Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

High-Profile Crimes: When Legal Cases Become Social Causes

High-Profile Crimes: When Legal Cases Become Social Causes

by Lynn S. Chancer

See All Formats & Editions

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


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.

Editorial Reviews

David Garland
“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


Cynthia Fuchs Epstein
“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


Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

When Legal Cases Become Social Causes

By LYNN S. CHANCER The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10112-5

Chapter One When Cases Become Causes

ROY BLACK: When you defend a case like this [the William Lozano case, in which a police officer was convicted of killing a black motorcyclist on Martin Luther King's birthday in 1991, after which riots broke out in Miami], everyone all of a sudden forgets about everything except that if we can get this guy in jail that's going to remedy everything that's wrong with Miami.... Because we don't want to confront our racial problems. We don't want to really solve them, because we can't afford to solve them. We don't have the money or the time or the effort to put into solving the racial problems of Miami.

LYNN CHANCER: So cases like this one, a high-profile crime case ...

RB: In the "Lozano" case, it's no longer William Lozano, it has an image above and beyond whomever he is as an individual. He becomes a symbol. If we convict this cop, it'll prove that blacks have a right to participate in government, that they are really not being oppressed, it shows that we can get fairness in the courts.

AL SHARPTON: Lynn, that's your name, right? I'll guarantee you, the average white in this town doesn't realize that every day we sit here handling cases. Many never hit the papers. They think that I'm somewhere asleep until a big case happens (clap of hands) and we run out. What they don't understand is many of the cases, we made big. We made Bensonhurst big. With the marches. We made Howard Beach big.

LYNN CHANCER: So do you feel like these cases become important ...

AS: Yeah, they are very important. And they are politics. They're important in a judicial sense, and they're important politically. I think Yusef Hawkins [young black man shot by a group of young whites in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1989] got David Dinkins elected mayor in New York City.... When people turned on the news, and started seeing nigger-calls, it energized the local black community to vote. And now Crown Heights may get him unelected. Yes, absolutely. These cases are very important.

In 1998-99, two high-profile crimes-which would come to be known as the "Louima" and "Diallo" cases-took place in New York City, each involving allegations of police brutality. After the second incident, in which four members of the Police Department fired forty-one bullets and killed an unarmed Guinean man, Amadou Diallo, demonstrations against these and other incidents of police misconduct took place daily outside 1 Police Plaza. For the first time during his tenure in office, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani and his philosophy of crime control encountered visible opposition.

Ironically, Giuliani himself had been elected in 1993 in the wake of another high-profile criminal case that he had used effectively to criticize his opponent, then-Mayor David Dinkins. In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, rioting erupted after an African American child named Gavin Cato was run over by a Hasidic rabbi, who sped from the scene; that same evening, a group of African American youths, apparently motivated by revenge, stabbed a Jewish student named Yankel Rosenbaum to death. Giuliani contended that Dinkins had reacted belatedly, and inadequately, to each of these racially charged events.

Looking back even further, to 1989, one can see that Dinkins too had arguably been swept into office on the tide of other high-profile crime cases. Following the "Howard Beach" homicide and "Central Park jogger" rape cases, which generated broad discussions of both racial tensions and, in the latter crime, gender biases, the murder in Bensonhurst of a young black youth named Yusef Hawkins triggered demonstrations only days before a Democratic mayoral primary. As activist Al Sharpton noted at the time, and media commentators likewise observed, hardly did it seem coincidental that on the heels of these demonstrations three-time Mayor Edward Koch was defeated and Dinkins became the city's first African American mayor.

Nor were connections between high-profile crime cases perceived on the East Coast alone. The 1991 case of Latasha Harlins, in which a female Korean grocery store owner was sentenced only to community service after shooting an unarmed black teenager to death, stoked racial tensions in Los Angeles while Mayor Tom Bradley was in office. This case slightly predated the beating of Rodney King in March 1991 by white police officers. In April 1992, when riots in Los Angeles erupted on the same day four officers were acquitted of attacking King, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was assaulted by four black young men. As the racial focus of these highly profiled crime cases shifted from an act of whites-against-a-black to an act of blacks-against-a-white, Republican Richard Riordan beat Democratic candidate Michael Woo to become Los Angeles's mayor. This occurred in June 1993, several months before Republican Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins, a Democrat, in the New York City mayoral race against an analogously shifting backdrop of concerns about racial reversals.

