Five True Crime Courtroom Dramas as Enthralling as the Crime Itself

Join Peter Houlahan, author of Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History, as he looks back on a number of true crime dramas whose courthouse scenes rival the intensity of the crimes.

The blood has dried, the body carted away, the perpetrator in cuffs. So, story over, right?  Not always. One of the greatest challenges facing a true crime writer is how to shift narrative gears from the crime to the courthouse without losing the reader. The key: make sure you have one barnburner of a trial that can live up to the crime before it. Here are six true crime courtroom dramas that managed to pull it off.


Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry — W.W. Norton & Co. (1974)

The hell with O.J.  For pure histrionics, nothing beats the trial of Charles Manson and his three female followers for the seven grisly murders at the Tate and LaBianca homes in August 1969. Tales of celebrities, acid trips, and orgies punctuated by gruesome images of the victims and messages scrawled in blood made it the most sensational courtroom affair since the Scopes Monkey Trial. Manson interrupted proceedings on a daily basis, once vaulting over the defense table armed with a #2 pencil screaming at the judge, “Someone should cut your head off, old man.” He choreographed his three co-defendants to leap up in unison to chant slogans or sing songs mocking the judge.  When he shaved his head and carved an X into his forehead, his co-defendants and the starry-eyed young girls camped on the sidewalk outside the courthouse did the same. When he turned it into a swastika, so did they.  Always scuzzy-chic in buckskin, denim, frilly shirts, and a bandana around his neck, Charlie was allowed to give a monologue that was somehow as coherent as it was crazy. “These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them.” Say what you will about Charlie, it was hard to keep your eyes off the guy, and for 10 months, an entire nation could not.


The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh — Dell Publishing (1973)

It would have been easy for author Joseph Wambaugh to have ignored the trial entirely in this harrowing and heartbreaking story of two plainclothes LAPD officers abducted by a pair of low-level hold-up men on a Hollywood side street in 1963 and driven to an onion field outside Bakersfield where officer Ian Campbell was gunned down in cold blood. The trial of the confessed onion field killers degenerated into a grinding, disheartening procession of endless delays, overturned verdicts, and retrials in which Campbell’s partner Karl Hettinger was forced to recount his horrific ordeal over and over for years. Wambaugh’s portrayal of Hettinger’s spiral into guilt, shame and emotional despair at the hands of a legal system gone completely insane is what ultimately gives The Onion Field its humanity, propelling former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh to literary stardom.


Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss — Signet (1983)

By the time Dr. Jefferey McDonald is finally brought to trial 10 years after the murder of his pregnant wife and two small daughters in a military apartment at Fort Bragg, the only thing the reader might hate more than the arrogant, callous Green Beret surgeon is the legal system that took so long to prosecute the bastard. McGinniss makes the journey to the courtroom as much of a nail-biter at the trial itself. The readers’ first encounter with McDonald is the image of a rich playboy lounging about his beachside Malibu home draped in bimbos and gold chains, a Maserati Citroen parked in the driveway. McDonald has not a care in the world, least of all his impending trial for butchering his family ten years before, which he seems to regard as a minor inconvenience. Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence against him, conviction was far from certain. By the time the verdict is read, you will never want anything more in your life than to see the jury smack the smile off that fucker’s face.


The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule — W.W. Norton & Company (1980)

There is something about Ted Bundy that makes him even more despicable than Charles Manson or even Jeffrey Dahmer drilling holes in the heads of teenage boys. At least those two could fall back on demented ideology or inner demons. A craven psychopath to his core, Bundy killed purely for fun, as though it were his birthright, along with good looks and charm. After slipping through the fingers of justice with two successful jail escapes, Bundy finally found a state that does not fuck around when it comes to, literally, frying murders. Nevertheless, Teddy managed to have a whale of a good time while in the Sunshine State when Florida made his the first televised trial in history. He did not let the opportunity pass, abruptly firing his five-man defense team to act as his own attorney in a move solely designed to keep himself in the spotlight at all times. Reveling in the attention of the media and a gaggle of adoring young girls jamming the spectator gallery, Bundy pulled all manner of courtroom charades, even proposing to his girlfriend while she was on the stand. Smugly certain of an innocent verdict, Bundy’s stunned reaction when found guilty is just about the best feeling one will ever have while reading a book.


American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin — Doubleday (2016)

The trial of Patty Hearst was a nailbiter for sure, but far from a who-done-it. We know who done it: the chick is right there on surveillance cameras inside the Hibernia Bank on April 15, 1974, barking orders at customers, waving an assault rifle around, and looking every bit the willing participant. On the other hand, Hearst had also been an innocent kidnap victim just two years before, brutalized and brainwashed by her abductors, the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. The question for the jury—and the reader—is whether one exonerated her of the other. The trial quickly became ground zero in a culture war raging at the time that, in many ways, still does today. Whichever verdict you find yourself rooting for in the end might depend on which side of the ideological barricades you are fighting on.

About Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History:

Norco ’80 tells the story of how five heavily armed young men—led by an apocalyptic born-again Christian—attempted a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent criminal events in U.S. history, forever changing the face of American law enforcement. Part action thriller and part courtroom drama, Norco ’80 transports the reader back to the Southern California of the 1970s, an era of predatory evangelical gurus, doomsday predictions, megachurches, and soaring crime rates, with the threat of nuclear obliteration looming over it all.

In this riveting true story, a group of landscapers transformed into a murderous gang of bank robbers armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons. Their desperate getaway turned the surrounding towns into war zones. When it was over, three were dead and close to twenty wounded; a police helicopter was forced down from the sky, and thirty-two police vehicles were destroyed by thousands of rounds of ammo. The resulting trial shook the community to the core, raising many issues that continue to plague society today: from the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder within law enforcement to religious extremism and the militarization of local police forces.

Peter Houlahan is the author of Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in History published by Counterpoint Press.

*Author photo courtesy of Counterpoint Press.

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