by Matthew Clarke
We all know celebrities accused ofcrimes, including actors, musicians, sports figures, business leaders, politicians and journalists. If they’re prosecuted at all, the punishment is rarely harsh. The rich and famous simply aren’t treated like everyone else.
However, the rise of the #metoo movement has undermined celebrity privilege within the U.S. justice system somewhat. For crimes of sexual misconduct, the wealthy and famous increasingly are treated more like the rest of us – especially when the victims are underage.
Nevertheless, celebrities continue to enjoy deference in other criminal allegations, such as assault, money crimes or property crimes. Nor is the accusation of a sex crime sufficient to remove the privilege of celebrity in some cases.
What is Celebrity Privilege?
Privilege in the criminal justice system is often thought of in racial terms. Research has proven an inherent bias among police, prosecutors, judges, and juries, who give more credence to white defendants and treat them with greater deference and more leniency than people of color. To be fair, though, it’s difficult to tease out whether this bias is racial or wealth-based, since wealth distribution in the U.S. falls along racial lines.
But just as there is “white privilege” for most defendants, celebrity defendants possess a supercharged version – one that trumps even race. At every step of the criminal justice process, the rich and famous have ways of avoiding liability which are unavailable to you or me. Only in rare cases when the crime is so great or so shocking is the celebrity thrown under the bus like the rest of us. Even then, celebrity privilege has most often extended years of immunity.
Adjusting the picture most recently, the #metoo movement has focused public attention on the prevalence of sexual assault and forced a rethink about the limits of celebrity privilege when it comes to that crime. As a result, it is now much more likely that a celebrity will be called to task for it than in the past.
So what makes up this privilege? Disbelief, first and foremost – the reluctance of an adoring public to admit the object of its affection is flawed extends to juries, grand juries and even judges. Add to that the deference shown to the rich by prosecutors and law enforcement, such as the incredible way the late billionaire Jeffrey Epstein was treated after his 2008 Florida conviction for procuring a 14-year-old sex assault victim for prostitution. Sentenced to just 13 months, he was allowed to serve it in the Palm Beach County Jail, rather than prison. From there he was driven to his office in a luxury hi-rise every day by a Sheriff’s deputy, who left the prisoner alone inside until the workday ended. How many other U.S. prisoners convicted of child sex abuse get that treatment?
Celebrity Privilege and Disbelief
Celebrities receive the benefit of the doubt when an accusation is brought against them. That’s because their fame and wealth can, in fact, make them a target for extortion. Taking advantage of that as a pre-emptive defense, celebrities eventually convicted in high-profile cases have been able to extend their crimes for years or decades because victims who reported them were not believed.
One example is Epstein, who was in a Manhattan lockup awaiting trial for sex trafficking more underage girls when he died in August 2019. Others include movie producer Harvey Weinstein, music legend Phil Spector, actor Bill Cosby and singer R. Kelly. In his case, widespread disbelief in his guilt persisted through a trial for making child pornography and multiple media articles until a documentary film finally helped his victims be taken seriously.
Minimizing the seriousness of the accusations brought against a celebrity is a variety of disbelief. This is likely the explanation why former U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was never criminally charged after eight women accused him of sexual assault and harassment. Media reports often said Franken was accused of “groping.” But grabbing a woman’s breasts or genitalia without her consent is considered sexual assault in most jurisdictions, even if the perpetrator is a U.S. Senator.
The #metoo movement has helped some sex assault victims overcome this disbelief. But typically this happens only after many victims come forward to testify. Apparently, one victim is not enough to land them in legal trouble, which is the most basic form of celebrity privilege.
Celebrity Privilege and Corruption
Through legal settlements, celebrities often have the option of buying off victims to make them drop accusations. But this corruption leaves a criminal free to victimize others. The amounts paid can be staggering, though, running millions of dollars. After Bill Cosby bought off an alleged rape victim, she then filed criminal charges against him. Since she had signed a nondisclosure agreement to receive the $3.8 million payment in her civil suit, the actor reportedly discussed suing her for breach – as if he were her victim!
Likewise, when R. Kelly was finally convicted of sexually assaulting children, prosecutors noted that he had run a “settlement factory” for decades, paying off his accusers in exchange for their silence.
Weinstein also reportedly “reached settlements” with at least eight women who accused him of sexual assault during the three decades preceding his successful prosecution. Those settlements also required nondisclosure agreements to be signed, designed to muzzle his accusers. Other victims were simply intimidated by the ability of a powerful movie producer to end their careers.
