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Hollywood Analysis: Celebrity justice

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Oct. 7, 2002 at 7:43 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- On the same day as a judge in Los Angeles postponed the start of actress Winona Ryder's shoplifting trial, there was a minor flare-up in the long-running debate about whether the legal system employs one standard of justice for celebrities and another for everyone else.

Superior Court Judge Elden Fox said in court on Monday that a scheduling conflict required him to delay the start of Ryder's trial until at least Oct. 15. Ryder had been scheduled to go on trial Wednesday. She faces up to three years in prison if convicted on charges of second-degree burglary, grand theft, vandalism and possession of a controlled substance.

The Oscar-nominated star of "Girl, Interrupted" and "Little Women" was arrested in December 2001 and charged with stealing $6,000 worth of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills. She has pleaded not guilty.

Her attorney, Mark Geragos, has argued -- in court and in numerous appearances on TV talk shows -- that his client is being unfairly singled out for prosecution. The argument gained an ally last week when columnist Joel Mowbray reported in the National Review Online that sources in the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley "are fed up with what they see as prosecutorial zeal."

An abridged version of the story appeared Monday as an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. According to Mowbray, prosecutors have made at least one decision placing a higher priority on Ryder's case than a murder case.

"The lead deputy D.A. assigned to Ryder's case is trying to postpone a murder trial so she can fulfill her duties prosecuting the shoplifting charge," wrote Mowbray. "Earlier, though, the D.A.'s office had issued a press release stating its 'strong objection' to Ryder's attorney requesting a continuance in May so that he could defend a client in a murder case."

Mowbray occasionally writes about the entertainment business, but usually focuses his attention on political matters.

If he is right about the Ryder case, maybe the case reaches beyond the confines of criminal justice to become a political matter.

"When you see something that just isn't right you have to look into it," he told UPI in an interview. "I went into it with my mind open. What I found was just disturbing."

But it was also wrong, according to Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the L.A. District Attorney's Office. She called Mowbray's column "an unfortunate piece ... completely inaccurate."

Based on his reporting -- including conversations with sources inside the D.A.'s office -- Mowbray has concluded that prosecutors are just trying to show that they can nail a celebrity.

"It's good PR -- we can win a case, even against a celebrity," he said. "Maybe they saw this as a slow moving target."

Robison insisted that prosecutors are treating Ryder the same as they would treat anyone facing similar charges.

"The only difference is the defendant is a celebrity," she said, "and the media has treated it differently."

However, Mowbray said prosecutors had staged "grandstanding" news conferences, trying to contaminate the Ryder jury pool.

"I realize this is Hollywood but that doesn't mean you have to put a show on before the trial," he said. "They should reserve the theatrics for the courtroom."

Robison said it's actually the defense team that has made the Ryder case a media event.

"Our office has not sent people out every night on CNN, 'Larry King Live,' the media talk show circuit," she said. "Our office hasn't tried this in the media. Our office is going to try this in a court of law where it belongs."

The double standard controversy cuts both ways, of course.

When a celebrity such as Robert Downey Jr. is sent to drug rehab, critics accuse the courts of undue leniency. When prosecutors pursue celebrities vigorously -- as they appear to be in Ryder's case, and the stock-sale case that is building against Martha Stewart -- they are accused of headhunting.

Ryder and Stewart are at least benefiting from something of a sympathy backlash, as evidenced by the proliferation of "Free Winona" and "Free Martha" T-shirts -- although that might be more a case of exploitation by T-shirt purveyors than a genuine expression of solidarity with prosecutorial targets.

In any case -- given that celebrities as a class generally have the means to provide themselves with the best legal representation money can buy -- it is silly to suggest that celebrities and non-celebrities alike get the exact same treatment in the judicial system. If that were true, it would make the legal system the only institution in American life where equal treatment is the prevailing condition.

It may be true that celebrities put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. At the same time, the rest of us don't have someone on-staff to lay our clothes out for us in the morning.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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