The Vagaries Of Celebrity Justice

VennerRoadStarred Page By VennerRoad, 10th Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Celebrities>Scandals

An examination of celebrity trials conducted in the full glare of the media.

The Vagaries Of Celebrity Justice

It has often been said that the rich are able to buy a better quality of justice; this is not always the case, a wealthy man on trial for offences of dishonesty is unlikely to garner much sympathy from a jury that is made up of ordinary people, especially in a long trial wherein there may be jurors who are unemployed or retired.

Likewise, celebrity can be a double edged sword in the courtroom. There have been a number of celebrity trials in recent months including of William Roache - the longest-serving soap actor in the world; A List entertainer Rolf Harris; and most notoriously Oscar Pistorius.

Four other such trials of note are those of Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, and O.J. Simpson, the latter two for murder. These are still in the news, the Tyson rape trial because in spite of his notoriety Tyson is still in constant demand as a pundit and self-publicist; Spector, because a new photograph of him (from 2009) was released recently in which he has aged drastically; Simpson because he is currently waiting on an appeal concerning his 2008 conviction for an armed hold-up; and Jackson for a typically bizarre reason, in this case the release of the only recording he is said to have made with Freddie Mercury of Queen with Jackson’s pet chimp in the studio.

Let us though consider first a notorious celebrity trial from a bygone era, that of the silent screen comedian known as Fatty Arbuckle. The three trials of Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle following the bizarre death of a young woman after a party has been called Hollywood’s first scandal. Virginia Rappe was taken ill probably due in part to excessive consumption of alcohol - which at that time was prohibited by law. Arbuckle had the misfortune to have been alone in the room with Rappe at the time. He was shortly accused of raping her by an extremely disreputable woman named Bambina Maude Delmont.

This case was an early example of trial by media; all manner of scurrilous allegations were thrown around, especially at Arbuckle, but although eventually he was completely exonerated, his career and reputation were ruined. He died from a heart attack in 1933, aged just 46.

Fast forward to 1992; by this time the media was truly international, and at the centre of a rape trial was the former heavyweight champion of the world. Mike Tyson had taken the boxing world by storm, becoming the youngest ever heavyweight champion, and cementing his claim to fame with a devastating 91 second knockout of the likewise unbeaten Michael Spinks in 1988 to unify the title. Earlier that year he married actress Robin Givens. With a trophy wife, the adulation of millions and a few dollars in the bank, Tyson was living the dream, but it didn’t take long for cracks to appear. By the time he met Desiree Washington in July 1991, his marriage had fallen apart and he had lost his title to 35-1 underdog Buster Douglas in emphatic style, but one thing he had not lost was his arrogance.

Desiree Washington might well have been trophy wife number two, if Tyson had wanted, but instead of wining and dining her, he lured her to his hotel room and forced himself upon her. Charged with rape, he stood trial the following year, and like Ched Evans two decades later, his arrogance helped to convict him.

Tyson testified that shortly after he had met Miss Washington he told her that he wanted to “fuck her”, and he said she responded, “Sure. Just give me a call.”

Sure she did. Desiree Washington may have been gullible to accompany Tyson to his hotel room in the small hours, she may have been outright stoopid, but stupidity is not a crime.

In American courtrooms a defendant will often not take the stand, even in a rape trial. Wisely or not, Tyson elected to, and was convicted. Would he have been convicted had he not? Almost certainly. Date rape cases are almost always she said/he said affairs. Often there is no physical evidence, especially if the alleged rape is reported weeks, months or even longer after it did or did not occur, and rightly so. In cases where there is physical evidence and the defence is consent, jurors have the unenviable task of choosing between the lying tart in a virginal dress or the plausible monster in a business suit. It may come down to personalities, with the caveat that the accused should always be given the benefit of the doubt. In this case though there was physical evidence, not simply of bad sex but of forceful penetration.

Tyson was convicted, his appeal was dismissed, and nothing he has done since should give any reasonable person cause to doubt the soundness of that conviction. The same cannot be said for the case of OJ Simpson, who was of course in far deeper water than even Tyson.

This was in some sense the trial of the century, certainly of the decade. Simpson was the most prominent American ever to stand trial for a double murder. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Southern California, an athletic scholarship, as it would transpire that even in later life he was functionally illiterate. His footballing career was exceptional though, and in due course he moved into TV and films - and not just in front of the camera.

Simpson had as big an appeal to white as to black America. Behind the scenes, things were not so rosy, but of course the murder of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman in June 1994 took things to a whole new level. Although at this time the world was going on-line, there was no YouTube, but even without cyberspace, worldwide coverage was virtually wall-to-wall.

