Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart combined ran neck-and-neck with the presidential campaign and the war in Iraq in a race for the public's attention in 2004.
The criminal cases involving these four fed a pop culture love for the dramatic, especially in the courtroom. Peterson's murder convictions and the jury's death sentence recommendation were the culmination of a tragic case that had generated national headlines for almost two years.
"As far as most riveting, I think it was the Scott Peterson case. It was such a story of good versus evil. With Scott Peterson, there was the question of whether he'd get away with it," said Court TV anchor Lisa Bloom.
The nation followed the case from the beginning, when Laci Peterson, nearly eight months pregnant, was reported missing on Christmas Eve 2002. It gasped when it was revealed that her husband, Scott, had been having an affair. It watched two families mourn when the remains of Laci and the unborn son she had planned to name Conner washed up separately on San Francisco Bay-area beaches in April 2003. There wasn't too much surprise when Scott was arrested soon thereafter.
After more than seven months of testimony, a jury convicted Peterson. The verdict left crowds outside the courthouse in Redwood City, Calif., cheering and high-fiving each other. And when the jury recommended Peterson be sentenced to death, the public found a sense of closure that may always elude Peterson's parents and the Rochas, Laci's family.
"The Scott Peterson trial was a story that was such a cliffhanger, from the beginning, that I think the nation cheered and was relieved when he was convicted and the jury recommended death," Bloom said.
Fans of Kobe Bryant may have cheered when prosecutors dropped a sexual assault charge against the NBA star in September, just as jury selection was beginning for a trial.
The young woman who accused Bryant of raping her at the Vail, Colo., resort where she worked decided she could not continue with the case after the court mistakenly posted her name and sealed documents containing personal information -- including defense allegations about her sex life and medical history -- on its Web site. It was the third time the court had accidentally published sealed documents.
Bryant, who admitted having sex with the woman but insisted it was consensual, issued an apology when the case was dismissed. Though she is pursuing a civil lawsuit, the alleged victim's decision not to go forward with the criminal case shocked some legal observers. Some fear it will silence other alleged rape victims, who may be reluctant to face the intense scrutiny of their own lives -- especially if their alleged attackers are rich and can afford a high-powered legal team.
"As the Kobe Bryant case showed, if you go up against a celebrity defendant in a sexual assault case, you can better be prepared for an onslaught of negative publicity," said Ronald Carlson, professor of law at the University of Georgia. "I think the Kobe Bryant case should make us think about how we cover these cases and the potential ill effects it could have on [alleged] victims even before trial."
Bryant was spared a trial, but professionally, he is still reeling from the scandal.