In 2021, over two dozen Houston-area massage therapists sued NFL quarterback DeShaun Watson for sexual assault or sexual harassment. Criminal complaints were filed by 10 of them, but police did not arrest him, and a grand jury declined to indict him. Using a former federal judge as an arbitrator, Watson has settled 23 of 25 lawsuits. After he was traded from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns, the NFL suspended him for six games to show its solidarity with the #metoo movement.
In another successful buy-off, former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon was forced to retire in 2022 amidst a scandal involving secret settlements totaling more than $12 million that McMahon paid women who accused him of sexual misconduct between 2005 and 2012 – plus a multi-million-dollar settlement paid to a former WWE referee who accused him of rape. The settlements were revealed in a series of Wall Street Journal articles which led to an investigation by WWE’s board and ultimately resulted in McMahon’s retirement. But the retirement was short-lived.
In March 2023, McMahon repaid the board $17.4 million it spent on the investigation, a move that raises questions about whether McMahon had WWE pay settlements rather than writing a check himself for his alleged misdeeds. Then he returned to work for the WWE as executive director for the very same board that investigated him. At stake was the now-completed sale of WWE to Endeavor Holdings Group, which owned the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship league. The two formed a joint parent company that owns both entities with WWE as a 49% minority owner. Obviously having McMahon around to drive up the value of WWE for the deal was more important to its board than criminal allegations and millions in settlements.
Sometimes the buy-off happens after an arrest. NHL players A.J. Greer of the Colorado Avalanche and Sonny Milano of the Columbus Blue Jackets were arrested for assaulting a 28-year-old man in a New York City apartment. They were charged with third-degree assault, but the charges were dropped after they paid the victim an undisclosed settlement in January 2020. Neither player faced criminal charges, nor any discipline from their teams or the NHL.
Celebrity Privilege and Law Enforcement
Police tend to give the rich and famous the benefit of the doubt. Not only are they subject to the tendency to disbelieve the accusations, the cops are also acutely aware that their actions will be scrutinized by the media – and the high-priced attorneys’ that celebrities can afford to hire. Since the decision to charge someone with a crime often rests with the police, they can easily cut short an investigation into allegations against a celebrity. Likewise, they can overlook serious misconduct occurring at the time of the arrest, if one is even made, and then they may do a poor job of collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, torpedoing any future prosecution.
The misuse of police discretion is the hardest form of celebrity privilege to track, since there is no record of an arrest not made, or evidence not collected, or witnesses not interviewed. Cops rarely admit bending the rules for celebrities, but it happens – like when a Vanderbilt University policeman pulled over Robert Ritchie in Nashville in February 2005. The county-rock pioneer known as “Kid Rock” had an outstanding arrest warrant for punching a D.J. at a strip club earlier that night. But instead of arresting him or even performing a required field sobriety test, the cop exchanged a warning for the musician’s autograph. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.1.]
Celebrity Privilege and Bail
Theoretically, the only justification for pre-trial incarceration is if the defendant poses a flight risk or a danger to public safety. A cash bail system is supposed to ensure that defendants keep their court dates while treating criminal defendants with equity. But in fact, the bail system overtly favors the rich, while around 450,000 people are incarcerated in U.S. jails simply because they can’t afford bail.
The poor get these unaffordable bail amounts, even though just a few days in jail will likely cost them a job, housing or custody of their children. For the rich, who can afford bail, the amount is often set lower, because their fame makes it seem unlikely they will try to flee. They also get the benefit of the doubt in assessing the risk they pose to the community. The poor, on the other hand, are almost always considered risky.
The unavailability of reasonable bail for the poor exacerbates differences in outcomes for the poor and rich in the criminal justice system. A study in Texas’ Harris County found that criminal defendants held in jail were 25% more likely to plead guilty than those not incarcerated. That’s because poor people simply cannot afford to wait in jail for trial while they lose their homes, cars and jobs. The same county found hundreds of cases in which innocent people pleaded guilty to possession of drugs due to faulty field rests. Nearly all of them were incarcerated. None were rich or famous.
Arguments for bail reform led the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to agree in 2018 that the way the county’s bail system denied indigent arrestees procedural due process was unconstitutional. In addition, the Court said, applying bond schedules to poor defendants without an individualized consideration of their ability to pay violated their constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the laws. See: O’Donnell v. Harris County, 892 F.3d 147 (5th Cir. 2018).