Because the case against Simpson was so overwhelming, the defense had to resort to dirty tricks in the hope of securing an acquittal. In an English courtroom, there would have been none of these shenanigans. For one thing there would have been no cameras, and even if there had been, no circuit judge in this country would have played up to them the way Lance Ito did. Ito was chosen to try this case because as a Japanese-American he was considered racially neutral; that may have been true, but he certainly wasn’t camera-shy.

Broadly speaking, the defense tried to discredit the prosecution evidence by both playing the race and by insinuating that Simpson had been framed by a conspiracy of racist police officers. The police have certainly been known to frame people on occasion, including for murder, but in this case the suggestion was frankly ridiculous. For one thing, initially he had been regarded not as a suspect but as a potential third victim. When he took the stand, one of the detectives on the case was asked if he had ever used the dreaded N word in the past ten years. Naturally he lied, and lied naturally, as do all experienced police officers. He was asked too if he had ever planted evidence on suspects. Would any police officer make such an admission on the stand in a murder trial?

In the UK, it is unlikely any barrister would have asked questions of this nature, and if he had, the answers given would have been final because of restrictions on cross-examination. Certainly the defence would not have been permitted to impeach Fuhrman’s testimony with other witnesses, even with the tape that dropped into its lap shortly like manna from Heaven. Wisely, the defense elected not to put Simpson on the stand, and after hearing months of testimony, the jury retired and returned a mere four hours later with verdicts of not guilty.

It was claimed at the time that America was divided along racial lines, that blacks believed Simpson to be guilty, and whites that he had gotten away with murder; this belief was reinforced by carefully selected editing of reactions to the acquittal. There was also talk of this being payback for the acquittal of the defendants in the then still recent Rodney King outrage. Whether or not Christopher Darden was indeed the only black man in America who believed him to be guilty, today it would be difficult to find any American of any race who does not see Simpson for what he is.

After the criminal trial came the civil action which was brought by the family of Ron Goldman to try to prevent him from profiting from his crime. Although Simpson was found liable in tort for both deaths, the judgment had a limited effect on his lifestyle. Then came the disgraceful and hastily withdrawn ghost-written book If I Did It, This Is What Happened. Withdrawn or not, someone scanned it for posterity, and you can read it for free, for what it is worth.

Finally, just when it seemed that Simpson had not only gotten away with murder but laughed at the world, he imploded in spectacular fashion by organising a bizarre robbery in Las Vegas. That may have been shocking but the result was predictable, the criminal justice system threw the book at him, and after his conviction, so did the trial judge. All his co-defendants were offered and accepted sweetheart deals, pleading guilty to lesser charges if they testified against him. Even Michael McClinton, the gunman, was given a slap on the wrist and walked out of the courtroom in effect a free man. Although the judge stressed otherwise, this was clearly payback for the double murder. Whatever support Simpson may have had at the first trial, no one was rooting for him this time. In addition to the world media, in the courtroom with Simpson when he was sentenced were the father and sister of his male victim, Ron Goldman.

Another famous black American to stand trial on controversial charges was Michael Jackson. Black? Well, American anyway. Jackson was undoubtedly a mega-talented individual, an excellent songwriter, stellar performer, and along with Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Fred Astaire, one of the greatest dancers of his age, certainly outside of the classical genre. He was also weird, and the great wealth he amassed allowed him to express that weirdness in all manner of ways. Unfortunately, the man who claimed in all sincerity that he was Peter Pan, had a predilection for the company of the young, sometimes the very young, and usually boys.

By the time he stood trial in 2005 on 14 charges including child abduction, he had already a decade earlier faced allegations that he had molested a boy named Jordan Chandler. There had been no criminal trial, but Jackson had in effect “bought off” his accuser with a massive civil settlement.

This time around, Santa Barbara prosecutor Tom Sneddon was hopeful of a conviction. However, in spite of the number of charges, the prosecution witnesses were anything but credible. Perhaps wisely, Jackson himself elected not to take the stand, but he had no little support, including from Macaulay Culkin, a former child star, and one of a number of boys with whom Jackson had formed a strong bond. He was also said to have been molested by Jackson, but Culkin himself ridiculed this claim. As Culkin was no stranger to Jackson’s palatial home, that testimony will have carried considerable weight, because if Jackson had not molested a blonde white boy, who would he have molested?

