Star status may impede a fair, impartial Jackson trial

When it comes to sheer dramatic appeal, the Michael Jackson case has it all.

“This trial embodies much of what fuels undying popular fascination with celebrities and the celebrity lifestyle — race, sexual perversion, betrayal, money, power and fame,” says Christopher Bracey, criminal procedure expert and associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“With so much attention directed at this case, selecting a fair and impartial jury may prove difficult. The big question will be whether the jury can look beyond the glare of the celebrity defendant and the potential celebrity witnesses to consider the evidence in this case.”

Christopher Bracey
Christopher Bracey

As the trial continues, Bracey will remain on the lookout for the ways in which Jackson’s celebrity status continues to shape, for better or worse, the style of lawyering, the trial process, jury consideration of evidence, and ultimately the public’s perception that justice has been delivered. His current comments on the case follow:

“Thus far, the Michael Jackson case represents both the pitfalls and possibilities of celebrity justice,” Bracey says.

“Jackson’s defense team has had to deal with the illegal leak and subsequent broadcast of the secret grand jury testimony used to indict the pop star. Media outlets have published material containing harsh and judgmental statements regarding Jackson’s guilt or have produced docudramas such as ‘Man in the Mirror’ and ‘Michael Jackson’s Secret Childhood,’ which predictably depict Michael Jackson as psychologically unstable with a longstanding fetish for little boys.”

At the same time, Michael Jackson’s lawyers and handlers have leveraged Jackson’s celebrity status in ways that are typically unavailable to criminal defendants.

“In a remarkable move, Jackson’s lawyers obtained permission to respond publicly to the grand jury testimony leak only days before jury selection was scheduled to commence,” Bracey says. “Not surprisingly, media outlets that picked up this story further enhanced Jackson’s ability to spread the word prior to the commencement of his trial.”

More recently, Jackson’s lawyers dazzled the media and would-be jurors by dangling the possibility of a parade of celebrity witnesses — including, but not limited to, actress Elizabeth Taylor, singer Diana Ross, new age guru Deepak Chopra, and basketball star Kobe Bryant.

“Most of these celebrities appear to have little if anything to say related to the material allegations contained in the indictment,” Bracey says.

These events raise the question of whether a legitimate jury can be seated in this case and whether or not these jurors will be able to properly review the evidence.

“In an ordinary case, we presume that jurors will be fair and impartial in the performance of their duties. This presumption will undoubtedly be put to the test in this case because there will be tremendous “star power” infused throughout the proceedings. No juror will be unaffected by this — the issue will be whether a juror becomes so affected that we begin to lose confidence in his or her ability to be fair and impartial,” Bracey says.

Another instance in which Jackson’s celebrity has worked to his advantage relates to his recent hospital stay and corresponding delay of the trial proceedings.

“Jackson may very well have been suffering from the flu virus, but the delay of the trial due to illness served to underscore an important aspect of Jackson’s legal defense — namely, that Michael Jackson may be the ‘King of Pop,’ but he is human and vulnerable much like the rest of us,” Bracey points out.

“The court’s acknowledgement of and respect for Jackson’s weakened condition suggests however subtly that the children involved in this case are not the only ‘victims’ that we need to be concerned about.”