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Celebrity Justice:
Famous, Wealthy Criminal Defendants Can Hire High-Priced Lawyers, But Do They Also Face Disadvantages?

Friday, Aug. 27, 2004

With so many celebrity cases in the news these days, it may be worth considering the advantages and disadvantages of being a defendant who is a celebrity - rather than an ordinary person.

Typically, one huge advantage of being a celebrity defendant is access to money - and thus to some very talented attorneys. And even if a celebrity is bankrupt, lawyers still may be attracted to doing a celebrity case at a low rate - or even for free - because such cases are often challenging and high profile. (After all, one of the benefits of representing a celebrity in a case that will likely be high profile is that the lawyer becomes a celebrity himself.)

Another huge advantage of being a celebrity defendant is access to the press - and thus the ability to offer a counter-spin on one's case. An ordinary person in a not-particularly-newsworthy case can't opt to do a lengthy interview that will inevitably sway the jury pool, but a celebrity can. And such an interview can sometimes be well-advised - when prosecutors' press conferences, and detailed indictments with allegations that read like facts are already swaying the jury pool against the defendant.

In addition, even if the defendant himself doesn't give a widely-reported or widely-viewed interview, loved ones and supporters who are also celebrities can. For instance, Jermaine Jackson recently spoken out in favor of Michael Jackson, who is on trial for child molestation. And when Kobe Bryant was charged with rape, the media was flooded with affirmations of his good character from virtually everyone who knew him. His well-publicized reconciliation with his wife Vanessa, and her strong support for him, doubtless have helped both his image and his case.

But despite advantages like these, are there also serious drawbacks to being a celebrity defendant?

The Celebrity's Career May Suffer Even From an Acquittal or a Minor Offense

One important disadvantage of being a celebrity is that even if a famous person is found not guilty, he or she may never really be acquitted in the public mind.

When an ordinary person is acquitted - or even convicted of a minor offense -- the possibility of moving into a new life, free of the past, can be a real one. But no such possibility exists for the celebrity. Their arrest photo will probably be available on the Internet indefinitely. Everyone with whom they work for the rest of their lives likely will have heard about the charges against them. Anytime there is a story about them in the media, their criminal charges will likely be brought up.

Consider actress Winona Ryder's situation. Her shoplifting conviction, while embarrassing, is relatively small potatoes. But her career plainly has suffered as a result of the trial.

If she weren't a celebrity, the incident could have receded into her past. That was what happened with a similar shoplifting incident involving an ordinary person, Boston executive Enza Sambataro - that is, until she started dating movie star Ben Affleck, and was transformed from an ordinary person, into a quasi-celebrity herself.

Merely because Sambataro dated a celebrity, her shoplifting record will now be very much a matter of public record - indefinitely. And for Ryder, the situation is even worse: Has her career been ruined by this high profile, yet ultimately minor trial? It remains to be seen, but it is a distinct possibility.

The Press and Public May Start Prosecuting the Celebrity Too

Another problem with being a celebrity defendant is that the press may turn against you - and, in effect, begin to prosecute you, too.

For instance, the amount of anger vented upon Martha Stewart has, in my view, been out of proportion; even to what was, admittedly, a serious offense on her part. Unlike Kobe Bryant's shining hero image, which has protected him, Stewart's prissy, spotless, "better at everything than you" image seems to have goaded many among the press and public into longing to see her besmirched.

Now that Stewart has been sentenced and will serve her time, ironically, that anger has only increased. The complaint among the New York press commentators covering the matter has been that the sentence is too brief. And it probably is - even given Stewart's lack of any prior criminal record. But if so, that is the fault of the sentencing judge -not Stewart.

Interestingly, the phenomenon of "prosecution by the press" can go further than simply an assault on character that tends to poison the jury pool or hurt the celebrity's career. It can also lead to the scoop-hungry press - in particular, the courtroom press - unearthing additional evidence in the case and, in effect, adding private resources to the prosecution's already well-funded investigation.

For example, the National Enquirer's discovery of a photo of O.J. Simpson wearing the Bruno Magli shoes he said he never owned helped win the civil case against him. Ultimately, though Simpson was famously acquitted in the criminal case, a jury held him liable for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in civil court

Although the Enquirer's discovery was a contribution to justice -- it helped establish the truth, and was incontrovertible- this discovery also illustrates a double standard: The Enquirer would not have been hot on the trail of a non-celebrity defendant, especially one who had already been acquitted.

