Thursday, April 23, 2009

Phil Spector and Celebrity Trials and Mistrials, Justice and Injustice

Prosecutors all around the country quietly celebrated the second degree murder conviction last week of Phil Spector. Once, seemingly just once, a Hollywood celebrity did not beat a homicide rap. O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake, not to mention Michael Jackson, did not win this one.

Yet, all is not as it seems. Prosecutors have won more trials than one realizes while acquittals often occur far outside the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. In addition, prosecutors have encountered similar problems with non-Hollywood celebrities such as star athletes.

We will ignore the lesser crimes, the common, run-of-the mill peccadillos of Hollywood, no mater how egregious or conversely humorous, such as DWI’s (Mel Gibson with anti-semitism), drugs (father and son Ryan and Redmond O’Neal), illicit sex (Hugh Grant), indecent exposure (George Michael and Pee Wee Herman), transgender encounters (Eddie Murphy), shop lifting (Winona Ryder), and tax evasion (Al Capone convicted and Wesley Snipes acquitted).

The first non-Hollywood supertrial of a Hollywood star was that of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Fatty was the superstar of the silent film era, earning millions of dollars. Virginia Rappe, an actress, was raped in a hotel room he rented at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. She subsequently died of her injuries. Fatty was tried for the rape and murder. Juries twice could not reach a verdict. He was acquitted by a San Francisco jury after the third trial. He won, but his career died.

The swashbuckling Errol Flynn had a well-earned reputation for swashbuckling underaged women, “San Quentin Quail” as he would call them. He was acquitted in 1943 of two counts of statutory rape, which had the perverse effect of embellishing his reputation. I remember reading once that his wife (I don’t remember which one) liked to have sex with Errol every morning to minimize the chances of him fooling around later in the day.

Charlie Chaplin, who twice married 16 year old brides, was also acquitted of violating the Federal Mann Act, which prohibits the taking of a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The statute was most often applied when minors were involved. The English born Chaplin showed his gratitude to the jury and America by moving to Switzerland.

The singer “R. Kelly,” Robert Sylvester Kelly, was indicted in Chicago on June 6, 2002 of 22 counts of sex with a minor. He was acquitted 6 years later.

On the other hand, Chuck Berry, the great singer, was convicted in 1959 of the Mann Act. He was released from prison in 1963. Four decades earlier, Jack Jackson, the first black heavyweight champion, was also convicted of the Mann Act. The real crime of each was that the woman was of a different race. Jack Jackson was with a white prostitute, while Chuck Berry cavorted with a 14 year old Native American.

Another African American heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, was convicted by an Indiana jury of rape in 1992.

Rob Lowe dodged a bullet. He was stupid enough to film a sexual escapade in Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic National Convention with two women, one of whom was only 16. No charges were filed, but he subsequently entered rehab, claiming an addiction to alcohol and sex (the Michael Douglas defense).

Another Bad Boy of music, Sean “Puff Daddy” “P. Diddly” Combs was acquitted in New York in 2001 of a weapons violation. Combs allegedly fired a gun outside a nightclub, wounding three, and then bribed his chauffeur to be the fall guy. He was represented by the great lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, Jr., who also represented O.J. in his double murder acquittal. Puff Daddy did lose his then girl friend, J. Lo, though.

Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus was also acquitted of homicide in the shooting death of a rival gang member.

A 2005 LA jury acquitted Robert Blake of killing his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley in 2001. His defense was the standard defense in homicide cases of putting the deceased on trial. Bonnie was a woman with a checkered past. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley referred to the Blake jurors as “incredibly stupid.” A smarter jury in a subsequent civil trial awarded $30 million to her survivors. Blake dodged that too by entering bankruptcy.

Of course, the most infamous homicide trial was that of O.J., “The Juice,” Simpson, who was not only acquitted in Los Angeles, but also subsequently in Florida of road rage. The Juice always possessed street smarts, but was otherwise a little slow on the uptake. OJ was a great high school football player at Galileo High School in San Francisco, but had to play two years for San Francisco City College (CCSF) before enrolling at USC. OJ was also stupid enough to commit a crime in Vegas while one of his accomplices was taping it.