In spite of Jackson’s acquittal, rumours persisted, but with the wisdom of a decade of hindsight it is clear that however bizarre and unwise Jackson’s behaviour may have been, and however weird he was, one thing he was not, was a child molester. Among other things, when the authorities raided his Neverland estate, they found a small quantity of “men’s magazines”. The State tried to claim he had used these to groom underage boys - to use a fashionable word - but a simpler and more plausible explanation is that underneath that increasingly bizarre exterior there lurked a normal, heterosexual male who liked on occasion to look at photographs of semi-naked and nude women. In short, Jackson may have been extremely unwise, but rather than being a sexual predator he was the victim of cruel shakedown attempts by those to whom he had extended his largesse.

The latest celebrity trial - and the biggest ever on the African continent - is of course that of Oscar Pistorius. If the jury in the Simpson trial can be excused on the grounds of bamboozlement, boredom or even stupidity, can one make the same excuse for a judge? In South Africa there are no jury trials, something that is usually seen as a disadvantage to a defendant, but from the word go this case was never going to run true. To begin with, when Pistorius first appeared in court after the tragic shooting of Reeva Steenkamp, there was a bail hearing. That lasted four days! This is surely unprecedented in legal history. Bail applications are sometimes entertained in murder cases, especially if the evidence is weak. Probably the most extreme case of this was that of Clay Shaw, who was tried in 1969 for arranging the Kennedy assassination. However, even a complex application involving conditions and sureties will last perhaps half a day, and would not involve any detailed discussion of the evidence.

The version given by Pistorius at this trial is at the limit of credibility, or some way beyond that. Even if one excludes the evidence given by his neighbours of the screams they heard, we are expected to believe that he woke up in the middle of the night hearing an intruder, and without checking on Reeva - who was supposed to be in bed with him - proceeded to the bathroom, shouted a warning, and then fired four times through the toilet door, believing no doubt that some heavily armed criminal had somehow effected a noiseless entry into his house inside this gated community, intent on murdering him in his bed, but had first stopped to take a dump in his toilet.

Why would Reeva have taken her phone to the toilet? And locked the door? Even if Pistorius had indeed believed someone to have broken in, is it reasonable to shoot at an intruder behind a wooden door after shouting a warning? Surely he should have waited for a reply, or for a reasonable length of time? This may sound like wisdom in hindsight, but that is better than no wisdom at all, which is clearly what he had.

There are really only two explanations for what happened that night, one is that Pistorius did indeed awake fearing an intruder, and perhaps not remembering that Reeva was at the house with him. This would require him to be under the influence of some undetected mind-altering drug. The only other explanation that fits is that he knew who was behind that door when he pulled the trigger four times, and that for whatever reason, in some fit or rage or temporary act of madness, he killed her with intent. Thokozile Masipa has been a High Court judge since 1998, and it is difficult to imagine how she could have interpreted the actions of the defendant in such a radically different light from almost everyone outside of his circle of family, friends and advocates.

The Vagaries Of Celebrity Justice

Indeed, a stronger case can be made out for the innocence of Phil Spector, who in April 2009 was convicted of the February 2003 second degree murder of Lana Clarkson in a truly bizarre incident at his California home. Like Pistorius, Spector was freed on bail - of $1 million. The fact that it took over four years for the case to come to trial is surely down to financial influence rather than celebrity, although it may have been complicated by the legal argument relating to the prosecution seeking to introduce similar fact evidence to the effect that he had pulled a gun on four different women on previous occasions after he had been drinking. In this case though, justice was eventually done regardless of Spector’s fame and wealth. In February 2012, Spector, then 72 years old, lost an appeal, and is unlikely to leave prison alive.

In the UK, there has recently been a series of (ongoing) celebrity trials resulting from the Operation Yewtree witch-hunt; these historic sex allegations have been discussed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that like the trial of Oscar Pistorius, two of them have not been judged on the evidence, which has resulted in Max Clifford and Rolf Harris being sent to gaol for offences that almost certainly never happened. Two trials and millions of pounds of public money resulted in the former DJ Dave Lee Travis being convicted of one offence of indecent assault. The soap actor William Roache was acquitted when it became clear that his accusers were lying; other cases have collapsed before trial. The only case so far in which there was credible evidence was that of Stuart Hall, but after two trials even he was cleared of the major charges against him.

If there is anything to be learned from the above, it is that while celebrity has its benefits, in the courtroom it can be an asset, a hindrance, or have no effect at all.


Fatty Arbuckle, Mackauley Culkin, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Murder, Oscar Pistorius, Phil Spector

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author avatar VennerRoad
Independent researcher based in South East London.

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author avatar Nancy Czerwinski
11th Nov 2014 (#)

Thanks for sharing this information. I think we have to trust the judicial system. I do believe the system is fair.Smiles to you!

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