Celebrity Justice

Pop star Michael Jackson gestures to his fans as he arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Thursday, March 17, 2005 in Santa Maria, Calif., to begin the fourteenth day in Jackson's trial on charges of child molestation.
Michael Jackson. Robert Blake. Martha Stewart.

And the list goes on. And on.

The public seems to have an insatiable appetite for coverage of celebrity trials. But, as Erin Moriarty reports in a CBS News This Morning cover story, many observers feel the media go too far, turning spotlights into needless floodlights.

Coverage of Robert Blake's dramatic reaction to the verdict in his murder trial last week was pushed aside by Michael Jackson's trial, just up the coast.

Which in turn gave way to the hearing where Scott Peterson was officially sentenced by a judge.

Sensational trials, celebrities under arrest, are in demand these days, with an ever-increasing number of magazines, Web sites and TV shows fighting to cover them.

"I think it's over the top. I think it just too much coverage, too often," complains Benjamin Brafman, one of Jackson's original defense lawyers.

It's no surprise he would object to the coverage of high-profile defendants, Moriarty notes. But, she adds, Brafman "may just have a point."

"My concern," he continues, "is the coverage that leads to a trial sometimes influences a potential pool of jurors. And you get the people who want to be on the jury just because they want to be part of something exciting. They want to sell a book. They want to be on the 'Larry King Show' when the trial is over."

Sure enough, notes Moriarty, just hours after the jury decided Robert Blake's fate, one of that trial's jurors, Roberto Emerick, was hawking a CD on "Larry King Live."

The constant celebrity chatter may seem overwhelming at times -- there doesn't seem to be a way to turn down the volume.

When a judge threw cameras out of Michael Jackson's trial, the E! television network put on a trial of its own.

E! president Ted Harbert says, "E! decided to cover the Michael Jackson trial in this way because, frankly, we wanted to do something different from everyone else.

So E! hired actors to play the attorneys, witnesses, the judge – even Michael Jackson himself.

Edward Moss spends an hour a day getting ready for the role of a lifetime. "I have to be believable as Michael Jackson," he says, "and have it come through to an audience and have it related to as, 'Oh, yeah -- that could be Michael Jackson sitting there.' "

Fans, however, appear unwilling to accept substitutes: Ratings for the program have been disappointing.

"I'd be lying to you." Harbert observes, "if I didn't say, 'Gee, I was hoping for the huge homerun from day one.' I think we're building to the homerun. The ratings are going up everyday."

As outlandish as this kind of programming may appear, the interest -- some say obsession -- with trials and tribulations of celebrities is not new, Moriarty points out.

Since OJ Simpson was tried for murder a decade ago, we've seen an endless succession of faces : Winona Ryder, Pee Wee Herman, Martha Stewart. And long before that -- back in 1921 -- there were the trials of Fatty Arbuckle.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was a star of the silent movie era. At the dawn of film, no one was bigger -- literally and figuratively – until Fatty was accused of raping and murdering a young model.

A drama that ran this month in Los Angeles recounts the drunken party where the young woman died, as well as the murder trials that followed. Three of them.

"It was the most salacious and most scandalous -- one of the first of the celebrity scandals that made a lot of money for a lot of people," notes Kathrine Bates, who wrote the play and plays piano on stage.

She says Arbuckle was hounded by reporters convinced of his guilt. "And of course," she adds, "the big twist was that he didn't commit any crime like that."

Now, the sensational stories once found only in newspapers have become wallpaper on cable channels with endless airtime to fill. And the bias, often against the celebrity defendant, is no less apparent.

"Is it possible," Larry King asked former prosecutor Nancy Grace on his show, "in your wildest imagination, dear Nancy, that Robert didn't do it, and the jury believed he didn't do it?"

"It's possible," Grace responded. "But I'll tell you why it's not probable."

Grace went on to tell a national audience why she thought Blake was guilty, even though he had just been acquitted: "To me it was open and shut, but yeah, I think it's possible he's not guilty."

Grace is one of the leading ladies in the newest form of celebrity entertainment, known as the "legal shout-fest": attorneys not involved in a case second-guessing the lawyers who are.

"Sometimes it's accurate. Sometimes it's not," asserts attorney Brafman. "And sometimes it's a little bit accurate and little bit inaccurate."

Brafman says he believes these discussions -- often before a trial is even held -- can subtly affect the outcome of a trial by influencing witnesses who will later testify.

But Grace told Moriarty she believes she's doing nothing new: "Since our justice system was instituted over 300 years ago, people have discussed jury trials before during and after. Whether it is at the dinner table, the local bar, the town meeting, at the water cooler -- jury trials are fascinating, they are intriguing, and they matter, because they're about human nature. They are about real victims, real defendants, real witnesses who show up in courts of law."

And what about the effect of Web sites such as The Smoking Gun? It's run by former Village Voice reporter Bill Bastone, and has a unique way of covering celebrities.

"We cover the part of it that…I think most people who are famous would prefer go uncovered," Bastone says. "And that involves bad behavior, criminal behavior, hypocrisy, living in a different way than you would want your public to know about."

The site has mug shots -- lots of them. James Brown, Wyonna Judd, Bill Gates, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Nick Nolte. Not exactly how celebrities want to be seen -- for which Bastone is unapologetic: "That image of Nick Nolte is now something that a lot of people, for good and bad, associate with Nick Nolte, looking like a crazy man. …But you know, that's news. You know?"

Most are public documents but, two months ago, "The Smoking Gun" posted graphic and incriminating transcripts from a grand jury hearing in Michael Jackson's case – graphics a judge had ordered sealed.

Bastone says he "had absolutely no qualms" about putting something on (the site) that the public's not entitled to read.

He argues that, whomever the star -- Michael Jackson or Bill O'Reilly -- if "The Smoking Gun" doesn't publish the documents, someone else will: "The train is leaving the station. If it's a big story and it involves someone famous, we may get to it first. But at some point, if we sat there and hadn't done anything, someone else would have found it."

Of course, you might feel differently if you're on the receiving end of the bad publicity, Moriarty says.

"My first reaction was to commit suicide, you know?" R. Foster Winans says he was "absolutely" serious in that answer to Moriarty. He was a widely read columnist at the Wall Street Journal when, in 1985, he was arrested for insider trading.

He says committing the crime made him feel guilty enough. Then came the spotlight: "I had cameras waiting outside my apartment house. People were stalking me."

It's not always celebrities -- or the guilty -- who get burned by the glare, Moriarty points out.

There was Richard Jewel -- unfairly accused of the Atlanta Olympic bombings in 1996. Or the handyman branded as the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart before the real abductor was found.

Winans has a modest proposal. He thinks we should do it the way the English do: "Once someone's identified as a suspect, the media has to go black. Nothing else can be reported on the case until either the suspect is cleared or the verdict is in. And I think that's the only atmosphere in which you can have truly blind justice."

But that seems highly unlikely, to put it mildly, Moriarty opines. So for those guilty or innocent, famous or infamous, the taint may never go away, she notes.

While Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted of rape and murder -- his career was over.

"Once you lose your reputation, it's gone," Brafman laments. "You can take a lifetime to develop it and you can lose it in a heartbeat. And if you lose it in a heartbeat because you've done something wrong, then you have yourself to blame. If you lose it in a heartbeat because you've been wrongfully accused of something you did not do, but it is nevertheless is taken from you because it's a good story, where do you get your reputation back?"