What is a Show Trial?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A show trial is a highly publicized trial which is often undertaken more as a public relations exercise than as an attempt at genuine justice. The term “show trial” dates to the 1930s, when Russian leader Stalin held a number of infamous show trials, and it is generally used as a pejorative by people expressing concerns about the validity of a trial and its verdict. Another term which is sometimes used to describe a show trial is “kangaroo court.”

During the 1930s, Russian leader Joseph Stalin held a number of show trials.
During the 1930s, Russian leader Joseph Stalin held a number of show trials.

When a legal proceeding is referred to as a show trial, the implication is often that the outcome of the trial has already been determined by the judge and jury, if a jury is present. Furthermore, the trial is being held primarily for the purpose of going through the motions of a legal trial, satisfying a public desire for retribution, rather than a need to critically evaluate a legal situation and reach an unbiased verdict. For example, a country might use a show trial to make an example of a suspected terrorist, sending a message to other terrorists while also leading citizens to believe that the nation is taking action on terrorism.

During a show trial, TV cameras may set up outside the courthouse to provide extensive coverage.
During a show trial, TV cameras may set up outside the courthouse to provide extensive coverage.

A number of characteristics often accompany a classic show trial. The first is the common practice of intimidating the defendant so that he or she confesses to the crime. Defendants may be kept in sub-par conditions, subjected to torture, or even prevented from speaking in their own defense or contacting a lawyer. Defendants may also not be permitted to evaluate or question evidence, and in some cases, they may not even be read the charges, meaning that they don't even know what they are defending themselves against.

Presiding judges might need to rely on extensive judicial experience during a show trial.
Presiding judges might need to rely on extensive judicial experience during a show trial.

Some war crimes trials have been accused of being show trials. The call for justice after wartime atrocities from members of the general public is often quite strenuous, leading to a desire by the victorious governments to hold people accountable for those atrocities. Critics argue that because these trials are held by the victors, and they often involve suppression of evidence, inadequate legal counsel, and other issues, they are inherently unfair.

Show trials are often closely followed by the media, and the regular publication of trial coverage usually includes images from the courtroom along with testimony. The general public may eagerly await the verdict in the trial, with radio and television stations providing constant updates and live coverage of the verdict and sentencing.

Show trials may involve inadequate legal counsel.
Show trials may involve inadequate legal counsel.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Monika - I remember hearing about the West Memphis Three. I think what happened to them definitely fits the definition of a "show trial."

I think another example of a show trial might be the trial of Saddam Hussein. There was pretty much no doubt how that one was going to end-with a guilty verdict. And, the show trial even continued after he was convicted. There was a ton of publicity of his execution, and even a leaked cell phone video.


@turkay1 - I definitely think the trial in Norway should have been closed to the media. There is no reason to give this criminal exactly what he wants: attention.

Anyway, it is sad but true that show trials still take place in the United States even today. I know we like to think that our judicial system is fair and unbiased, but it's definitely not.

Take the case of the West Memphis three that happened in the 90s. There was so much sensationalism surround that case and the supposed Satanic rituals the defendants engaged in. It was like they were already determined to be guilty before the trial even started!

And of course, they were later released because of new evidence. This leads me to believe maybe if they had a real trial in the first place, they wouldn't have been convicted.


I also get upset with kangroo courts, especially the one that's about to take place in Norway. A crazy guy mass murdered close to one hundred kids in Norway and now he's getting a show trial.

He asked specifically for a public court open to the media and the authorities actually accepted. It's such a serious and sad event. I wish they wouldn't allow it to be public. I think it will anger the public more than satisfy them.


@turquoise-- I do agree with you but I also think that every show trial is not the same. Sometimes, the public really does need a trial that not only aims to bring justice but that also is symbolic of their emotions.

For example, when the government wanted to hold the 9/11 trials in downtown New York, some people spoke against it saying that it would be too expensive and that there is no need to make it into a show. But for many Americans, this was important because holding the trials in the place where the 9/11 attacks took place and where loved ones passed away was very symbolic for them. A lot of people felt like they could finally get justice and see this painful event brought to an end in the same place it started.

So the symbolism and the emotion of the public needed such a show trial. I also don't think that just because a trial is considered a show trial, it won't bring criminals to justice. I know there are many cases that fit into that category, but there are also cases that don't.


Whenever I see a trial being heavily reported on by the media, I always have a doubt about the authenticity of it.

It's one thing when a trial is about something relatively unimportant, like the rights to a movie script for example. But when it's about murder, corruption or war crimes, I feel it should be taken way more seriously.

Unfortunately show trials happen all the time, all over the world. I think it happens a lot when a political leader or an industrial leader is involved in crime. People want to see these leaders brought to justice, but since the government is being run by them, what ends up happening is a show trial to appease the public that essentially does nothing like the article says.

The only way to avoid this, I think, is to make sure that the judicial system is completely independent and unbiased. When politics gets involved in justice, things just go bad.


@Bhutan - That really would have been terrible if her conviction would have not been reversed. I think that a lot of high profile trials are often show trials because their verdicts sometimes don’t make sense to the average person following the trial and it makes me think that the jury made up their mind before hearing all of the evidence.

Both the OJ Simpson murder trial and the Casey Anthony murder trial had shocking verdicts and were very high profile cases. Both cases in my opinion seemed to be show trials because the verdict had nothing to do with the actual evidence.

I know that a lot of evidence was suppressed in these cases, but there was still plenty of physical and circumstantial evidence to convict in both cases.


I have to say that the last show trial that I could remember was the Amanda Knox trial that was held in Italy. This trial had all of the makings of a show trial because it seemed that the Italians already had their mind made up and were going to convict this young girl of murder before they analyzed the evidence.

Although there was considerable doubt with respect to the forensic evidence, she was still convicted and sentenced to over 25 years in prison. She was really reviled in the Italian press and it was not until her appeal that she was finally acquitted of the crimes due to a lack of trial evidence. I wonder if there was an American bias at play here.

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