What Makes a Crime "Celebrated?"
by Jim Fisher
I consider the 1932-1936 Lindbergh Kidnapping case one of the most celebrated crimes, world-wide, of the Twentieth Century. In discussing his idea of a great crime, Spenser Shew, in A Companion to Murder (Knopf, 1961) writes:
Of the cases presented here, some have been chosen because the people involved in them are strange and remarkable, passionate, revengeful, avaricious, stupid, ambitious, resourceful, pitiable, tragic, even comic, beyond the ordinary. Others have been chosen because the interplay of motive behind the crime has some special interest; others for the sake of some brilliant stroke of detection. Other cases are to be valued for their particular atmosphere or mood; others because they illustrate some tenet of the law as it applies to the crime of murder; others, again, because they display the forensic skill of a great advocate. . .
In my opinion, the Lindbergh case incorporates all of these fascinations and points of interest. What follows is a list of elements that I believe must be present, to varying degrees, in a celebrated crime:
- The featured crime must be some kind of intentional, malicious, pre-planned killing of a person whose sudden death is particularly tragic.
- The police enter the case with no idea of who may have committed the murder. If they do have an idea, it is the wrong idea.
- The crime features a wealth of physical evidence at the scene -- latent fingerprints, ballistic evidence, bodily fluids, hairs, fibers, handwriting, footwear impressions, tire tracks, cigarette butts -- whatever.
- There are no eyewitnesses to the killing.
- Following a dogged or brilliant investigation, the police arrest an unlikely (and sane) suspect who maintains his or her innocence. The suspect offers an alibi that cannot be proved or disproved.
- The suspect -- defendant -- is tried for murder in a state which still has the death penalty. The sensational trial features plenty of physical, demonstrative evidence which is the subject of dispute between prosecution and defense expert witnesses. Because the state's case is based solely on physical evidence, the case is by definition, circumstantial.
- The defendant is found guilty of first degree murder and is sentenced to death while still proclaiming innocence.
- The verdict is controversial and spawns a passionate debate over the guilt or innocence of the condemned prisoner. The verdict also angers the anti-capital punishment advocates.
- The case results in numerous books, TV documentaries, and a feature or television movie incorporating various theories of the crime and who committed it.
- The case becomes part of popular culture and changes, in some significant way, criminal law or criminal procedure.
The crimes I consider the most important and interesting in American history can be found on the Top 15 page.