June 19, 2005 Sunday
HEADLINE: Michael, Meet Fatty. And Errol and Martha and . . .
BYLINE: Jonathan Turley
“Not guilty by reason of celebrity,” was one common reaction to last week’s acquittal of Michael Jackson on all 10 counts against him. The notion of “celebrity justice” — as distinct from conventional justice — has taken hold across America. Indeed, it has its own show, the syndicated “Celebrity Justice,” and there are self-described “celebrity justice correspondents” at Fox News and CNN. (CNN features two to handle the occasional sensational overload.) The cottage industry built around celebrity trials is based on the flawed assumption that the rich and famous are given free rides by jurors or simply prevail because of their ability to assemble dream teams of high-priced attorneys. Yet, these trials are different in other respects. For attorneys, the rules are often reversed from conventional criminal trials on such questions as when to put defendants on the stand or whether to attack victims.
One of the first to receive the label “Trial of the Century” was the 1921 trial of film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for allegedly raping and killing showgirl Virginia Rappe. The trial was one of the first glimpses into the celebrity Babylon of Hollywood, ranging from Arbuckle’s bacchanalian parties to his custom-made Rolls-Royce with a toilet installed in the back seat.
After three trials, Arbuckle was acquitted and the jury even apologized for the “great injustice . . . done him.” But it was too late for the public. Fatty got us hooked, and we are still trying to get that voyeuristic monkey off our backs. A stream of celebrity cases followed, revealing the often sordid lives of the celebrity class. Among them was the 1958 murder inquest of Cheryl Crane (movie idol Lana Turner’s daughter). The public was fixated on the life of Turner who was abused by her over-sized mobster boyfriend, Johnny Stomponato — until, that is, the 14-year-old Crane plunged a 10-inch carving knife into his chest. Today we have Jackson. With an audience of 30 million television viewers, Jackson’s verdict was the most popular thing the singer has produced in years.
Most celebrity trials have a notable common element: They result in acquittals. But to suggest that acquittal is the inevitable outcome ignores the fact that many celebrities plead guilty to avoid damaging trials. Despite his acquittal, Arbuckle was ruined from the trial exposure, while celebrities such as Robert Mitchum and Hugh Grant pleaded guilty and went on to leading roles. Indeed, some of the best-known accused celebrities never faced a jury: Mitchum (marijuana possession) ; Pee-wee Herman (indecent exposure); Robert Downey Jr. (drug possession); Christian Slater (assault and drug possession); Paula Poundstone (child endangerment); Marv Albert (battery); Hugh Grant (solicitation).
The high acquittal rate also reflects the fact that celebrity trials present unique elements that are ignored at the peril of either the prosecution or the defense. For criminal defense attorneys, celebrity trials can seem like a parallel universe where conventional rules and tactics are reversed.
Take, for example, the general disinclination to put a defendant on the stand. In most cases, the risks are simply too high for a defendant. For celebrities, however, the failure to take the stand can come at a much higher cost, as shown by Martha Stewart, who served time for obstructing an investigation into her sale of ImClone stock.
Prosecutors often portray celebrities as detached, abusive personalities who use people for their conspicuous consumption or enjoyment. By the end of the government’s case, Stewart looked as if she did everything short of beating her underlings with a riding crop — an image that could only be changed by Stewart herself.
Stewart might have been saved if she had taken the stand and shown the one thing that she had resisted her whole life: vulnerability. If she had simply said that she was afraid and confused, it might have saved her. Yet, her complex personality seemed incapable of such a simple defense.
To make things worse, her legal team gave the jury a parade of celebrity friends who sat behind Stewart in public showings of support. She made it abundantly clear that the jurors were not her peers in that courtroom — Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Cosby, Brian Dennehy and the rest of her famous friends were her true peers. Her conviction was sealed because her defense played by the conventional trial handbook and refused to put her on the stand.
