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Weighing celebrity justice


LOS ANGELES - Michael Jackson. Robert Blake. Kobe Bryant. And before them all, O.J. Simpson.

The facts, the accusations, the lawyers and the reliability of witnesses were quite different in each case. However, the acquittal of Jackson on all counts against him has prompted a debate again among the public and in legal circles of what role celebrity plays in America's criminal justice system.

Perhaps, as some defense lawyers suggested and supporters of Jackson contended, ambitious prosecutors go after the innocent or bring exceedingly weak cases, which jurors spot readily. Deciding the fate of a celebrity under intense media scrutiny could bring so much pressure that jurors simply hold prosecutors to a higher standard.

Perhaps, as some prosecutors say, celebrities can afford such good lawyers that they can beat any charges. Jurors might also sympathize with the plight of the famous as targets of the unscrupulous. Jurors might also be swayed by their preconceived notions of a celebrity, disregarding contradictory evidence.

In the end, people's opinions about whether celebrities get favorable treatment or fail to get a fair shake inevitably depend on their role in the case.

"My own view of the rule is that most celebrities have more of a problem establishing their innocence," said Robert Morvillo, who defended Martha Stewart.

Marcia Clark, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Simpson and will write a column for a forthcoming magazine, Justice, had the opposite view. "The case becomes so serious and so important," she said, "the standard of proof grows higher and higher and higher."

At the end of the day, Clark said, "guilt beyond reasonable doubt becomes guilt beyond all possible doubt."

Celebrities, of course, do not enjoy absolute immunity. Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting; Stewart went to prison on charges that she misled investigators about a stock sale. Still, jurors may be more willing to sympathize with celebrities than they had in the past, as the lives of the famous have been subject to more scrutiny in recent years.

"In the last couple of decades, the industry which feeds, celebrates and trashes celebrity has flourished," said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

"No one is any longer in the position of a naive fan," Kaplan continued. "We have all been taken behind the curtain, we all know about publicists and blackmailers and entourages and villainous retinues and treacherous friends and nannies who sell the secrets of their employers, and maitre d's capitalizing on this stuff."

Morvillo said jurors in California might be particularly sympathetic to celebrities. "Maybe it's because they live with celebrities."

After the Jackson verdict, jurors said the child molestation case fell apart because crucial prosecution witnesses were not credible. It did not fall apart, they said, because Jackson was a pop icon.

"Michael Jackson, to the media and to everybody, is a huge person, but where we live, he's just a person," Cheri Baldacchino, an alternate juror in the Jackson case, said in an interview yesterday.

Her home is in Solvang, a few miles from Jackson's ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Bo Derek, David Crosby and John Forsythe own property.

Baldacchino said she and other members of the panel did their best to consider Jackson as just another defendant. "I know those people looked at him not as a superstar but as an individual," she said, referring to her fellow jurors. "We have a lot of celebrities. He could go down to the El Rancho Market, and no one is going to care."

Jurors appeared to subscribe to the defense team's argument that the mother of the accuser was not to be trusted, and that Jackson's fame and fortune had made him a target for extortion. Jurors might well believe that their deliberations were not affected by Jackson's celebrity, as they claim, but people who have studied juries say those assertions are probably wrong.

"There's research on inadmissible evidence, which is another thing that jurors are asked to disregard," said Phoebe Ellsworth, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Michigan. "They're really not very good at it. So, if it creeps in that the defendant has a criminal record, and the judge says, 'Jury, that's improper for you to consider, put it out of your mind,' they will try to. But in experimental studies, it shows that nonetheless the juries are more likely to find a defendant guilty."

However, whether jurors viewed Jackson's fame favorably is unclear. Some celebrities have a good reputation, while others do not, said Robert Shapiro, who helped defend Simpson and who is a partner at Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro.

"Mike Tyson is a celebrity that would be an unpopular defendant," Shapiro said. "Martha Stewart cuts both ways."

In Shapiro's view of celebrity cases, juries are the defendants' last chance for fair treatment, because prosecutors are more likely to pursue the famous with excessive zeal.

"In the Michael Jackson case, there is no chance that any prosecutor would've spent this much time investigating what are fondling allegations" if the defendant was not a superstar, Shapiro said.

However, what most distinguishes celebrity defendants from their less-famous counterparts, said Blair Berk, a lawyer in Los Angeles who has defended several Hollywood celebrities, is wealth.

"The quality of justice that someone like Michael Jackson received is solely about money," Berk said. "Having a lawyer who not only demands a fair trial but has the resources to assure it has become a precious thing in the United States. We really do now have two systems of justice, but it has nothing to do with how famous you are."

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