/ 18 March 2005

Celebrity trials dominate US media

It was celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochrane who perhaps put it most succinctly.

”You’re innocent until proven broke,” said the attorney, who seemingly against all odds managed to secure football star OJ Simpson an acquittal in his celebrated double-murder case a decade ago.

That case, followed breathlessly by television cameras from around the world, set off an obsession with celebrity trials, which, according to many observers, seemed to reach its peak last Tuesday when three separate cases dominated the news in the United States.

For those suffering from celebrity trial overload, there was only one consolation: that the minutia of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial was, temporarily at least, relegated from the pinnacle of news interest.

In its place came the story of Robert Blake, the former tough-talking TV detective Baretta, who was cleared of murdering his manipulative wife, and that of Scott Peterson, who was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the murder of his spouse, Laci, and their unborn son.

No celebrity before his trial, Peterson became a recognised name across the US with the intense media coverage of the case.

This upswell in celebrity trials is not just coincidence, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York state. He argued that a number of factors contribute to the phenomenon.

”We are attracted to celebrities and their stories because they are modern-day aristocrats who can provide us with a common narrative to talk about,” he said. ”The litigious nature of the US, plus the tell-all ethic of reality TV, increases celebrity trials even further.”

”One hundred years ago, people would have been too embarrassed to even talk about it,” he argued.

Peterson’s case seemed unusual because there was little to differentiate it from the thousands of other grisly murders that blight the American landscape each year.

But the case has attracted intense attention ever since the vivacious Laci went missing on Christmas Eve 2002 in California. In a slow news season, the pictures of the smiling girl-next-door, who was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, made good television.

Reporters from the Court TV network, the Celebrity Justice TV show, cable news TV and network TV followed every development in the case, catapulting minor figures such as Peterson’s one-time mistress Amber Frey to their own 15 minutes of fame.

Even People magazine, which has focused relentlessly on the shenanigans of real stars, covered the trial, in which prosecutors charged that Peterson killed his wife and unborn baby so he could live life as a free-wheeling bachelor.

Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was convicted late last year, thrusting him to an apogee of evil on par with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

But even Peterson was overshadowed by Blake, whose acquittal shocked even those legal experts who know how well the US legal system can be manipulated by canny lawyers commanding huge fees.

”I’m really surprised,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who pointed out that Blake has an excellent motive, was the last one to see his wife alive and was even found with gunpowder residue on his hands.

Blake followed his acquittal with a bout of tears and a 20-minute rant for the cameras — much of which was carried live on TV stations across the country. His late wife’s lawyers promised to pursue a civil case against the star.

By Thursday, it was joined by news of domestic guru Martha Stewart, who was in court for an appeal of her perjury conviction, which sent her to prison for five months. The jury was also still out in the perjury case of rapper Lil’ Kim, who is charged with lying about a shooting outside a New York radio station in 2001.

Add to that the impending murder trial of rock’n’roll legend Phil Spector and the recent rape allegations against basketball star Kobe Bryant, and you get the feeling that celebrities are in court almost as often as they are on TV.

Thompson said the crowded TV landscape has numerous stations pumping up interest in the trials — and the trend is increasing.

”We create more of them today because we have more places to create them,” he said. — Sapa-DPA