Thus these high profile crimes were incidents with which local politics-in New York, in Los Angeles-were interwoven. Other highly profiled crime cases were equally controversial, though less closely associated with particular urban conflicts. Publicized crimes like those involving William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, and O.J. Simpson also called forth passionate argumentation; like the "Central Park jogger" case, they highlighted controversies of gender and/or racial discrimination. In the 1991-92 "Smith" and "Tyson" cases, the form of violence against women at issue was rape; in the "Simpson" case it was domestic violence that may have led to murder. Issues of class inequities were also present in the "Smith," "Tyson," and "Simpson" cases, though not necessarily openly flagged as such in the discussions generated by these incidents.

But why consider these cases together-what do they have in common? This book contends that these and other locally and nationally known incidents became culturally resonant in the United States of the 1980s and 1990s as high-profile crimes, or "provoking assaults," became vehicles for crystallizing, debating, and attempting to resolve contemporary social problems. The intense debate surrounding these cases often entailed allegations of discrimination based on race or gender that became linked with incidents of assault, rape, or homicide. Likely it was not accidental that such criminal cases were able to gain prominence after the rise of the civil rights, black nationalist, feminist, and gay rights movements during the 1960s and 1970s, movements that catapulted "identity politics" into American consciousness. But the cases also surfaced during the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s and early 1990s when many social movements were on the defensive. Indeed, as scholars in the "social problems" tradition have suggested, high-profile crimes of the 1980s and 1990s may have offered a way of calling attention to issues of discrimination that otherwise, at that time, might have been overlooked.

Not all high-profile crimes qualify as provoking assaults. Nor do I suggest that famous criminal cases have failed to fascinate Americans in the past. My aims are more limited, involving several objectives. One is to present a genre of crime cases that I believe to be at once sociologically revealing and historically specific. Another is to assess the phenomenon to which this book accords "high-profile" attention itself. If indeed provoking assaults became a distinctive American form of politics during the 1980s and 1990s, did such crime cases help to produce a more equitable society? As the two interview excerpts at the beginning of this chapter indicate, the question can be answered in different ways. One is exemplified by defense lawyer Roy Black's remarks: the kind of crime cases analyzed here may serve to deflect attention from the resolution of deep structural issues American society cannot "afford," that "we don't want really" to solve. Another response comes from Al Sharpton. In his view, crime cases from "Bensonhurst" to "Louima" in New York (and we can add from "Rodney King" to "O.J." in Los Angeles) may produce important political outcomes; they may be eminently suitable as a form of protest in a post-civil rights, mass-mediated age. Remaining to be seen, though, is which opinion is best borne out by analyzing these cases in greater depth. Is one interpretation more valid than the other, or are aspects of both necessary to encompass this subject's complexity?

Initially, though, a provoking assault needs to be differentiated from other crimes that become well known through media coverage. To this end, in the section that follows I suggest four traits that together constitute criteria of provoking assaults as a subset of high-profile crime cases. These were developed in the course of a back-and-forth process of mutual adjustment between empirical data and theory, which evolved in close relationship with one another rather than in isolation. Moreover I use "provoking assaults"-a term purposefully intended to have multiple associations-as a more precise name to identify this subset of crime cases. Indeed, the cases I studied were provocative in stimulating wide-ranging public debates into which several groups-the media, the law, diverse public participants-were drawn. Then, too, a recurrent topic of debate aroused by these cases was whether an accuser, not the accused, was actually to blame. Even in cases of grave injury or death, victims were sometimes perceived as having "provoked" their own victimization; not unusual, too, was for apparent perpetrators to be seen as victims. Finally, these cases were and remain provocative in the sense of calling forth indistinguishably emotional and logic-based responses; to fully understand these crimes requires more than a rational choice theorist's relatively one-dimensional calculus.


"Provoking assaults" are crime cases with the following characteristics. First, they are highly profiled incidents of violent crime that become symbolic of perceived social problems in a given time and place, engaging a broad range of participants. Second, as they become symbolic, these incidents frequently merge legal cases and social causes. They are processed by participants through a two-sided mode of argumentation I call "partialization," one that structures and limits debate around a framework of "sides." Third, as cases and causes become enmeshed, provoking assaults generate controversies about whether responsibility for a given crime rests with individuals or social forces, and whether apparent perpetrators were actually victimized, or apparent victims were culpable to some extent. Fourth, because only a single incident is decided by an "either/or" verdict (and then only for one side or the other), dissatisfactions tend to remain even after verdicts are handed down. In the wake of such disappointments, some people may become involved in thematically linked incidents; in this way, an ongoing symbolic politics may ensue from the character of these incidents themselves, capable of redressing only some of what they come to represent.

