Police killings. Sex trafficking. Self-defense. Murder.
Juries across the country weighed some of the most racially and culturally divisive cases in 2021 — as trials from Manhattan to Minnesota captivated the American public.
Here, a look back at the year’s most sensational trials:
In one of the most closely watched cases in 2021, the ex-Minneapolis police officer faced three counts related to the caught-on-video murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street in May 2020.
A Minnesota jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after deliberating for about 10 hours over the course of two days — the culmination of a killing that kicked off worldwide protests over police brutality and racial inequality.
Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison by Judge Peter Cahill, who ripped the disgraced cop as he handed down the prison term.
“This is based on your abuse of a position of trust and authority and also the particular cruelty shown to George Floyd,” Cahill said.
In another hotly contested case, Rittenhouse, a teenager from Illinois, was slapped with three charges after he shot and killed two people and wounded a third during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The 18-year-old took the stand in his own defense at the trial, arguing that he opened fire that night in Kenosha in August 2020 after he was “cornered” by protesters and feared for his life.
“I did what I had to do to stop the person who was attacking me by killing them,” he said on the stand, at times crying uncontrollably during his testimony.
The jury acquitted Rittenhouse on all charges, siding with his defense lawyers, who argued he lawfully acted in self-defense.
“Kyle Rittenhouse shot Mr. Rosenbaum because he was attacking Kyle. Every person who was shot was attacking Kyle — one with a skateboard, one with his hands, one with his feet, one with his gun,” his attorney, Mark Richards, said in closing arguments.
The B-list actor who claimed two Trump-loving bigots beat him up, threw a noose around his neck and doused him with bleach was put on trial for staging the crime in November 2021, nearly three years after he reported the supposed beatdown.
Smollett was convicted of five counts of felony disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.
A Chicago jury agreed with prosecutors that Smollett exploited tense race relations in the Windy City by hiring two brothers — Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo — to commit the hoax hate crime.
The 39-year-old actor’s attorneys vehemently maintained at trial that he was actually the victim of a crime, calling the brothers “sophisticated liars and criminals.”
Special prosecutor Dan Webb celebrated the victory after the jury’s decision was handed down — and insisted that Smollett was a serial liar.
“Not only did Mr. Smollett lie to the police and wreak havoc here in this city for weeks on end for no reason whatsoever, but then he compounded the problem by lying under oath to a jury,” he said.
Few trials in the US in 2021 were as emotionally charged as the case against three white Georgia men who chased down and killed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
The suspects — Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 65, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52 — each faced a slew of charges for following Arbery in their cars and fatally blasting him with a shotgun in Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020.
The trio’s attorneys had argued they were trying to make a lawful citizen’s arrest of Arbery after they allegedly spotted him looking in an under-construction house in the neighborhood and suspected him of burglary.
Travis McMichael, who pulled the trigger, killing Arbery, was convicted on the top count of malice murder, while his father and Bryan were convicted of lesser charges. They each face life in prison at sentencing.
After the verdict was read in a Georgia courtroom in November, Arbery’s mother praised the decision.
“I never saw this date back in 2020. I’ve never thought this day would come. But God is good. Everybody, thank you,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said at a press conference.
The disgraced socialite and alleged madam of pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein went on trial at the end of November in Manhattan federal court.
Prosecutors charged her with six counts related to her allegedly grooming and recruiting girls for her ex-boyfriend to sexually abuse.
The trial drew international media attention as prosecutors called four accusers who claimed they were lured into Epstein’s orbit by the attractive, kind British debutante.
Maxwell and Epstein were “predators” and “partners in crime” who preyed on young, vulnerable girls to fulfill Epstein’s sick sexual desires.
“Maxwell was a sophisticated predator who knew exactly what she was doing. She ran the same playbook again and again and again. She manipulated her victims and she groomed them for sexual abuse,” Assistant US Attorney Alison Moe said in her closing argument in December.
Maxwell’s defense team has argued she is a scapegoat for Epstein, who killed himself in a Lower Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
The jury in Maxwell’s case is still deliberating.
The #MeToo movement loomed over a number of trials in 2021, especially in the sex-trafficking trial of disgraced R&B superstar R. Kelly.
Kelly faced nine counts for sexually abusing women, girls and boys over decades all while hiding in plain sight as one of the world’s most successful R&B recording artists.
The “Ignition” singer was convicted on all federal charges — including racketeering — in September after Brooklyn prosecutors argued that he was a “predator” who led a network of individuals to facilitate the abuse.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told jurors in her opening statement in August.
“This case is about a predator,” she said.
Kelly landed on the radar of federal prosecutors in part because of the popularity of the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” that explored his crimes.
Closing out 2021 was another police killing that drew national headlines and sparked outrage among Americans.
Kim Potter, at the time a Minnesota police officer, shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright after pulling her pistol instead of a Taser during a traffic stop on April 11 in the city of Brooklyn Center.
The caught-on-body camera slaying led to the veteran cop resigning from the police department and later her arrest for manslaughter.
At her trial in December, Potter took the stand in her own defense and broke down in tears.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried. “I’m sorry it happened … I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
Two days before Christmas, a jury convicted her of manslaughter and she was remanded into custody after the verdict was read. She faces up to 11 years in prison at sentencing.