PR-savvy stars navigate the courtroom
Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, and other celebrities are trying to maximize their resources to mount a defense.
NEW YORK — It almost sounds like a new TV show: celebrity trials.
But this goes far beyond any small-screen drama. Next week, jury selection begins for the doyenne of good taste, Martha Stewart, and Friday prosecutors will arraign entertainer Michael Jackson on charges of child molestation.
Also under way is the manslaughter trial of Jayson Williams, the former New Jersey Nets basketball star. And next week, pretrial legal wrangling will continue in the rape trial against Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant.
These cases are likely to highlight the difficulties of prosecuting publicity-savvy stars. For almost all of them, money is no object: They can afford to hire teams of lawyers, most of whom are former prosecutors. Their legal entourage includes jury consultants and experts on how to dress. If their lawyers wish for them to testify, they will receive hours of practice. "You play with fire when you dance with a celebrity," says former federal prosecutor Kirby Behre, now a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Washington.
For one thing, celebrities can be adept at manipulating public relations. Mr. Jackson gave an interview to CBS's "60 Minutes," proclaiming his innocence. Ms. Stewart stated the same on "Larry King Live" and with Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20." Mr. Bryant and his wife have held a press conference, and he's talked about his "nightmare" on ESPN. And Friday, Mr. Williams is expected on "20/20" to talk about how he and his wife regularly visit the grave of the person he is accused of shooting.
"They are getting their message or theme out to the general public, who could well be sitting members of the jury," says Mike DeMarco, a former state prosecutor in Boston and now a partner with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. "They are also getting the message to the courts and judges because, whether we like it or not, they read papers, see the news, and develop opinions or bias."
Some bias may also be shaped by news coverage. In Jackson's case, the hyperactive press has already questioned the veracity of potential witnesses. In Bryant's case, his lawyers have held pretrial hearings to bring up the mental and medical history of the woman accusing Bryant. Whether or not the defense gets to use this information in a trial, it has already been widely reported.
Often, however, being famous can also mean being held to an unusual set of standards. For example, jurors generally expect celebrities to take the witness stand to defend themselves.
Case in point: O.J. Simpson. "Who can forget Johnnie Cochran after O.J. tried on the glove on the witness stand?" says Mr. DeMarco. "Remember he said, 'If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.' "
When a celebrity does take the stand, they will have spent hours preparing for the district attorney's questions. Consultants will advise on clothing and hairstyle. Their performances will be videotaped and critiqued.
No matter how tough the questions, they will try to be polite. "A snide answer may make the jury look at you negatively," says DeMarco.
In the case of Stewart, the stakes are unusually high, says Mr. Behre. "People expect to hear from her, so there's more pressure to explain the charges," he says. "She knows marketing and television, so she's probably a fairly decent witness."
But of course, there are major risks in taking the stand. An adept prosecutor can tear holes in a defendant's story. Any contradictions will be magnified.
This is why defense counsels usually want to see how strong the prosecution's case is before deciding whether to put their client on the stand.
High-profile trials also mean unusual considerations for prosecutors. Once a celebrity gets indicted, district attorneys brace for a shock to their budget.
The state of California has a $100 million fund for smaller counties to use for expensive cases. In Colorado, there are reports that prosecutors from around the state will help the Eagle County prosecutor's office in the Bryant trial.
Former prosecutors estimate that the government will spend several million dollars to prosecute Stewart. The case has required armies of investigators, FBI agents, and lawyers. "Even though they are all employed by the federal government, you have to think what would they be doing otherwise," says DeMarco.
The Stewart case is expensive even though it is considered relatively simple. The government doesn't have a lot of documents to sort through, and the prosecution isn't expected to take more than a few weeks. "With this case, it's so high profile you have to win. The government's reputation is on the line," says Steve Thel, a former lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, now a professor at Fordham Law School in New York.
Stewart, too, has a lot at risk. She could face jail time and significant fines. She has hired some of the top lawyers in the nation. "Presumably they have some kind of defense," says Mr. Thel, perhaps something to trip up the government."