Similar suits led to bail reforms in Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Then the Fifth Circuit came back en banc in January 2022 to say it had been wrong; O’Donnell should never have been tried in federal court because it was an issue best left to the state, the Court said. See: Daves v. Dallas County, 22 F.4th 522 (5th Cir. 2022).
Celebrity Privilege and Prosecutors
Celebrities who are unable to buy off an accuser or charm the police have to face a prosecutor. But this is another point at which discretion built into the criminal justice system can favor the rich and famous. Prosecutors determine whether a case is strong enough to take to court, dropping allegedly weak cases with little to no oversight. The decision often turns on whether the prosecutor believes the celebrity or the accuser.
Prosecutors also determine what charges, if any, to bring to a grand jury. Since they present the case, generally without input from the accuser or the defense, they can easily sculpt their presentations to achieve a pre-determined goal. They can also reduce felony charges to misdemeanors or lesser felonies, or agree to exchange leniency for a guilty plea.
When NFL player Tony McDaniel was arrested for domestic violence in February 2010, prosecutors reduced the Miami player’s charge to misdemeanor battery, then cut him a deal to plead no contest to an even lower charge of disorderly conduct. In exchange he was sentenced to six months of probation and court-ordered counseling. The NFL suspended him for one game.
Washington NFL player Cody Latimer was arrested and accused of involvement in an armed robbery at a poker game on May 15, 2020. As a part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped armed robbery charges and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to two years of probation in July 2021 and ordered to pay $1,503.50 in costs.
The same week Latimer was arrested, police in Miramar, Florida, arrested NFL players Quinton Dunbar of the Seattle Seahawks and DeAndre Baker of the New York Giants on suspicion of robbery. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Dunbar in August 2020 and charged Baker, who was then dropped by the Giants. Then the prosecutor dropped the charges against Baker in November 2020, and he was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs.
In 2022, NBA player Jaxson Hayes of the New Orleans Pelicans was charged with 12 offenses, including “domestic violence, battery, false imprisonment and resisting an officer.” Released on $25,000 bail, he cut a deal and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor false imprisonment and resisting an officer. He was sentenced in June 2022 to three years of probation, 450 hours of community service and 52 domestic-violence counseling sessions.
MLB player Marcel Ozuna of the Atlanta Braves was arrested in 2021 for a domestic assault on his wife, in which “he dislocated the ring and middle finger on his left hand,” requiring a cast and putting him on the injured list. Prosecutors reduced the charges to misdemeanors, and MLB suspended him for the last 20 games of the 2021 season. He was arrested again in May 2023 for DUI and pleaded no contest, after telling the Norcross Police who pulled him over in his car, “Sorry, sorry, I’m Ozuna from the Braves.” The $1,000 fine he paid represents 3/10 of 1% of his $312,500 weekly salary.
MLB player Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds was arrested in October 2015 for a domestic assault during which he discharged a firearm eight times. Prosecutors declined to file charges. MLB suspended him for 20 games, and he was traded to the Yankees. He was then first MLB player disciplined under the league’s new Domestic Violence Policy, suspended for 30 games of the 2016 season.
Singer Justin Bieber was arrested for egging his neighbor’s house in July 2014, causing $80,000 in damage, as well as resisting arrest and driving with a suspended license. Then 20, he tested positive for marijuana and Xanax. But instead of a felony charge, prosecutors agreed to let him plead no contest to misdemeanor vandalism – in exchange for repaying the neighbor’s damage, taking an anger management course and making a $50,000 charitable donation.
Rapper Kodak Black was sentenced to probation for assaulting a teenage girl in a South Carolina hotel room in 2016. Originally charged with rape, he ended up with a three-year federal sentence for falsifying documents used to purchase firearms – which was commuted by then-Pres. Donald J. Trump (R) on his last day in office in January 2021. By that time, Black had served about half of that sentence.
In November 2018, rapper Chief Keef, who was facing felony DWI charges in Florida, was allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving. He was sentenced to six months of probation and 50 hours of community service. He had previously received a suspended sentence in a South Dakota court after airport security found marijuana edibles in his carry-on bag.