OJ’s LA acquittal was preordained when the then, but since voted out of office, DA Gil Garcetti, decided to book OJ at the Central Jail rather than Santa Monica, the normal venue for crimes in Brentwood. Garcetti was scared that a conviction of OJ, shortly after the vicious riots in the aftermath of the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, would trigger another series of riots.

The resulting jury pool was comprised mostly of minorities who shared great animus towards the LAPD. Johnnie Cochran, who got his start as a prosecutor in LA, knew where the skeletons were in the LAPD and could play the police brutality and incompetence angle to the jury.

As with Robert Blake, a subsequent civil jury awarded $33.5 million to the Goldman family, who unfortunately cannot claim his house or pension.

John Holmes, aka Johnny Wadd, was acquitted of the of the 1981 quadruple Wonderland murders.

Claudine Longet, the singer, actress, and ex-wife of Andy Williams, shot her boy friend, Spider Sabich, to death in his Aspen, Colorado home on March 21, 1976. The Colorado jury acquitted her of homicide, but convicted her of misdemeanor homicide for the “accidental discharge.” She paid a small fine, spent 30 days in jail, ran off with her married attorney, and watched a vicious parody on Saturday Night Live.

Not only ex-spouses, but also celebrity children can get in the act. Cheryl Crane, the 14 year old daughter of the actress Lana Turner, stabbed to death with a kitchen knife Lana’s abusive lover Johnny Stompanato. That 1958 murder didn’t even go to a trial. The Coroner’s Inquest ruled it “justifiable homicide.”

Christian Brando, Marlon’s neglected son, pled guilty to manslaughter in 1990 for killing Dag Drolley, his half sister’s boyfriend.

In a small, small world after all, Robert Blake’s attorneys attempted to pin Bonnie Lee’s murder on Christian. Apparently Blake and Brando had been competing for her affections. Blake won by impregnating Bonnie Lee.

Let us also not forget the fabled Menendez Brothers, Lyle and Erik, who murdered their parents on August 20, 1989 for money. Leslie Abrahamson won fame as the defense attorney by getting a hung jury in the first trial. Retrials resulted in guilty verdicts and life imprisonment for the two, who both managed to get married in prison.

Phil Spector was also convicted in a retrial of second degree homicide of Lana Clarkson in the drunken sport of Russian roulette. Lana lost.

No retrial though for the Baltimore Colts All-Pro Linebacker, Ray Lewis. 2 died in a shooting at a Super Bowl Party in Atlanta on January 30, 2000. Lewis and two others were arrested. Lewis flipped, copped a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge, and testified against the two co-defendants. They were acquitted. Settlements of undisclosed amounts were subsequently entered into with the victims’ families.

William Kennedy Smith beat a Florida rape charge in 1991. He was represented by the great Florida trial lawyer Roy Black, who more recently represented Rush Limbaugh in his drug possession case. On the other hand, Michael Skakel, related by marriage to the Kennedy’s, but lacking the Kennedy surname, was convicted in Connecticut in 2002 of the murder of his 15 year old neighbor 27 years earlier.

John DeLorean, a automotive genius with GM, had less success with his DeLorean, was charged with cocaine trafficking on October 19, 1982, but was acquitted in 1984 with the defense that the feds entrapped him.

This blog started with Fatty Arbuckle, but one earlier famous murderer won an acquittal in Fall River, Massachusetts, about as far as you can get in America, both geographically and culturally, from the City of Angels. Lizzie Borden, the axe woman, convinced a jury in 1893 of her innocence in the brutal murders of her father and step mother.

The reason many of these celebrities escaped justice is not that they are celebrities, but that the golden rule of justice applies. Those with the gold can buy justice, or at least acquittals, by retaining the best attorneys and sparing no expense on the defense.

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