Double-punch of celebrity trials debated

first_imgWhen Robert Blake’s jury found him liable for his wife’s murder after he had been acquitted in a criminal trial, O.J. Simpson said he and Blake had been subjected to double jeopardy. But legal experts believe it just may be an example of celebrity justice. “This was absolutely a celebrity verdict,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “This was O.J. all over again. The jury is saying, ‘You got away with murder in the criminal case. Now we’ll make you pay big time.”‘ On Friday, a jury ordered the former “Baretta” star to pay $30 million to Bonny Lee Bakley’s four children, saying Blake “intentionally caused the death” of his wife, who was gunned down in 2001 in the actor’s car outside a restaurant where the couple had just dined. “The criminal justice system struggles with fame and fortune,” Kellermann said, adding that the remedy of a civil suit usually kicks in when there are “rich people with high-profile trials where a wrong is perceived to have happened.” She said her research on reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict showed the public overwhelmingly believed that the prosecution had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “But a large percentage of the public also thought he was guilty,” Kellermann said, and they supported revisiting the case in civil court. She also said those who believe strongly in the rights of due process feel the civil trial is a form of double jeopardy and is unfair. “But those who believe that too many people are going free because of a failed criminal justice system feel that the civil suit is correcting a wrong,” she said. In the Blake case, jurors didn’t indicate what specific evidence caused them to find Blake responsible but felt $30 million was appropriate. M. Gerald Schwartzbach, the attorney who represented Blake in his criminal trial, said the actor had disclosed early on that he was broke and owed more money to the Internal Revenue Service than he has in assets. He tried to settle the case but the family refused, Schwartzbach said. He believes Bakley’s children wouldn’t have sued the 72-year-old actor if he had not been a celebrity. “The idea that celebrities get a break is a fiction,” Schwartzbach said. Bakley’s daughter, Holly Gawron, said after the verdict she did not care if she received any of the money the jury assessed against Blake. But her lawyer, Eric Dubin, who virtually gave up his law practice for three years to pursue the case, clearly thought otherwise and is expected to pursue Blake for the money. Attorney Steve Cron, who has represented high-profile defendants in the past, said some of his clients were acquitted and not sued in civil court. “It’s the fact that someone is perceived as having the potential and the wherewithal to pay that makes the difference,” he said. The wealthy defendant who is acquitted is the most obvious target for a civil suit, Cron said. Asked if the law is discriminatory against the rich, Cron said, “It could apply to poor people but they don’t have the assets to go after. Does it strike me as unfair? No.” During the Michael Jackson child molestation trial, attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. frequently suggested that the mother of a boy who claimed the singer molested him was planning a civil suit to collect money from the superstar. Since Jackson’s acquittal, no such suit has materialized. But the mother has additional problems because she has been charged with welfare fraud. Even if Blake or Simpson had not been held civilly liable, publicity from a celebrity trial can do enormous damage not faced by the average defendant. “Even if Blake was found not liable, he was forever tainted,” Levenson said. “Celebrities live by the media and they die by the media.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals Simpson also was acquitted of killing his wife and her friend but was assessed damages of $33.5 million in a civil case. He has paid almost none of it to the victims’ families. “I couldn’t have paid $1 or $1 million,” said Simpson, who spoke by phone from his Florida home. “They had taken everything I had.” Simpson added he believes those involved in the Blake case will write books in order to make money they cannot collect from Blake. Kathy Kellermann of the Los Angeles office of Trial Behavior Consulting has done research on public reactions to the two-trial system. She said it is favored by members of the public who feel that the criminal justice system “is broken” and cannot handle wealthy or famous defendants when asked to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The civil system requires a lower standard of proof, a finding that it is more likely than not that the person is responsible for the crime. last_img

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