Kiari Kendrell Cephus, a/k/a “Offset” of the rap group Mingos, was arrested in April 2015 on drug, gun and gang charges in Georgia. In December 2015, prosecutors agreed to accept his guilty plea to a charge of riot in penal institution in exchange for dropping the other charges. He received five years of probation, a fine of $1,000, and he was banished from Georgia’s Jenkins, Bulloch and Effingham Counties.
Celebrity Privilege and
The decision whether to indict lies with the grand jury in most states. The idea of a grand jury of leading citizens being used to guard against prosecutorial overreach was borrowed from England, where it was developed in response to abuse of the king’s Star Chamber. Over time, however, it has become little more than a rubber stamp for a prosecutor’s intentions.
Shortly after he was appointed Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) in 1985, Sol Wachtler famously said that grand juries were so easily led by prosecutors they would “indict a ham sandwich.” Since the opposite must also be true, a prosecutor with a case in which it is politically impossible to reduce or dismiss the charges can simply present the grand jury with weak evidence and a recommendation not to indict.
That may well have been what happened to DeShaun Watson. It is hard to otherwise imagine a Texas grand jury not indicting a man against whom 10 women have filed complaints alleging criminal sexual misconduct. However, we will never know for sure because in Texas, as in most jurisdictions, grand jury proceedings are secret, and jurors may be criminally prosecuted for publicly disclosing their details.
Celebrity Privilege and Judges
Like prosecutors, judges have a great deal of discretion in how they conduct a trial. Generally, they have to approve proposed plea bargains, so they are complicit when the rich and famous cut lenient deals. One recent case is known by the FBI code name for the underlying investigation, Operation Varsity Blues.
Based on what was uncovered, 53 defendants were charged with allowing rich parents bribe their children into elite universities. TV actress Lori Laughlin and her husband, fashion designer Missima Gianullei, were two defendants who admitted paying a half-million-dollar bribe for fraudulent credentials their daughters needed for admission to the University of Southern California (USC). Most of the Varsity Blues defendants paid consultant William Rick Singer between $200,000 and $400,000 through a fake charity Singer set up. Others paid less to cheat on the SAT and ACT scholastic achievement tests by having their children’s answers corrected or having another person take the tests. One such parent was another TV actress, Felicity Huffmen, who admitted paying Singer $15,000 to improve her daughter’s scores.
The Varsity Blues scandal involved not only USC but also Georgetown University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas, Wake Forest University and Yale University. Yet none of the schools were accused of misconduct, and the only school official prosecuted was an admissions officer at USC. Likewise, the defendants – all of whom were facing serious federal charges of felony fraud and bribery that could have put them behind bars for decades – have been given extremely lenient sentences, especially the 47 defendants who took the plea bargains.
Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison and fined $150,000. Gianulli received a five-month prison sentence and a $25,000 fine. [PLN, Oct. 2020, p. 62]. Huffman served 11 days at a minimum-security prison camp. Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemeer, who played bag man to funnel at least $700,000 from Singer to Stanford development officers, served one day in jail and six months of house arrest.
Douglas Hodge, former CEO of PIMCO, received one of the harshest sentences: a nine-month sentence and a $750,000 fine. Prosecutors said he exploited the scam further and for longer, using it to place four of his five children in top-tier schools. At the time of his arrest, he was working on placement for a fifth child. Yet even his sentence is a fraction of what a non-celebrity could expect if caught up in a multi-million-dollar bribery and fraud scheme.
The role of an appellate court usually comes into play after there has been a conviction. However, in some cases, appellate courts have scuttled the prosecution of celebrities before a trial was held. One such case involved the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, “a notorious brothel in a family shopping center right next to a game room that attracted children” in Jupiter, Florida, according to Palm Beach County Attorney Dave Aronberg. Police secretly installed video cameras inside the massage rooms and, for six months, recorded who was there and what they were doing. The result: 264 arrest warrants charging men with soliciting prostitution in February 2019. Some of the defendants were among the rich and famous, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, former president and COO of Citigroup, John Havens – by then Chairman of Napier Park Global Capital, Citigroup’s former hedge fund division – and John Childs, founder of the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates.
Defense attorneys challenged the “sneak-and-peak” search warrant police used to install the video cameras. A judge ruled that the search warrant had been improperly executed and none of the video evidence could be used. Prosecutors appealed that decision, but Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals held that the defendants’ rights were violated when they were secretly video-recorded. Prosecutors then dropped the charges against all defendants except the spa owners. In a bit of Celebrity Justice by proximity, prosecutors let the spa owners plead guilty to misdemeanors in 2020 and pay small fines, instead of proceeding with more serious felony charges they were facing.
