High-Profile CrimesWhen Legal Cases Become Social Causes

High-Profile CrimesWhen Legal Cases Become Social Causes

Lynn S. Chancer

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226101125

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book starts by considering the following: O. J. Simpson, the Central Park jogger, Bensonhurst, William Kennedy Smith, and Rodney King. These names mean more than crimes and criminals, more than court cases. They are cultural events that, for better or worse, gave concrete expression to latent social conflicts in American society. This book explores how these cases became conflated with larger social causes on a collective level and how this phenomenon has affected the law, the media, and social movements. An incisive chronicle of some of the most polarizing cases of the 1980s and 1990s, it shows that their landmark status results from the overlapping interaction of diverse participants. The merging of legal cases and social causes, the book argues, has wrought ambivalent effects on both social movements and the law. On the one hand, high-profile crimes offer important opportunities for emotional expression and raise awareness of social issues. But on the other hand, social problems cannot be resolved through the either/or determinations that are the goals of the legal system, creating frustration for those who look to the outcome of these cases for social progress. Guilt or innocence through the lens of the media leads to either defeat or victory for a social cause—a confounding situation that made the O. J. Simpson case, for example, unable to resolve the issues of domestic violence and police racism that it had come to symbolize.