Ironically, celebrities are often ideally suited for testimony. They are not only natural actors but, like Stewart, people who actively market themselves to the public. For example, when Errol Flynn testified at his 1942 statutory rape trial, he turned the tide after the introduction of truly damning evidence. The swashbuckling actor was well known as preferring underage girls whom he called his “San Quentin Quails” or JBs (for jail bait).
Likewise, Arbuckle, Crane and Charlie Chaplin all testified and were exonerated. Conversely, when actress Winona Ryder faced shoplifting charges in 2002, she did not take the stand and was convicted.
There are exceptions to this rule. Celebrity defendants O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake were both accused of killing their current or former spouses (as well as a friend in Simpson’s case). Yet, neither could testify without risking that suppressed or excluded evidence could be introduced into the trial. Their acquittals stemmed from other flaws in the cases.
In the case of Jackson, no rational lawyer would have put the notoriously unstable singer on the stand. Wearing pajama bottoms and surrounded by his battalion-size entourage, Jackson could barely hold it together sitting behind the defense table.
For celebrities, the best defense is often offense: putting the accuser on trial. While used in conventional trials with mixed success, this defense has far greater resonance and success in celebrity trials. Jurors tend to be skeptical of people who flutter around celebrities.
In perhaps the most vicious example, Flynn’s lawyers played on his reputation as a rake and attacked the two accusers — Betty Hansen, 17, and Peggy LaRue Satterlee, 15 — as under-aged sirens. The revelation at trial that Satterlee had had a previous affair and later an abortion was all Flynn needed to secure acquittal.
Likewise, Arbuckle’s attorneys attacked Rappe as a woman of questionable morals. Chaplin’s lawyers had it easier in portraying his alleged victim as not only unstable but the real “little tramp”: Actress Joan Barry had allegedly broken into his home with a gun to force a reunion. He testified and was acquitted of the charge of transporting Barry across state lines for sex in violation of the 1910 Mann Act.
In some cases, a victim walks right out of central casting for a celebrity defense. Robert Blake’s wife was a notorious grifter and pornographer. After 20 years of defrauding people, particularly lonely men, you could throw a stick on any corner in LA and hit five people who wanted to kill Bonnie Lee Bakely.
Jackson’s lawyers showed that, if you do not have a grifter victim, an alleged victim’s grifter mother will do. On the stand, the mother admitted that she had made false allegations in a prior lawsuit and neatly fit the profile of a conniving, predatory personality. Even after she pleaded with the jury “don’t judge me,” they seemed not only to judge but to convict her. Indeed, jurors had more to say about her than Jackson after the verdict, including her nasty habit of snapping her fingers at them.
Celebrities can present themselves as open targets for people who want to extort money through false allegations. In Jackson’s case, it was the perfect model of the clueless meeting the unscrupulous. And it provided a narrative that any jury would have appreciated.
The prosecution often offers something more complex and fluid — and ultimately less salient for a jury. In the Simpson trial, the prosecutors fumbled their narrative out of pure incompetence. By putting police officer Mark Fuhrman on the stand, they handed the late Johnnie Cochran the ready-made story of racist cops bent on making a case against an African American celebrity.
Despite the largely circumstantial evidence, the prosecution had a true shot at conviction with Jackson. There are certain celebrities who fit the model of the Marquis de Sade defendant: a personality who has allowed his unrestrained lifestyle and tastes to mutate into perverse passions. Jackson’s bizarre, kabuki-like appearance gave testimony to his alleged perversities. The same can be said for famous “Wall of Sound” rock music producer Phil Spector, whose violent tastes and creepy hairdo seem to scream suspect for his September murder trial.
None of this means the system is incapable of handling celebrity cases. Justice was done with Jackson, who faced a weak circumstantial case and a weak prosecution. As for Simpson, the case was lost by a breathtakingly incompetent prosecution team.
These were not cases of “celebrity justice,” just celebrity trials and conventional justice. In both cases, the prosecution failed to take advantage of the peculiar patterns that shape celebrity trials and played by conventional rules while the defense played by celebrity rules. It was no contest.