Ryder, Celebrity Trials, and Dangerous Double Standards

A few months after her arrest for shoplifting, a doe-eyed Winona Ryder sported a "Free Winona" T-shirt on the cover of W Magazine. The two-time Academy Award nominated actress followed up her cover photo-op with a shoplifting skit on Saturday Night Live. NBC billed the show, "She'll steal your heart and more." In the months since Ryder was pinched for pilfering a grab bag of fashion goodies from Saks Fifth Avenue, entertainment writers and seemingly at times even Ryder, have treated her bout with the law as a sideshow diversion that gives the public yet another voyeuristic glimpse into the screwed up lives of some of Hollywood's glitterati.

This implies that there is and should be a different legal standard for rich and famous lawbreakers than there is for everyone else. This is the kind of thinking that deepens the public belief that justice in America can be bought and sold by anyone that resonates celebrity glow. This dangerous double standard makes a sham and a mockery of the justice system.

Winona is the near-textbook example. She's charged with stealing more than $5,000 worth of merchandise in broad daylight from a major department store.

This is hardly an example of no harm, no foul light frivolity. It's grand theft. America's prisons and jails are filled with men and women serving long stretches for the theft of items valued at much less than the items Ryder's accused of pilfering. Three months after Ryder's arrest last December, a federal appeals court tossed the convictions of two inmates slapped with 25 year to life sentences under California's draconian three strikes law. One stole three golf clubs from a golf shop. The other snatched videocassettes from two K Mart stores. The Supreme Court will rule on the three strikes law this term.

The same double standard applies to other celebrity-accused lawbreakers. Roman Polanski: He was charged with having sex with a minor. Zsa Zsa Gabor: She was charged with assaulting a police officer. Sean Combs: He was charged with bribery, and illegal weapons possession. These are serious charges that have also landed countless others in the slammer for long terms.

Then there's the all time poster boy for the celebrity double standard, ill-fated actor Robert Downey, Jr. Despite Downey's highly publicized busts on drug and weapons possession charges, Downey's stock in the entertainment business soared. He was released on several occasions from L.A. jails to complete movie shoots, and after yet another major drug bust in Palm Springs, he went on to bag a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor on "Ally McBeal."

There was nothing wrong with Downey's entertainment industry friends and a star-struck public pleading for empathy for him and urging the courts to spare him a long prison sentence and give him the help that he desperately needs. There was also nothing wrong with the courts taking his mess of a life into consideration in determining the appropriate punishment for him. But there are thousands of drug offenders that need the same compassion and help. The big difference is that these drug abusers aren't high profile, bankable screen commodities. They are mostly poor, blacks and Latinos.

It's not just the ability of Ryder, Downey, Combs, and lest we forget, the other notorious celebrity bad boy, O.J. Simpson, to cast their hypnotic spell over a fawning public, that gives them a colossal edge over the average working stiff when they are hauled into court. It's also their deep pockets.

They can afford to hire the top legal guns, crack private investigators, and publicists. This more than levels the legal playing field for them and enables them to go toe-to-toe with prosecutors. Prosecutors know that every legal move they make against celebs will be intensely scrutinized and more often than not, criticized and second-guessed by the media and the public.

Then there are jurors. They go to the movies. They watch entertainment shows. They read the gossip rags, and entertainment magazines. To many of them, film stars are demigods that they identify with and swoon over. Yet, in the jury box, they are suddenly expected to become instant amnesiacs and forget that these are their idols, and judge them as they would anyone else who winds up on a court docket. This is fantasy thinking. More likely they will see them as victims of a vengeful and jealous legal system bent not on prosecuting their heroes for alleged crimes committed, but on persecuting them because of who they are.

The fate of the republic hardly rests on whether Ryder is convicted or not. But the fact that she was arrested and tried offers some hope that our laws will be equally and fairly enforced against anyone and everyone, no matter whether they can or can't afford to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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