Sometimes, too, the public can work with the press in building a case against the celebrity. Remember the witness who recognized former congressman Gary Condit disposing of an item related to the Chandra Levy investigation in an out-of-town trash receptacle? Had Condit's face not been plastered all over the press, along with strong suggestions that he was guilty, the trash incident might have gone unnoticed or unremarked.

Again, this was overall probably a contribution to justice: Condit's disposal was suspicious indeed, and worth the police's attention, though it ultimately led to no charges against him. But again, there's a double standard: After he came under investigation, anything Condit did in public, in effect, was done under public scrutiny. Not so for the public doings of an ordinary defendant.

Meanwhile, other, less hard-and-fast evidence that is unearthed by the press or the public may actually work against justice in the end. Defendants - celebrity or not - ought to be able to focus on rebutting prosecutors' claims, as set out in the indictment. But as it is, celebrity defendants may have to face dozens of other claims that are brought up in the press; are not included in the indictment; and may be just as damaging.

If these claims are false, the celebrity defendant may still have to waste time and resources rebutting them. If they are true but irrelevant, they may nevertheless linger in the public mind.

There are other ways, too, in which a celebrity defendant can be especially vulnerable due to press scrutiny. Prosecutors may decide not to drop charges, to seek a harsh sentence, or to prosecute a marginal case, in order to "make an example of" the celebrity.

The Ugliest Scenario For a Celebrity: False Charges Brought For Money

Finally, it's important to remember that when the defendant is a celebrity, an accuser may make up charges to get money. This may happen when the celebrity has a squeaky-clean image that a single charge will ruin.

This might be happening with respect to Kobe Bryant. As Jonna Spilbor discussed in a recent column for this site, the defense in that case may well be able to argue effectively that the accuser - who has, unusually, already begun her civil action - is going forward for money, not for justice.

False charges brought for money may be more likely to be filed when similar charges have been lodged against the celebrity before. In such a situation, the accuser knows that his or her charge - even if it's based on nothing but words - will probably be taken seriously.

This also may well be happening with respect to Michael Jackson'S child abuse charges. Even if Jackson might be guilty of some of these charges, could he possibly be guilty of all of them? Did his decision to reach a civil settlement with his first accuser start a fateful pattern of false accusations?

The Flip Side of These Disadvantages: Celebrities Will Always Have A Defense

When it comes to criminal cases, then, celebrities are operating under a cloud of risk - even when they are entirely innocent, or the charge is minor. The silver lining of this cloud, however, is that these very vulnerabilities can often be flipped to provide the celebrity with a persuasive defense, even if he or she is guilty.

Here's how it works: Just as the media's unearthing of evidence can distract the celebrity from focusing on her defense, it can also provide red herrings that can help a guilty defendant escape.

Just as a celebrity's case can prompt copycat follow-up cases, the copycat argument can sometimes protect a celebrity from conviction. Michael Jackson's constant legal troubles allow him to play the victim - whether he really is a victim or a perpetrator.

As I have argued in an earlier column, Jackson's prosecutor, Tom Sneddon, has acted very inappropriately. For instance, he has repeatedly implied Jackson is guilty of a 1993 charge - even though his office dropped those charges, and has joked about Jackson, calling him "a guy everyone calls Jacko Wacko." But such comments could turn out to be lucky for Jackson, if the prosecutor's biased behavior can be brought into the trial: The jury may get the impression that Jackson faced an adversary who was out to get him, and thus may look especially closely and skeptically at the evidence the prosecution presents.

Finally, just as money can be a lure for false charges, it can also be the Achilles' heel of the honest accuser in a high profile celebrity case. If Kobe Bryant's accuser is telling the truth, should she have to give up what the law says is owed her in her civil case, in order to get a conviction? In a recent column for this site, Anthony Sebok offered a strong argument that she should not. But many jurors may believe otherwise.

The bottom line, then, is this: If you're guilty of a major offense, it may be much better to be a celebrity defendant - for the resources, for the distractions, and for the chance of counter-spin.

But if you're innocent, or are guilty of only a minor offense, being a celebrity may be more a curse than a blessing - for your genuine innocence may disappear in a cloud of commentary, or you may suffer for your minor transgression, or for simply having been on trial at all. These consequences are unfair and wrong, no matter who the defendant is.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden's first novel, 3, was published recently. In reviewing 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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