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.
The Collapse of the Kobe Bryant Criminal Case
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.
With the civil lawsuit still pending, the cloud of the sexual assault case still follows him. His once squeaky-clean image is gone, and he doesn't command the endorsement power he enjoyed before the case. His Los Angeles Lakers failed to win the NBA championship this year, and he has had very public, embarrassing feuds with former teammates Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone.
The 'Domestic Diva' Gets Victory in Defeat
However, one famous criminal defendant appears to have won in the court of public opinion -- despite conviction in a court of law.
Martha Stewart was convicted in March of lying to federal investigators about a 2001 stock sale. The domestic diva is serving a five-month sentence at a minimum-security prison and will then have to serve five months home confinement after her expected release in March.
But prison hasn't kept Stewart's stock from rising. Publishers are reportedly vying for a memoir Stewart is said to be writing about her experiences behind bars. Her company -- Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia -- has survived, and NBC has announced plans for Stewart to host an hourlong syndicated show starting in September 2005, after she finishes her home confinement.
"In her case, Martha Stewart will be bigger than ever," said Carlson. "The public will be interested and forgiving because, in the end, Martha Stewart bit the bullet. She decided to go to jail instead of going through all sorts of appeals. She took her medicine."
The Overshadowed Serial Killer
The trials of the famous -- and in Peterson's case, the infamous -- so dominated the news that an admitted serial killer's case in Michigan only received limited national coverage.
Michigan prosecutors succeeded in convicting Coral Eugene Watts and getting a mandatory life sentence without parole for the 1979 stabbing death of Helen Dutcher. Their goal was not only to attain justice for Dutcher but to prevent Watts from getting out of prison within two years.
Authorities said Watts had confessed to 12 killings -- 11 in Texas, one in Michigan. He had received immunity in the killings as part of a 1982 deal with Texas prosecutors that led to a 60-year sentence for burglary with intent to murder. However, mandatory state prison release laws and an appeals court ruling had taken more than 35 years off Watts' sentence, and he was due to be released from a Texas prison in 2006.
Michigan prosecutors had long suspected Watts in Dutcher's death but never charged him because they assumed he would grow old in a Texas prison. To keep Watts behind bars, they charged him in Dutcher's slaying and convicted him with the help of witnesses who said they had either witnessed the attack or claimed they had been attacked by Watts. At his sentencing, Watts denied killing Dutcher and said he had never seen her.
Although his case had plenty of drama, it didn't generate the massive coverage afforded to Peterson, Bryant or Stewart.
"Part of it was that he had confessed to so many killings and generally, a trial is less compelling if there is a confession," Court TV's Bloom said. "With Scott Peterson, there was no confession."
2005: Year of Reckoning or Vindication for 'The King of Pop'
Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation charges will not lack media coverage. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 31.
"We've heard many cases referred to as 'The Trial of the Century' every couple of years. Michael Jackson's trial just might be that," said Carlson. "The media coverage is going to be massive."
Jackson, 46, has denied molesting a now-14-year-old boy who spent time at his Neverland ranch.
Jackson has been dogged by controversy ever since he was first accused in a similar scandal in 1993. Jackson, who denied any wrongdoing, settled a civil suit brought by the boy's family, and criminal charges were never filed.
Observers will look to put many long-running questions to rest.
"Will a case where Michael Jackson is accused of child molestation actually make it all the way to trial? Will he finally be forced to face one of his accusers in a court of law?" said Bloom. "Will the prosecution's case stand up? These are all questions that will be answered."
Both prosecutors and Jackson's defense team appear ready for a very contentious trial. Santa Barbara County, Calif., prosecutors want jurors to hear evidence of Jackson's alleged past wrongdoing and argue that these alleged acts show a pattern of behavior. The presiding judge is expected to hear arguments and rule on that issue before opening statements.
Meanwhile, sources say Jackson's defense plans to attack the credibility of the alleged victim and his family, claiming that the boy's relatives are making false accusations to get a monetary settlement.
"Even though juveniles historically have been protected by the cloak of anonymity, even so they are going to be scrutinized closely when they come up against a celebrity defendant who is both rich and powerful," said Carlson. "Adult complainants may undergo more scrutiny, but even young alleged victims aren't immune."
Highly Anticipated 2005 Docket
Other cases that have generated national headlines will be closely watched in 2005.
The trial of former "Baretta" TV star Robert Blake in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, has begun, and that case may finally be resolved in the early months of 2005. Former NBA star Jayson Williams is scheduled to be retried for reckless manslaughter in the 2002 slaying of a limousine driver. Last April, a jury acquitted Williams of the most serious charge, aggravated manslaughter, but deadlocked on reckless manslaughter.
Eric Rudolph, who is accused in the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta and eluded authorities for five years before his capture in 2003, could face trial in May for the bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic. And producer Phil Spector could face trial for the shooting death of an actress who was found dead in his home in February 2003.
Other defendants tentatively scheduled to go on trial in highly publicized cases in 2005 include:
Alejandro Avila, accused in the 2002 abduction and killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in California.
Mark Hacking, accused of murder in the July 2003 slaying of his wife, Lori, in a story that drew early comparisons to the Peterson case.
Gary Hirte, charged with first-degree murder in the alleged "thrill-killing" of a teacher in Wisconsin.
Brian David Mitchell, accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home. It has not yet been determined if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., accused in the kidnapping and slaying of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.
Chai Vang, charged with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of attempted homicide in an encounter with deer hunters in Wisconsin.
Will Unsolved Cases Be Solved?
In addition, investigations in other long-running cases will be watched. Will the elusive BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) serial killer of Wichita, Kan. -- who appeared to resurface after a 25-year absence in 2004 with various messages to authorities and the media -- finally be caught? Will he continue to communicate with authorities or claim another victim?
And will new DNA evidence finally lead to an arrest in the JonBenét Ramsey case? The slaying of the child beauty queen has remained unsolved since the 6-year-old's body was found in her parents' Boulder, Colo., home in 1996.
Police had focused their investigation on John and Patsy Ramsey, JonBenét's parents, for a long time, but a grand jury investigation yielded no indictments. According to recent published reports, private investigators have said DNA evidence found on the girl's clothes was not processed by Boulder police and did not belong to John or Patsy Ramsey. New evidence, the investigators reportedly said, suggests JonBenét was killed by an intruder.
Whether authorities get a break in the BTK and JonBenét cases will remain to be seen. But the fascination with these cases -- and infamous criminal trials -- will continue in 2005.
"Many complain about the [media] coverage these kind of cases get, but you won't find me being one of those naysayers," Carlson said. "This informs and educates the public. It allows the public to see the judicial process at work and gives people the ability to evaluate the process. It gets heavy and fixed at times, but it is a very good thing."