Guilty or not guilty: How Americans judge two dozen famous criminal defendants

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
December 15, 2023, 3:58 PM GMT+0

Many Americans enjoy true crime content, with most saying it provides a sense of excitement and suspense. But what do people think about the outcomes of high-profile criminal cases they've followed? A recent YouGov survey asked 2,000 Americans how they feel about some of the most widely covered criminal defendants from two dozen cases over the past three decades. The survey presented respondents with the names of defendants and brief descriptions of the charges against them. The most recently concluded case that was asked about involves Sam Bankman-Fried — who was found guilty of fraud and money laundering the day before the poll started accepting responses. The oldest case was that of the Central Park Five, whose conviction on charges of raping and assaulting a jogger in New York City in 1990 was later vacated. In every case, Americans are more likely to think the defendants are guilty than not, regardless of the verdict. Cases touching on race relations are the most divisive and polarize Americans by political party and race.

Which criminal cases do Americans know about?

Majorities of Americans say they are at least a little familiar with 22 of the 24 cases asked about. The most widely known criminal charges are those against O.J. Simpson: 93% have heard at least a little about the Simpson case, including 72% have heard a lot about it. Large shares also say they have heard a lot about charges against Jeffrey Dahmer (65%), Bill Cosby (64%), Derek Chauvin (60%), Michael Jackson (55%), and Harvey Weinstein (55%).

Which criminal defendants do Americans think are guilty?

For all of the cases asked about, more Americans who've heard at least a little about them believe the person or persons charged are guilty of the crimes they were charged with than believe they are not guilty — regardless of the verdict. For most defendants, large majorities are convinced of their guilt. The two cases that Americans are most divided on are the Central Park Five (37% believe they are guilty vs. 35% who say not guilty) and Kyle Rittenhouse (47% vs. 36%). The only other charges that Americans are somewhat divided on involve the killing of two unarmed Black men — George Floyd by Derek Chauvin (62% say guilty vs. 21% not guilty) and Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (58% vs. 22%). (The former was convicted of second-degree murder while the latter was acquitted.)

Among those familiar with the cases, Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe that Zimmerman, Rittenhouse, and Chauvin are guilty. Democrats are also more likely to say that the police officers who beat Rodney King are guilty.

There are also racial differences in assessments of the guilt or innocence of several high-profile defendants. Black Americans who are aware of each of the following cases against Black defendants are 32 percentage points less likely than white Americans to say O.J. Simpson is guilty, 17 points less likely to say Bill Cosby is, and 16 points less likely to say Michael Jackson is.

White Americans, on the other hand, are 29 points less likely than Black Americans to view Derek Chauvin as guilty, 26 points less likely to say George Zimmerman is, 25 points less likely to say Kyle Rittenhouse is, and 16 points less likely to say the police officers who beat Rodney King are. All of those defendants are white.

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The poll was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys from November 3 - 10, 2023 and November 28 - December 1, 2023, with each survey taken by 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Getty (Frederick M. Brown)