Celebrity Privilege and Trial Juries
Juries are subject to the same biases in favor of the rich found in the rest of the criminal justice system. Many jurors simply refuse to believe that a rich, successful person committed a crime or should be harshly punished. After all, jurors themselves likely wish they were rich and famous.
This can also influence a grand juror’s decision on whether and what charge to bring, or for a trial juror, how long of a sentence to assess, in jurisdictions where jurors do the sentencing. Unfortunately, as with grand juries, the thought processes of trial jurors are unknown and the privacy of their deliberations are ensured by statute in many jurisdictions.
Celebrity Privilege and
In Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s 50-year Battle for a More Unjust America, author Adam Cohen examined how the nation’s top appellate court has proven to be strongly biased in favor of the rich in both criminal and civil cases. He noted one study showing conservative Justice Antonin Scalia voted in favor of criminal defendants in about 82% of cases involving white-collar crime, but in just 7% of cases not involving white-collar crime. Scalia’s statistics are worrying, but more worrying is that he is but one of a six-member supermajority of reactionary conservatives on the high court. And they may sit there for decades.
In fact, as Cohen points out, the conservative Court today took root during the administration of disgraced former Pres. Richard M. Nixon (R), who campaigned against the love shown poor people by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. After his 1968 election, Nixon was able to replace the chief justice and three associate justices with conservatives, cementing the ideological direction of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to this day.
SCOTUS sets both precedent and tone for all federal courts. It also influences state trial and appellate courts. It can lock in decisions on specific federal judicial issues with binding precedent that removes a lower court’s discretion to rule differently.
Many state supreme courts have a pro-celebrity bias of their own. Take, for instance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexually assaulting Andera Constand in 2004. In its first paragraph, the court noted the prosecutor knew about the crime and other victims in 2005 but declined to prosecute the case. Then Constand sued Cosby.
While the lawsuit was pending, then-Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor, Jr. announced that he had given assurance that Cosby would not face criminal charges. Castor explained he did this to encourage Cosby to testify in the civil trial. Cosby testified, making incriminating statements. He then paid Constand $3.38 million to settle the lawsuit.
Castor’s successor-in-office reopened the case and charged Cosby with sexual assault. He was convicted, sentenced to 3-to-10 years and imprisoned. On appeal, the state Supreme Court held that the decision to prosecute after the promise not to do so violated Cosby’s due process rights. The sole dissenting judge pointed out that it is difficult to see how a district attorney’s statement made in a press release was binding on his successor-in-office or was an unconditional promise not to prosecute. Nevertheless, the majority voted to toss Cosby’s conviction and free him on June 30, 2021.
See: Commonwealth v. Cosby,
252 A.3d 1092 (Pa. 2021).
Celebrity Privilege in
Prisons and Jails
In the rare event that a celebrity is convicted and sent to a jail or prison, it is usually to only the best facilities. Huffman did her time at a minimum-security “Club Fed” work camp adjacent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California. There she was allowed visitors and outdoor sunbathing. For diversion, there was cross-stitching, origami or other crafts. She played Bingo and ping-pong, eating Bran Flakes, fish sandwiches and Salisbury steak.
Who Are the Rich and Famous?
In addition to those already mentioned, the people for whom the criminal justice system seems to bend over backwards include rapper Earl Simmons, a/k/a DMX, who pleaded guilty to avoiding $2.29 million in federal taxes on income earned from 2002 to 2005. The government recommended five years, but the judge ordered him to pay the bill and sentenced him to one year in prison in March 2018. The rapper had previously been jailed for six months in July 2015 for failing to pay $400,000 in child support, along with numerous shorter stints in jail for drug charges, dangerous driving and probation violations.
NFL player Jeramine Phillips of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was arrested for felony domestic violence in 2010, but was sent to a diversion program. Fellow NFL player Daryl Washington of the Arizona Cardinals was also arrested for domestic violence after grabbing his ex-girlfriend by the throat and slamming her to the ground. He received one year of probation in April 2014. Another NFL player, Cleveland Browns’ Devonne Bess, was arrested for assaulting a police officer responding to yet another domestic violence incident. Bess pleaded no contest and was sentenced to a year of probation in March 2017. He also had to write a letter of apology to the cop.
