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American Justice and the Value of Celebrity

Max Davies

By Max Davies on 09/09/15

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American Justice and the Value of Celebrity
Around a century ago, Robert Frost said, "A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer" . 

Since that time, whilst we'd like to believe the Western world has become more cognitive of what justice actually means and who it applies to, this article seeks to examine if that is always the case.

With the recent news that UK legal aid has been cut, forcing more people to represent themselves, Fiona Kendall, from Jones Myers solicitors remarked, “Someone who isn't properly represented needs additional help and the trouble is that there just isn't the court time for it” .

There is no shortage of high profile businesses or celebrities who pay large sums of money to avoid criminal charges. An embarrassment of riches, so to speak. It’s also clear the general public are exposed to only a fraction of instances where those at the top of the food chain are caught doing something they shouldn't.

At first glance, there seem to be many situations where the rich or famous experience a different justice system compared to those less fortunate. Does ‘different’ always mean ‘better’ when the court is not the only place you are put on trial? 

My interest was piqued by the reaction of the British public to Ched Evans' release from prison and his attempts to return to professional football. More specifically, how at odds this reaction was to the way celebrities are treated in America. To briefly summarise the saga, Ched Evans was convicted of rape in 2012 and was sentenced to 5 years and eligible for release in half that time . He was released on licence in October 2014 and whilst continuing to protest his innocence, attempted to reestablish his career . A number of clubs attempted to sign him, but each was met with a huge public backlash including multiple petitions, threats to boycott the clubs, pulled sponsorship and resignations . Sarah Green, from the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said, “Ched Evans is an unrepentant convicted rapist. Any club who sign him need to think hard about the message they are sending to their fans, to the local community and to all football supporters” .

His rhetoric during and after his incarceration drew ire (and worse) from the media and public alike. As Henry Winter wrote, "it was people’s disgust that a convicted rapist felt he could swan back into a high-profile job after revealing no remorse for a crime that would preclude re-employment for many" .

This comment seems at odds with the perception of how American celebrities are treated after breaking the law. The Ched Evans saga received so much attention from professional and social media, the vast majority being extremely negative and making it near impossible for Evans to play professional football again . I wondered if American media wielded the same power. If there were differences, I wanted to examine possible reasons behind those differences.

I won't dwell on cases against Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, or any other celebrity where no formal prosecutions were made due to out-of-court settlements. The common pattern here being no admission of guilt on the part of the accused, the alleged victims given a large sum of money to drop all charges and are forbidden to talk about the incident. Although there are major issues with people with large bank accounts being able to circumvent the judicial system using a method unavailable to the less-wealthy, they cannot be included in this article due to the lack of a conviction. We should be comparing (bad) apples with apples.

One note before we start - regarding Ben Roethlisberger's first rape accusation in 2010. No charges were made but, "Roethlisberger was suspended for six games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. After convincing the NFL commissioner that he had turned his life around, Roethlisberger was allowed back two games early" . This is a pattern that we will see frequently when witnessing the employer’s reaction to charges against their valuable assets.

Before we head off at a tangent, I want to focus on those in the public eye who are guilty of crimes which usually lead to prison sentences. The cases I have chosen are predominantly from the world of team sports to provide more of a direct comparison to Ched Evans’ environment. 

There are historic cases where celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic have served time in prison for similar charges and were able to return to their profession with relative ease. Possibly the highest profile was Mike Tyson, who after being convicted of rape in 1991, served 3 years of a 6-year sentence and returned to boxing in 1995 . This was in a different generation long before the world of wide-spread social media, so I prefer to concentrate on more recent reactions to celebrity wrongdoings.

In December, 2009, NBA basketball player Gilbert Arenas, allegedly brought 4 unlicensed guns to the Washington Wizards’ arena, which is against the law in the District of Columbia and carries a 5-year sentence  – this crime was a huge focal point in a city trying to shake its “murder capital” moniker. Alluding to the country’s gun-culture, the NBA has a rule that stipulates that while players are allowed to possess guns, they are forbidden from bringing them to NBA facilities . 

Initially, Arenas didn’t appear to take the charge seriously. When asked the reasons for bringing weapons to the arena, Arenas joked, "I'm a bank robber. I like to rob banks. " The actual reason stemmed from an altercation between teammates over a gambling debt on the team plane a few days earlier. The teammate in question, Javaris Crittenton, also had a gun at the facility and reportedly loaded it “but did not point it at anyone” . Arenas and Crittenton were suspended by the NBA for the rest of the season (4 months) . Crittenton did not serve any time for that incident (but was convicted of murder in 2011 and sentenced to 23 years in prison ). Arenas entered a plea bargain and was given 2 years’ probation and 30 days in a halfway house  - possibly assisted by writing an open letter published in the local paper, admonishing the use of guns .

