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Christine Socha ’02 of Clark, N.J., a graduate of Arthur L. Johnson High School, reached into the past this spring to help trace the origins of the term “Trial of the Century,” which has been attached to dozens of notorious court cases in the last two centuries.

As a participant in Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholarship program, in which students assist faculty members with research while earning a stipend, Socha worked with Bruce Allen Murphy, Kirby Professor of Civil Rights. She examined murder cases of the 1800s, with an eye toward finding the first use of the sensationalistic emblem.

The O.J. Simpson murder case was just the latest of many criminal cases tabbed “trial of the century,” says Murphy, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on constitutional law and civil rights and liberties. He is the author of two major books about Supreme Court justices, both of which earned acclaim in the national media. The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices (Oxford University Press, 1982), was featured in a front-page story in The New York Times and became the subject of a nationwide debate on judicial ethics. Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice (William Morrow, 1988), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is currently completing a major biography of Justice William O. Douglas.

“Relatively little literature has been written comparing these trials and seeking to understand what makes them so controversial,” says Murphy, whose teaching and research interests include 20th century American political history, Supreme Court history and behavior, the American presidency, American national institutions, and biographical studies.

Socha focused on two famous cases, the 1836 trial of Richard Robinson, who was acquitted for the hatchet murder of New York City prostitute Helen Jewett, and the 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden, acquitted, as the playground verse has it, of giving her parents “40 whacks with axe” in Fall River, Mass.

According to Socha, Robinson, Jewett’s client and “semi-boyfriend,” was acquitted because the court didn’t take the witnesses, who were other streetwalkers, seriously.

“What we found interesting was that the news coverage of that trial from Boston to Washington, D.C., was greater than for any other story day by day,” Socha says. She speculates that both cases were big because they involved women, and in the Borden case, a possible female murderer. “It breaks stereotypes,” she says.

“The best part about the opportunity I had to work with Professor Murphy is that I didn’t even have a definite idea about what I wanted to do when I began,” Socha says. “I just said I wanted to do research, and he said, ‘Well, I have this!’ I didn’t think it would happen so fast.”

“At Lafayette the professors really get to know people. They learn what really interests their students. Professor Murphy got to know me and knew that I liked trials and wanted to research trials,” Socha says. “I’m glad I came to Lafayette because there are so many opportunities for students to do what they have a knack for and are interested in.”

Categorized in: Academic News