As if not to be outdone, NHL player Ray Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning was arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession in 2003. He was released on $2,500 bail and later put in a diversion program.
In February 2022, TV producer Jill Blackstone, 59, received an eight-year sentence in a plea bargain for murder and animal cruelty. Blackstone, whose work included The Jerry Springer Show, Divorce Court and Family Court with Judge Penny, admitted murdering her sister, Wendy, who was legally blind and required hearing-aides, because she thought caring for the woman was too much trouble. Wendy’s body was found in a garage along with three dogs, two of which had died. A charcoal grill and a trash can with ashes in it were also found in the garage where Wendy and the dogs had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Blackstone had staged it as an accident, complete with a bottle of vodka as a prop.
When Fame Isn’t Enough
There’s a calculus that involves the amount of fame a defendant has and the severity of the charges he or she faces. One way to end up in prison is to fail this calculus – to have too little celebrity to offset severe criminal charges. Had Blackstone been more famous, would cops have bought the “accident” she staged? Still, even though they didn’t, she ended up with just eight years to serve for the cold-blooded murder of a handicapped woman and two of her dogs.
Throw in child sex abuse, and the calculus gets even harder. For former Subway deli spokesman Jared Fogle, famous for losing 400 pounds on a diet of subs, that failed to cushion his fall when federal agents found him in possession of around 400 videos containing child pornography. He pleaded guilty to interstate travel to pay for sex with an underage girl and was sentenced in December 2015 to 188 months in prison and ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution to 14 child victims.
The surest way to lose is to victimize people more famous than you are. Shannon Richardson, a TV actress with minor roles in The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries and The Blind Side, pleaded guilty to mailing letters containing the toxin ricin to then-Pres. Barack Obama (D) and then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) in 2013. She was sentenced in July 2014 to 18 years in federal prison.
Another minor celebrity, former TV “Power Ranger” Ricardo Medina, Jr., was convicted in 2017 of fatally stabbing his roommate with a sword two years earlier. Despite claiming self-defense, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Perhaps his celebrity power might have grown later, when his juvenile fans matured to work as prosecutors and judges.
Reality TV star Josh Duggar was sentenced in May 2022 to 151 months in prison and $500,000 in fines for receiving and possessing child pornography. The star of 19 Kids and Counting, a show about his strict Baptist family, Duggar had previously admitted to a porn addiction and molesting young girls as a teenager.
Too Much Crime or the
Wrong Kind of Crime
Despite inventing the “wall of sound” style that defined 1970s pop music, renowned music producer Phil Spector was given a sentence of 19 years to life in 2009, two years after an earlier jury hung on charges he murdered actress Lana Clarkson in his home in 2003. Spector died in prison of COVID-19 in 2021.
In April 2022, rapper Lentrell “Poo Shiesty” Williams, Jr., accepted a plea bargain for an eight-year sentence on federal charges of conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence and drug trafficking. As part of the deal, prosecutors dropped a gun charge that could have sent him to prison for life and two other charges, stemming from an armed robbery at a Miami hotel during which two people were shot, another shooting of a security guard at a Miami strip club where he performed, and a gas station shooting in Memphis.
In March 2022, TV actor Jussie Smolette was convicted on five counts of disorderly conduct related to a hoax anti-gay attack he staged in Chicago, allegedly to gain leverage in his contract negotiations. He was sentenced to 150 days in jail followed by 30 months of probation, and he was fined $145,000.
Being LGBTQ+ is apparently another way to undermine celebrity privilege. When Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey was accused in 2017 of forcing himself on an underage boy at a Hollywood home years before, the backlash was swift and harsh. Spacey was forced to come out as gay and fired from his hit Netflix show, House of Cards, ultimately losing a suit by producers that cost him $31 million for revenue loss they suffered as a result. He also lost a movie role, filming just two more productions over the next five years.
Then in October 2022, a lawsuit went to trial in federal court for the Southern District of New York brought by felow actor Anthony Rapp, who accused Spacey of abusing him when Rapp was 14. The jury’s surprising verdict for Spacey: not guilty. See: Rapp v. Spacey, USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:22-mc-00063.
Spacey is also facing 12 charges of sexually abusing men in the U.K. over more than a decade. That case was scheduled for trial at the end of June 2023. He has vowed a career comeback if and when the case results in the acquittal he expects.