Arenas returned to the Wizards the next season but was traded to another team. Despite playing in China in 2012 and never returning to the NBA, the remaining $62.4m of his contract was honoured , where he only played 17 games over those 3 years. In the 2013 NBA season, Arenas was the third highest paid player in the league ($22m), despite not playing for any team .

Player contracts for NBA players, along with all major sports league in the USA, contain clauses allowing the termination of contracts for all manner of reasons. From high-risk offseason activities such as hang gliding to players convicted of or plead guilty to a felony crime, in addition to the ‘catch all’ engagement in acts of "moral turpitude" . In other words, anything that would reflect negatively on the league.

In reference to Winter's claims, we have an example of a person who produced 4 guns in an altercation with a colleague, and not only being allowed back to work, but returning and becoming one of the best-paid members of his profession in the world. A club standing by a player convicted of a violent offence is not without precedent in the UK. Examples include the footballers Jonathan Woodgate  and Eric Cantona , suggesting that English sport is not immune to showing favour to valuable assets. 

When Arenas returned to the Wizards after the suspension, there was no public outcry, possibly due to his contrition before the conviction, or the offense being merely carrying a gun where he shouldn’t have – a law that millions of Americans disagree with anyway. Let’s move onto more serious crimes.

In December 2012, Dallas Cowboys’ Josh Brent was sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years of probation for a drink driving incident that killed the passenger, teammate Jerry Brown . He was more than twice the legal alcohol limit when he flipped his Mercedes, travelling in excess of 110mph in a 45mph area. The toxicologist at the trial estimated that a man of Brent’s size (23 stone) would have to drink 17 alcoholic drinks to attain that blood alcohol level .

Brent had a previous drink-driving conviction .

One of the many quirks of this case was the fact that the mother of the teammate who died testified for the defence and said she forgave Brent for his actions . She also requested that Brent be at her son’s memorial . In another twist, the jury only gave him the 10 years’ probation – it was the judge who gave him the 180 days incarceration (the maximum allowed given the jury’s verdict) .

Despite minor protests from several anti-drink-driving groups, The NFL suspended Brent for only 10 games and he returned to the team in 2014 .

Should the views of grieving family be taken into account in such cases?
Is such context relevant to the conviction, or should convictions be based on the law, not opinion?
Juries are a group of men and women, prone to influence. Are we seeing cases judged on the power of the celebrity’s status and the ‘good’ they can do by raising awareness of the crime they were guilty of?

Alongside the ability to pay accusers to drop charges, this is another option not afforded to others and the concept that we are all equal in the eyes of the law seems to be frequently disproven.

Even if you accept the premise that their community work will do more good than sending them to prison, how do you explain the message when they re-offend and still avoid a serious prison sentence? The actual message appears to be more along the lines of, “If you are a celebrity and have money, the law does not necessarily apply”.

However shocking Brent’s story may appear, similar outcomes have been seen in Britain. Luke McCormick and Lee Hughes have both been convicted of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ and returned to professional football relatively easily   . Both players were believed to have been drinking prior to the incidents (it was suggested Hughes fled the scene to avoid a breath test)  and McCormick’s actions caused the death of two children . Hughes served 3 years of his 6-year sentence, only to be charged with sexual assault in 2011. He was found guilty of common assault, but the charge of sexual assault was dropped . Again, he returned to his professional career and still plays today.

At the time of writing, NFL player Sheldon Richardson is the latest to be embroiled in controversy. Allegedly, the police report related to the charge details him being caught speeding at 143mph, fleeing the scene and leading the police on a high-speed chase through residential neighbourhoods . To exacerbate matters, when cornered, he is alleged to have reached down for something in his car, causing the police to draw their guns. When the car was approached, police say they found a semi-automatic handgun, the smell of marijuana, and 3 passengers including a 12-year-old child .

Two weeks before the arrest, the NFL had announced Richardson was to serve a 4-match ban for failing a drugs test .

If Richardson is found guilty of the alleged offenses, would you expect a public backlash, given the endangerment of a child? Would the NFL and Richardson’s team terminate his contract and give him a lengthy ban for a further breach of contract? Not according to NFL National lead writer, Mike Freeman. “Now, I don't buy that Richardson is done. He's not. This is a league that let dog killers, child beaters, woman beaters and drug dealers play. The 24-year-old Richardson is very young and very talented. Teams are very forgiving for the very young and very talented.
“So, chances are, he'll play. Chances are, he'll play this season. The Jets will search their conscience, and after Richardson serves a long suspension, he will apologize—again—and the Jets will say he has a zero-tolerance policy. Then Richardson will stuff the run and get some sacks and all will be forgotten” .