Before elaborating on these traits, it should be noted that I sometimes use quotation marks when talking about certain cases, using names often repeated in media and public discourse. This is to underscore my sense of provoking assaults as symbolic entities. Sometimes, as in the "Bensonhurst" case, the name itself can be understood to play a role in how the case was perceived. Brooklyn residents might have reacted differently to the case had it become known by the victim's name-that is, had it been referred to as the "Yusef Hawkins" case. Not wanting to lose the texture of how the cases were discussed in the media and in public, I use the quotation marks to stress the debated and debatable character not only of the cases but their "names."

Diverse Participation

Not all violent incidents become high-profile crimes via media attention; nor do all cases of high-profile crimes become provoking assaults. Rather, provoking assaults are a subset of high-profile criminal cases in which three groups of people become engaged as news stories mushroom. Members of the media, especially reporters and editors, play a key role; without their involvement, high-profile crimes would not exist as such. Then there are the myriad parties within the criminal justice system-from police and detectives to lawyers, jurors, and judges-who get involved each in their own way as they carry out their official functions. Finally, beyond those institutionally engaged-the media in search of stories, the criminal justice system because a crime was committed-a wider public, too, starts to participate and react. These responses often attract media coverage in turn.

This third group of players often includes such public participants as political figures (a mayoral candidate or incumbent who comments on the case), community and social-movement leaders, and members of organized or informal interest groups. Someone active in a neighborhood association may be prompted to intervene on the side of a victim; a well-known businessman may call for social policy changes because the crime was outrageous; and/or local religious leaders and community activists may criticize the media's coverage or the treatment of the defendant by the criminal justice system. These responses by members of the wider public can become a topic of daily conversation, as the cases are discussed avidly at family gatherings, among friends, or with co-workers.

These strikingly diverse public reactions-characterized in chapter 6 as official, protest, and conversational reactions, respectively-are what distinguish provoking assaults from the many other crimes, even those accorded some measure of media coverage, that move through the legal system with relatively little notice taken of them. Whether spurring "official" public figures to speak out, or prompting various parties to "protest" what happened on one or the other side, or fueling informal conversations about the case, provoking assaults are crime cases that stimulate discussion of simultaneously general and particular issues. They arouse debate about matters that include but also transcend individuals, potentially affecting large numbers of people. This is what lends provoking assaults symbolic stature.

For example, the murder of Yusef Hawkins in "Bensonhurst," the 1991 "Rodney King" case, and the 1999 cases involving "Louima" and "Diallo" did not compel public interest simply because they involved the killing and beatings of individuals. These cases were responded to as if they represented class actions. Each crime raised collective concerns about whether any minority male in the United States was safe from police brutality or victimization by "hate crimes." Similarly, regarding gender, the "Central Park jogger" case raised the question whether woman are free to go where they want and do what they choose without running the risk of attack. The "William Kennedy Smith" and "Mike Tyson" cases touched widespread fears women have about violence on dates. In this respect, provoking assaults are different, for example, from other high-profile cases involving a serial murderer or a psychopathic robber.

By the criteria set forth for provoking assaults, they obviously are not unique to the present time period. Crimes that become culturally and politically symbolic, prompting broad public commentary and protest, have long existed, from the "Dreyfus" case of late-nineteenth-century France to the cases of "Joe Hill," "Scottsboro," "Emmett Till," and others that took place in the United States during the twentieth century. Such well-known crimes can be seen, in retrospect, to reveal much about a bygone era's anxieties and fears; they may manifest disparities between a period's idealized expectations and its troubling realities. Yet while provoking assaults have certainly surfaced at other times and in other places (and are therefore of broad social interest), they seem to have occurred particularly close together over the last several decades-media references regularly connecting them-as three historical factors converged in the 1980s and 1990s.


Excerpted from HIGH-PROFILE CRIMES by LYNN S. CHANCER Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lynn S. Chancer is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Fordham University. She is the author of two other books, including, most recently, Reconcilable Differences.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews