Do Celebrities Get Special Treatment?
Author of Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion
The public usually assumes that celebrities receive preferential treatment at every turn in criminal cases, as well as in civil proceedings. Their lawyers tell a different story. The one point of agreement is that celebrities, like other people with lots of money, can hire the best legal representation. Additionally, a Martha Stewart can afford public relations consultants and even public-opinion surveys, while ordinary defendants may be getting advice from only their family members and drinking pals.
Except for the issue of financial resources, celebrities are otherwise less favored by the system than one might think. Certainly, when it comes to being investigated, no one receives more scrutiny than a celebrity. Prosecutors and investigators look under every rock and behind every blade of grass. After all, if proceedings are brought, famous people become famous cases, and high-profile trials define the careers of prosecutors and sometimes of police and of criminalists.
Ben Brafman, who won acquittals for such high-profile defendants Sean “Diddy” Combs and nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, believes special treatment for celebrities is one of the biggest myths. Brafman notes that a person less famous than NFL star Plaxico Burress might not have even been arrested following his self-inflicted guns wound. A football star with a bullet hole in his leg attracts more attention than a football fan in the same unfortunate predicament. And once the police arrested the celebrity, the city’s mayor and its newspapers made an issue about maximum punishment that likely would not have been made had an anonymous mortal broken the law. The authorities like to use high-profile cases to carry a message about obeying the law, and low-profile cases do not carry such messages very far.
Charles Stillman also believes any idea that high-profile defendants get a better break is a misconception. “They get top-flight representation,” he notes, but, “apart from that, it’s tougher.” When high-flying people are seen as going down, “they get no good press,” Stillman adds. 27
Robert Morvillo emphasizes the inflexibility of the process as a major liability when notable figures fall into legal trouble. “Everybody changes,” he notes, “people are frozen, and they become much more rigid with respect to the issues of the trial.” Of course, well-regarded celebrities may fare better than the more notorious. O.J. Simpson, at the time of the initial questioning in the double homicide case, was then a popular figure who was treated respectfully, even deferentially, by police. Correspondingly, several defendants who had played for the Miami Dolphins, though tried for federal drugs or laundering charges that usually led to convictions, won acquittals from Florida juries. 28 Conversely, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in a he said-she said case that might have created reasonable doubt for a figure with a less sinister image. 29
Additionally, celebrities may have more difficulty getting favorable plea deals. Few prosecutors want to face public outrage and press rancor for supposedly letting a celebrity off the hook. As to prison time for guilty celebs, judges usually try to sentence the rich and famous as if they were neither. When cameras are hovering nearby, judges know they will not be rewarded for leniency.
Roy Black summarizes his experience representing celebrities with two categories of reactions. “Prosecutors and judges tend to hold them to a higher standard.” On the other hand, Black believes that “jurors are impressed with people who are famous.” As a result, Black’s conclusion is that “celebrities are more likely to get charged and more likely to get acquitted” than the rest of us. 30
Fraudster Bernie Madoff received a one-hundred-fifty-year prison sentence, five times his likely life expectancy. At the other end of the criminal spectrum, Paris Hilton was sentenced to forty-five days in jail for violating probation by driving without a license. Her sentence was certainly not lenient to begin with, but her modest legal problems were about to become a ratings gangbuster that attracted extensive coverage from cable news. When she was released early due to medical issues, a national uproar ensued. Within hours, the judge ordered her back into court and then on her way back to Los Angeles County jail. Professor and legal analyst Laurie L. Levenson attributed Hilton’s above-par, punishment for traffic violations to the reality that “people are fed up with celebrity justice.” 31 Being tough on Paris Hilton may have seemed harsh to her family and her fans, but for most of the public, the judge seemingly stood tall when Paris Hilton went down.
27. Charles Stillman, interview with author, September 14, 2009.
28. New York Times, “Pro Football; Marten Acquitted of Money Laundering,” August 27, 1999; Sun-Sentinel, “Ex-Dolphin Mark Duper Cleared of Drug Charges,” March 16,1995.
29. New York Times, ‘Tyson Gets Six-Year Prison Term for Rape Conviction in Indiana,” March 27, 1992.
30. Roy Black, telephone interview with author, Juanuary 21, 2010.
31. Laurie L. Levenson, telephone interview with author, January 12, 2010.
The above is an excerpt from the bookSpinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion by Kendall Coffey. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2011 Kendall Coffey, author of Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney who headed the largest federal prosecutors’ office in America, is the founding member of and a partner at Coffey Burlington, PL. Following his service as a U.S. Attorney, he was closely involved with the Elian Gonzalez case and the 2000 presidential election recount. A leading media commentator on high-profile cases, he has appeared on the Today Show, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Headline News, as well as hundreds of other nationally televised programs.