nuremberg, Germany for trials of the involved Nazi leadership. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbles had already committed suicide, and the surviving Nazi leadership included Hermann Goering who was tried in Nuremberg, found guilty of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death by hanging. However, the night before his hanging was scheduled, he committed suicide by taking cyanide. The Nuremberg Trial set a precedent that  states individuals also could be convicted of crimes against humanity.

5. The Dreyfus Trial

The Dreyfus Trial
Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army captain who was accused of selling sensitive French military information to Germany. Dreyfus did not plead guilty during the trial and maintained that he was innocent. France was divided on the issue, and the French Intelligentsia believed in his innocence and opined that he was accused falsely. However, the judgment was against him, and he was court-martialed and found guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served years of his punishment on Devil’s Island. Renowned novelist of the time, Emile Zola, wrote an open letter to the French President in favor of Dreyfus. But instead of being considered favorably, he too was imprisoned. The President finally pardoned him, and he was awarded the Legion of Honor.

6. Galileo Galilei Trial

Galileo Galilei Trial
Galileo Galilei Trial

Galileo Galilei, known as the Father of Science, discovered that the Earth was revolving around the sun; a fact that contradicted the geocentric view of the Catholic Church and was in their opinion a contradiction to the Scriptures. The scientific view was looked down upon by the church, and Galileo Galilei was admonished for it and called to the Holy Office. His request to exempt him from a personal appearance was denied, and he had to travel a long distance in  the bitter cold in his old age. During the trial by the Vatican, he was found guilty of presenting this heretical doctrine. Consequently, he had to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.  It was after 300 years that the church agreed with Galileo Galilei’s findings and cleared him of heresy.

7. Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692
Salem Witchcraft Trials

Samuel Parris, a preacher, was invited to preach in Salem. He along with his wife Elizabeth, daughter Betty, niece Abigail, and a house servant Tituba, settled there. Around 1692, Betty fell ill and did not respond to any treatment. The village doctor suggested that the cause was something supernatural and to treat her was beyond his capabilities. She was suspected of witchcraft, and Tituba as well as Abigail too were suspected of being witches. Later, medical professionals suggested that the disease might have been caused by food poisoning after ingesting toxic ergot from rye. In addition to Betty, Abigail, and Tituba, four other people were also considered witches. They were; Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susana Sheldon, and Mary Warren. Governor Phips formed ‘Court of Oyer Terminer’ which convicted all of the suspects for witchcraft. More than 19 persons were hanged before the hunt for witches came to an end.

8. Pendle Witches Trial

Pendle Witches Trial
Two of the accused witches, Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne

The Pendle trial was conducted against the accused witches were mainly from two families; the Demdikes and Chattoxes. The accused witches included: Elizabeth Southern, Elizabeth Device, James, Alizone Device, Anne Whittle, and Anne Redferne, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, and Jennet Preston. Out of the 11 who faced trial in the year 1612, 9 were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging.

9. Guantanamo Bay 9/11 Trial

Guantanamo Bay 9/11 Trial
Guantanamo Bay Prison

Guantanamo Bay Prison has been criticized throughout the world. Five persons were accused for plotting the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad was the chief suspect and considered the ring leader. When the trial was conducted, all the accused refused to answer  the questions, and the chief prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, said he expected the defense to file motions complaining that Guantanamo’s legal process was unfair and unconstitutional. The accused were kept illegally by the CIA at unknown locations and, according to the Red Cross, they were tortured.

10. Zacarias Moussaoui  Trial

Zacarias Moussaoui Trial
Zacarias Moussaoui

Zacarias Moussaoui was a French citizen of Moroccan descent. He was the only person tried in the USA in connection with involvement in the 9/11 tragedy. He had no experience in flying even a small plane yet paid $19,000 to learn to fly a Boeing 747. This aroused suspicion in the mind of instructor how someone who had never soloed a small plane could spend $19,000 to learn to fly a Boeing 747? A colleague of the instructor’s informed him about the suspect on the phone. The FBI arrested him the next day for violating immigration rules, probably for keeping secrecy. Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April, 2005. On May 3, Judge Brinkman read the verdict ‘We the jury do not unanimously find that a sentence of death should be imposed on the defendant.’


All of the famous trials that changed history do not mean that they were just too. Biased and unauthorized interpretations of the law by ruling parties instead of the superior courts has been and continues to be the root cause of some historically unjust trials. It is upon the letter of the law which is focused upon most rather than the spirit of the matter in the case of legal trials. For example, the wealthy brothers, Eric and Lyle, confessed to murdering their parents, but the trial ended in the indecisive, hung juries.


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