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High-Profile Crimes

When Legal Cases Become Social Causes

O. J. Simpson. The Central Park jogger. Bensonhurst. William Kennedy Smith. Rodney King. These are 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. In High-Profile Crimes, Lynn Chancer 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 astute and incisive chronicle of some of the most polarizing cases of the 1980s and 1990s, High-Profile Crimes shows that their landmark status results from the overlapping interaction of diverse participants. The merging of legal cases and social causes, Chancer 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.

Based on nearly two hundred interviews, Chancer’s discussions of the infamous Central Park jogger and Bensonhurst cases-as well as the rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson, the assault cases of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, and, finally, the O. J. Simpson murder trial-provide a convincing, multidimensional and innovative analysis of the most charged public dramas of the last two decades.


“In this extensively researched and richly theorized study, Lynn Chancer develops a compelling account of the relationship between crime and culture. By tracing the cultural processes that transform certain crimes into a focus for racial or gender hostilities, she shows how the drama of crime tends to lead away from social harmony, leaving underlying tensions raw and unresolved. In her analysis of the institutional logics and socio-psychic dynamics at work in cases such as the Central Park jogger, Rodney King, and O. J. Simpson, she brings the cultural analysis of crime onto a whole new level.”--David Garland, New York University School of Law

David Garland | David Garland

“In this engrossing account Lynn Chancer analyzes the sociological environment in which particular crimes capture the public’s gaze. A diligent interviewer, she relates how lawyers, judges, and journalists in the context of wider social movements cause crimes to become ‘high profile.’ The Central Park jogger case, the O.J. Simpson case, and the Rodney King case are examples of the crimes in which race, class, and gender issues created a context that focused media attention. This is a fascinating window into the process by which news grabs public attention and in turn, affects the justice system.”--Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, The Graduate Center, City University of New York


Cynthia Fuchs Epstein | Cynthia Fuchs Epstein

Table of Contents

Preface: The Larger Symbolism of Symbolic Cases
Part 1 - Presenting Provoking Assaults: From New York to Los Angeles
1. When Cases Become Causes
Part 2 - Exemplifying a Genre: A Tale of Two Crimes
2. The Rape of the Central Park Jogger
3. The Murder of Yusef Hawkins
Part 3 - From Differing Vantage Points: "Smith," "Tyson," "King," "Denny," and "Simpson"
4. In re the Legal System
5. More on the Press: Journalistic Divides
6. Taking Sides: Diverse Public Reactions
Part 4 - Stepping Back
7. High-Profile Crimes and American Culture
Appendix A: Dates and Descriptions of Provoking Assaults
Appendix B: Identifying the Top Twenty High-Profile Crimes, 1985-1996
Appendix C: Acknowledging Intellectual Debts and Distinctions
Works Cited

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