Children of Celebrities
Celebrity privilege is only one of several types of unequal treatment baked into the American criminal justice system, often intersecting with racial bias. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the children of the rich and famous. One study showed that the children of rich Black parents are more likely to go to prison than the children of poor white parents – meaning race trumps riches after just one generation.
Children of rich and famous white people enjoy special treatment similar to their parents. It is telling that none of the children of the Varsity Blues defendants was charged with a crime, even though (a) they were adults and (b) they knew that they were not elite athletes and (c) they knew that pretending otherwise was fraud.
“Affluenza” is a manufactured psychological condition invented to help one child of privilege receive preferential treatment in the criminal justice system. Ethan Couch, who was 16 when he killed four pedestrians while driving drunk on alcohol he stole from a Texas Walmart, was given ten years of probation at his initial sentencing in 2013, on condition that his parents send him to a $500,000-a-year counseling center in California.
Couch’s blood alcohol level was 0.24 and he had Valium in his system when he lost control of the pickup he was driving in excess of 100 mph in a residential area, plowing into a group of people standing in the front yard of a home. His attorney argued he was a victim of “affluenza,” noting that his parents tacitly taught him wealth and privilege would shield him from consequences for his actions.
As if to prove that, his mother took him to Mexico in 2015, violating his probation. Arrested in Puerto Vallarta, he was extradited and sentenced for the violation the following year to 720 days in prison – 180 days for each of his original victims. He returned to jail for a day in 2020, after violating probation with a positive test for THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. But – surprise! – he argued that it was legal medical weed, and he was released.
His mother, Tonya, was convicted of abetting his escape to Mexico and served three years in prison before her 2020 parole. By then divorced from her, Couch’s father, Fred, was arrested in 2019 for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend during an argument over Ethan Couch. A grand jury declined to indict the elder Couch.
Maybe former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) taught his daughter, Noelle, the same lesson. In early 2002, she was arrested for forging a prescription for Xanax and sentenced to rehab. In July 2002, she was jailed for three days for breaking the program’s rules. Then, in October 2002, she was sentenced to 10 days incarceration after crack cocaine was found in her shoe at the rehab facility. For all of that, she spent less than two weeks in jail.
Pardon – The Trump Card
Many of the rich and famous have avoided punishment for crimes by being issued the judicial equivalent of a trump card – a pardon. The President has unlimited discretion to pardon federal prisoners. Many governors share similar power in their states, although several states restrict the governor’s pardoning powers and may even require the authorization of a board before a pardon can be granted.
Unless the pardon specifies that it is for actual innocence, accepting a pardon carries an admission that the person being pardoned committed the crime. This became an issue in 1974, when former Pres. Gerald Ford (R) offered a pardon to his predecessor, Richard Nixon. Having repeatedly and publicly said, “I am not a crook,” Nixon did not want to admit any wrongdoing. Threatened with criminal prosecution, though, Nixon accepted the pardon in the end and stopped publicly proclaiming his innocence.
Most presidential pardons occur in the last days of an administration. Former-President Trump’s administration was no exception – issuing 73 pardons and 73 commutations of sentences on the last day he was in office. That was more than twice the number he issued during the rest of his administration’s 48 months.
There were plenty of celebrities among the pardoned, including talk-radio personality Steve Bannon, who was awaiting trial on charges he defrauded more than $1 million from donors who thought they were crowdfunding a wall on the southern U.S. border. But a pardon is a fickle thing to rely on. Also, most applications for pardons are not granted. Among those Trump let lapse was an application for pre-emptive pardon from his attorney, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani (R), for any crimes that he might face due to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election that Trump lost.
Despite some gains for the cause of justice thanks to the #metoo movement, the treatment of the privileged in the American criminal justice system is mostly still the same: money talks and money walks… free of consequences for criminal behavior. It’s another manifestation of inequity that means the system doesn’t work for justice, but for Just Us – the privileged.
Sources: ABC News, BBC News, Bleacher Report, Business Insider, Daily Collegian, Elle, The Guardian, Gawker, Grunge, Heavy, Hockey News, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, New York Daily News, New York Times, New Yorker, Palm Beach Post, Politico, Slate, Sports Illustrated, The Sun, TMZ, Tampa Bay Times, Time, Treasure Coast Palm, USA Today, US News, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, WESH, WSB, WSJ, WXIA
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