Guest Column

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Our public schizophrenia in celebrity trials

The Michael Jackson Trial

By Burton S. Katz/Retired L.A. Superior Court Judge

There is a similarity between the cases of O.J., Blake and Jackson that is troubling. We have a schizophrenic view about celebrity justice. Part of us wants to believe that these people whom we have, at times, held on the highest of pedestals, are innocent. At some level, they are heroes. They are better than we are and we look to them vicariously for the “perfect” existence denied us mere mortals.

Because we don’t want to believe that “our celebrities” are capable of betraying our trust in the commission of incredibly evil acts, we choose sometimes to look the other way. In O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake, we looked at the victims.

In O.J., some people, incredibly, commented that Nicole Simpson was a party animal who lived the good life in the fashionable Hollywood enclave of Brentwood. Some said she was a white woman who had taken a good black man from a black woman using her blond, edgy attractiveness. Implicit in those comments is the horrible notion that she “deserved” what she got. No one does. While there could be no such argument made about Ron Goldman, he, too, was tainted with this need to find O.J. innocent.

In Blake, once again we needed to believe in our celebrity’s innocence. So we looked at the victim, Bonnie Lee Bakely. Harland Braun, an outstanding criminal defense lawyer and strategist, became the architect of what would prove to be a deadly critical attack on every aspect of the victim’s lifestyle. Braun knew that in a circumstantial evidence case-in the absence of a credible eyewitness-the case was up for grabs; he knew that our worship of celebrity, even those whose star had long ago dimmed, could indeed tip the scales in favor of the celebrity defendant. The victim was a grifter, said the defense; they said she sold sex over the Internet, misled and lied to her male victims, took their money without any moral compunction and even involved her family in the big lie, allegedly sexually abusing them. It was easy to delude ourselves, saying that we weren’t there; we don’t actually know what happened so “we’re OK with an acquittal.” No critical analysis needed here. Our celebrity had once again been spared.

Jackson is not so easy. Because no one can be morally correct in saying that the alleged victims deserved what they got. These are children … and if something untoward happened to them, they did not deserve it. We love and protect our children; and we put away pedophiles that defile them. So the defense had to refine its strategy, refute the allegations of the children in a nonoffensive fashion and attack the parents as being greedy, avaricious and manipulative. “It’s the parents,” they say, who used their children to extort money from an increasingly vulnerable and diminished superstar. In a separate case, they say that the mother of the alleged victim committed perjury in making a false claim of a sexual attack by security guards of J.C. Penney’s department store, inducing her own children to give a false account of the same; that she has taken advantage of the childlike innocence of Michael Jackson, knowing full well that his need to be around children, even in his bedroom, would not sit well with the general public; that he would then be regarded as a pedophilic pariah and outcast from whom she could extort money.

There is also the unspoken aspect of our celebrity schizophrenia, the darker side; the part that likes to see the fall of celebrities, their fall from grace. The bigger they are, the bigger the fall: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, Jerry Lee Lewis, even Frank Sinatra, before his resurrection. And so it is with Jackson, a star who marches to a different tune, “Jackson, the weirdo,” a 46-year old man who is the pathetic outgrowth of a childhood forever lost. We do feel his pain. And it makes us uncomfortable.

I have talked to many lawyers during my mediations in the recent weeks. There is no sense of triumph amongst them; there is only a sad feeling that if Jackson did what they said he did, he must be removed as a sexual predator. It may be very difficult to determine what really happened because of the focus on the conduct and motives of the parents who may have placed the children deliberately in harm’s way for their own monetary gain. If Jackson is innocent, he has been wronged beyond repair. Recall Jackson’s haunting lyrics in the song “Stranger in Moscow” that may add to our celebrity schizophrenia:

“…How does it feel

How does it feel

When you’re alone

And you’re cold inside

“Here abandoned in my fame

Armageddon of the brain

KGB was stalkin’ me

Take my name, just let me be

Then a beggar boy called my name

Happy days will drown the pain…”