Archive for Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Can celebrities get justice?

August 18, 2004


Americans' hunger for celebrity trials seems to grow each year, and the media seem more eager than ever to provide such stuff. But I think it is reaching a point at which we must begin to ask whether celebrities are any longer able to have a fair trial.

It is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the television or radio without being bombarded with news of the Michael Jackson trial or the Kobe Bryant trial. For months Martha Stewart's trial and travails filled the press and the airwaves. Are these trials really so newsworthy and is the coverage accorded to them either in the best interests of the justice system or the accused and the accusers?

Certainly, no person should be exempt from the processes of the law simply because he is a celebrity. By the same logic, however, no person should be denied the full protections of the law because she is a celebrity. The problem with celebrity trials and the extensive media coverage that now accompanies them is that it is becoming increasingly clear that it is very difficult to provide a normal trial. Instead, celebrities who are accused of crimes are almost always now tried in the press before they are tried in court.

Second, one must ask how many jurors, regardless of how hard they may try will not be influenced, either positively or negatively, by the celebrity status of the accused. Third, one must also ask whether the media coverage accorded to all of the participants in a celebrity trial will affect the way the judge, the lawyers, and the various court personnel behave.

In retrospect, the problems attendant upon the trial of O.J. Simpson are so many that it is impossible not to question the fairness of that trial. It seems as though virtually everyone involved has written a book on the trial, including the judge and the prosecuting attorneys. When one takes a close look at what went on in the Martha Stewart trial and what is currently going on in the Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson trials, one is forced to ask whether the same sort of problems are happening again.

In the Martha Stewart trial, we must deal with a situation in which one of the principal government witnesses perjured himself. In the Kobe Bryant trial, there have been a series of breaches of confidentiality by the court that have made the trial close to a travesty. In the Michael Jackson trial, there are ongoing questions as to the prosecution's motives in bringing the case and whether prosecutorial misconduct in the gathering of evidence has taken place.

A second major issue with celebrity trials, of course, is the motive of the accusers. In the Kobe Bryant trial there appear to be very serious issues about the mental state of the accuser and whether the accuser may have had mercenary motives in bringing the charges against Bryant. Certainly, the filing of a civil case for damages at the same time that the criminal case is pending would seem to raise this question. In the Jackson case, there would appear to be long-standing tensions between Jackson and the prosecutor.

All of these problems are made far worse by the intensive coverage of every aspect of these trials. What does it say about our society and about how the media prioritizes coverage of current events that these trials get so much attention? In the end, the trial of a celebrity for rape or murder or theft is really no different, in essence, from the trial of anyone on such charges. It is part of a tragedy, a tragedy that has disrupted, even ended, the lives of people.

The world is complex and sad enough as it is. Certainly, the media has a duty to cover newsworthy events. But what makes celebrity trials newsworthy? When I was growing up, I read the New York Times each day. I was always aware of the motto of that newspaper: All the news that's fit to print. I wonder whether today our media need to ask that question again. I suspect if they did, much of the coverage of celebrity trials would disappear, something that might well help the people involved in these trials get justice.

Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the


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