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Court TV Crime Stories
Controversial Trials
Sam Sheppard, Chicago Eight, Jeffrey MacDonald
Hosted by Richard Belzer
VVS Films 2006
135 minutes

Court TV Crime Stories Controversial Trials features three shows covering three of the most talked about and still debated trials in recent American history. The structure of each episode will remind many of the Biography series. The series uses interviews with people in and around the trial, historical footage, various experts and Monday morning quarterbacks to tell its stories of mysteries many feel are unsolved. Because most people are yet to be satisfied with the resolution to the Sam Sheppard, Jeffrey MacDonald, and Chicago Eight cases and are still unable to come to their own verdict, Court TV Crime Stories Controversial Trials is fascinating stuff to watch for any mystery fan.

This mystery television DVD begins with the granddaddy of all court mysteries, the Sam Sheppard story. Sheppard, a prominent Ohio doctor woke up to find his wife bludgeoned to death before being knocked out by a mysterious figure. He was originally found guilty of second degree murder, always maintained his innocence -something his son, Sam Reese Sheppard adamantly believes in, got himself a new trial thanks to then hot shot young lawyer F. Lee Bailey. Twelve years after the original guilty verdict and Bailey uncovering a series of questionable tactics by the original prosecutor, Sam Sheppard was found not guilty. At the time Court TV Crime Stories Controversial Trials aired, Sam Reese Sheppard was suing the state of Ohio for compensation and to clear his father's name.

Unlike when Colin Powell went in front of the United Nations to prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the Sam Sheppard case is presented in a way so as to allow the viewer to make up his mind. You have to feel for Sam Reese Sheppard and his struggle to clear his father's name, you definitely question the evidence and testimony presented in the first trial, and, like in any good unsolved mystery, are left with a reasonable doubt one way or another about this case.

The Jeffrey MacDonald case shares some similarities with the Sam Sheppard case: both men were doctors, both men fell asleep on the couch the night their wife was killed, and both men have always claimed their innocence. In the Jeffrey MacDonald case presented as one of the three cases in Court TV Crime Stories Controversial Trials, it turns out Jeffrey MacDonald's worst enemy is himself. He was found not guilty at his first trial and had the support of his father-in-law. Then, one night, Jeffrey MacDonald called him and claimed to have killed one of the people who killed his wife. This lead the father-in-law, who no longer believed MacDonald, to mount a campaign for a new investigation and trial and at this trial, during which MacDonald testified, he was found guilty.

The Jeffrey MacDonald story is one of a smart man who outsmarts himself. He asked Joel McGinnis to write a book on his case but the book, Fatal Vision, showed the only possible killer was MacDonald. There are lots of other fascinating details presented in this chapter of Controversial Trials and, unlike in the Sam Sheppard case, many of the people involved are still around to talk on camera.

The odd duck in this three episode Court TV DVD is the documentary on the Chicago Eight trial. It really does not belong on this particular crime trial DVD. It is the very interesting story of the protests during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago and the struggle between the law and order establishment, Richard Daley, the iron-fisted mayor of Chicago, and peace activists and the Yippie movement headed by Abbie Hoffman. The documentary seems to blame Mayor Daley for not issuing permits for the various protests and marches, over-reaction by the Chicago police, over-reaction by Mayor Richard Daley who had called in the Army way ahead of the convention.

Controversial Trials, Chicago Eight, has highly disturbing footage of the cops going absolutely nuts beating the protestors. When the public demanded answers for what had happened, the authorities brought eight of the leaders of the protest (including Bobby Seale who ended up bound and gagged in the court room) to trial and, convinced the verdict was already decided and would be overturned on appeal, turned the entire thing into a circus.

Chicago Eight is the least known of the cases on Court TV Crime Stories Controversial Trials and so the most fascinating of the three.  All three episodes are fascinating and informative.

Richard Belzer, of Law And Order and Homicide, Life On The Streets fame, hosts the three murder mysteries and his role is simply to introduce and close the program.