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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Rights and Responsibilities of Students Rights and Responsibilities of Students — Other Lessons

Legal Thriller Alternative: Trial Research

by the Constitutional Rights Foundation

Aside from the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, there have been many criminal trials that have generated enormous publicity. Some have even been hailed as “the trial of the century.” In this activity, you will research and report on one of these trials.

  1. Select one of the following trials:
    1. 1865 trial of Dr. Samual A. Mudd for aiding conspirators in murdering Abraham Lincoln.
    2. 1865 trial of Captain Henry Wirz for war crimes at Andersonville Prison.
    3. 1886 Chicago Haymarket bombing trial of August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Albert R. Parsons, Rudolph Schnaubelt, William Seliger, and Oscar Neebe for conspiracy to commit murder and riot.
    4. 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden for the ax murders of her father and stepmother.
    5. 1907 trial of Bill Haywood for murdering Frank Steunenberg, ex-governor of Idaho.
    6. 1921 trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for robbery and murder.
    7. 1925 trial of John Scopes for breaking the Butler Law against teaching evolution.
    8. 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering the Lindbergh baby.
    9. 1950 trial of Alger Hiss for perjury.
    10. 1951 trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for conspiring to spy for the Soviet Union.
    11. 1954 and 1966 trials of Sam Sheppard for murdering his wife.
    12. 1969 trial of Sirhan Sirhan for assassinating Robert Kennedy.
    13. 1971 court martial trials of Lt. William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina.
    14. 1976 trial of Patty Hearst for armed robbery.
    15. 1982 trial of John Hinckley for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
    16. 1982 and 1985 trials of Claus von Bulow for the attempted murder of his wife.
    17. 1984 trial of John Z. Delorean for selling cocaine.
    18. 1985 trial of Bernhard Goetz for attempted murder, assault, and illegal gun possession.
    19. 1990 trial of Imelda Marcos for racketeering and fraud.
    20. 1992 trial of Manuel Noriega for racketeering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
    21. 1992 and 1993 trials of police officers Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind for beating Rodney King.
  2. Use the tips in FILTER (see below) to help you research the case. Your case generated much controversy. Some people agreed with the verdict and others disagreed. Find sources from each side. Check books, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. Find the titles of any films that have been made based on your case.
  3. Write a report. Tell about the trial, any appeals, and the aftermath of the trial. Answer each of the following questions in detail. If the question calls for an opinion, explain the reasons for your opinion fully.
    • What was the case about?
    • What kind of publicity did it receive? Why did it generate so much publicity? What did the judge do to ensure a fair trial? Do you think this was enough?
    • What was the verdict in the trial? Why do you think the jury reached this verdict? Do you agree with it? [Note: Some cases had more than one trial. Be sure to include information on all trials and appeals.]
    • Include an annotated bibliography, listing your sources and commenting on the reliability of each.
  4. Be prepared to present your report in an interesting way to the whole class.

F is for FOCUS. Before you go looking for information, write down exactly what you are looking for. This will help you guide yourself through the vast ocean of information. It will also help when you ask a reference librarian for help, when you do searches on the Internet, and when you interview experts.

I is for INTERNET. Use keywords for looking on a search engine, like Hotbot (, or use an Internet catalog like Yahoo (, which allows you to keep narrowing down your subject until you find what you want. Search engines will return many hits, most of them useless. If you find nothing after looking at 20 hits, try different keywords. All Internet search engines and catalogs have pages giving search tips. Take a few minutes and study them. You’ll save time in the long run. When you find a good site, check its reliability. In general, the most reliable sites are run by the media and government. We have listed useful links on the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Web site (

L is for LIBRARY. This should be your major resource. Ask the reference librarian to point you in the right direction. Look for different kinds of sources, e.g., encyclopedias, books, magazine and newspaper articles. And if your subject is controversial, get different viewpoints. Your library will probably have separate computer catalogs for books and periodicals. When you find a relevant book or article in a catalog, the catalog will list additional subject headings. Search under these headings as well.

T is for TAKE NOTES. Put them in your own words. Write clearly and on one side of the paper only. Use a spiral notebook or note cards. Note cards are useful if you’re doing a research paper because you can put one point on each card and sort the cards point by point. If you use a notebook, leave wide margins so you can add notations.

E is for EXPERTS. In your research, keep track of the names of people and organizations interested in your topic. These can be the authors of books and magazine articles, reporters, government officials, and non-profit groups. On the Internet, you can search for organizations, and one site–Ask an Expert (–lets you send e-mail to experts in various fields who will respond to questions. You can also find organizations in Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations (at libraries) and in your local phone book. If you find an expert, write the person or organization a polite note with two or three questions you want answered. If the expert is local, call and try to set up a brief interview. Why will experts talk with you? Because they’re interested in the subject. If you show an interest, they likely will respond.

R is for RECORD. Write down each of your sources. Keep track of where you’ve looked, even dead ends. That will keep you from unwittingly searching the same place twice.

Reprinted with permission of Constitutional Rights Foundation, 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005. (243) 487-5590.

Legal Thriller Book Review

by JoEllen Ambrose

Assignment: To read a novel that is law-related in theme, often called a “courtroom thriller,” OR read a nonfiction book describing a famous lawyer, judge, or particular aspect of the legal system, OR research and write a report about an infamous trial in American history. You choose what interests you most. Book choices must be pre-approved by teacher after filling out the form on the back of the sheet and showing the book to teacher on a set date. Page guidelines: 300 pages or more for an A, 200 pages or more for a B, 100 pages or more for a C.

Write a book review that reveals the plot but also explains legal concepts presented in the book. If your book is also a movie, you are asked to watch the movie and in your review highlight key differences. Also be prepared to discuss the book in class small groups.

All books must be checked by teacher (for legal relevance) by (date). Book reviews or reports are due and Book Club discussion groups will be during class on (date).

Bernhardt, William. Naked Justice.
Bohjalian, Christopher A. Midwives: a Novel.
Brandon, Jay. Defiance County.
Cecil, Henry. Settled Out of Court.
Connelly, Michael. The Concrete Blonde.
Coughlin, William. Shadow of a Doubt.
Dewlen, Al. Twilight of Honor.
Downing, Warwick. The Water Cure.
Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy.
Fish, Robert L. with Henry Rothblatt. A Handy Death.
Friedman, Philip. Inadmissible Evidence, Reasonable Doubt.
Gardner, Eric Stanley. The Case of the Careless Kitten.
Grisham, John. Time to Kill, The Client, The Rainmaker, Runaway Jury, The Chamber, and The Street Lawyer.
Hare, Cyril. Tragedy at Law.
Harr, Jonathan. A Civil Action.
Harrington, William. Which the Justice? Which the Thief?
Hunter, Evan. The Paper Dragon.
Levin, Meyer. Compulsion.
Lustgarten, Edgar. A Case to Answer (One More Unfortunate).
Martini, Steven. Compelling Evidence, Prime Witness.
Patterson, Richard North. Degree of Guilt.
Pate, Alexs. Amistad.
Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking.
Queen, Ellery. The Glass Village.
Travor, Robert. Anatomy of a Murder.
Turow, Scott. Presumed Innocent.
Werth, Barry. Damages.
Wheat, Carolyn. Mean Streak.

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0