This view supports the theory that sports leagues and teams, in general, will ignore or play down as many transgressions as the media and public allow them to. If they believe tougher sanctions or bans would hinder the team’s success or financials, they will do all they can to protect their asset and his public image. 

What was it about these types of crimes that avoid public backlash? Again, we see remorse by way of guilty pleas and public statements. Is it also possible that these crimes are not pre-meditated, and therefore more accidental than a domestic abuse or rape charge, for example? 

To examine this angle, we go back to 2013 when NFL running back Ray Rice was arrested on domestic violence charges and received a 2-game ban from the league for violating their Personal Conduct policy . The incident involved Rice dragging his then-fiancé out of a hotel lift after striking her with enough force to leave her unconscious . Initially, both Rice and the NFL tried to play it down (or cover it up, according to some ). Precious little remorse was on view. In fact, with an astounding lack of tact or appreciation of the gravity of the situation, during his initial statement, Rice apologised publicly to everyone but his wife and said: "Failure is not getting knocked down, it's not getting up" 

In a Grantland editorial post, Bill Simmons agreed that, “The Ravens and NFL were willing to embrace the man right up until public opinion made that a bad business move” . When TMZ released the infamous video footage, there was an immediate outcry and the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely . He was found guilty of 3rd degree aggravated assault, but the criminal charge was later dropped when Rice agreed to court-supervised counselling . Kim Gandy, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, commented, “It’s a sad commentary on the criminal justice system that there wasn’t stronger action taken,” she said. “I guess celebrity has its privileges” .

Janay Palmer, the victim, forgave Rice and went ahead with their marriage . Rice successfully appealed the NFL's suspension on the grounds a player cannot be suspended for the same incident twice and his team settled his request for $3.5m in back pay . While he has been eligible to play for a team since the ruling in November, 2014, no team has signed him. 

This would appear to align itself with Ched Evans' situation in Britain. However, Tony Porter and Ted Bunch — co-founders of A Call To Men, a national organization that encourages men to end violence against women — have worked with Rice since November and say he deserves an opportunity to play football again.

"He's held himself accountable," Bunch said. "He is saying everything that you would want him to say and doing everything that you would want him to do. So why wouldn't he deserve another chance?" .

We certainly see this attitude in the entertainment industry. Chris Brown saw continued success after the public learned of the physical abuse he inflicted on Rihanna whilst threatening to kill her . After the initial negative publicity, he hired a Crisis Management team, entered a guilty plea, avoided jail time  and released an album a month after sentencing. There appears to be a sliding scale for how much attention the public pays to celebrities being charged with certain crimes. Arrests involving ‘soft’ drugs and DUI’s do not appear to warrant anything more than passing interest. A crime involving assault requires a show of contrition. Assaulting women requires management to pacify the public. 

This is dependent on the particular country’s public and media attitude to the type of crime committed. We’ve seen similar attitudes from the USA and Britain to certain offences, but there are also other areas to consider. For example, the WWE could not distance itself from Hulk Hogan quickly enough after audio was released of his reported racist remarks . In contrast, Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra by an FA Commission, who published a report that Suárez had "damaged the image of English football around the world" . Yet his club, Liverpool, stuck by him and in the first match involving the two players after his 8-game ban, Suarez ignored Evra’s hand during the pre-game handshakes . Support from high-profile players and teammates largely drowned out any public condemnation of Suarez’s action and subsequent behaviour . 

The conclusion I draw is that whilst there are some offences that are viewed differently in Britain and the USA, the treatment of celebrities is similar on both sides of the Atlantic. Regardless of guilt, if you admit to the crime, show remorse and promise to be a better member of the community, you will be judged more favourably. The leverage you have is significantly increased if you are a celebrity with a platform to dissuade other from making the same mistakes. Continuing to protest your innocence may serve your personal quest for justice, but its effect on public opinion is in complete contrast to contrite cooperation with the appropriate governing bodies.

Given the way juries can be swayed and public perception altered, returning to the opening quote, maybe it should be adjusted for the modern day to be, "A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer and PR firm".

If there is any pattern in the cases I have researched, it is that charges against celebrities are less about the law and more about how much the celebrities can manipulate the situation. Can you make the accusation disappear without going to court? Do you have influence or leverage to submit a plea bargain for a lesser charge? If you have to go to court, can you control the narrative? Can you sway public opinion by taking pre-emptive steps toward absolution? If you are valuable to your team, they will be your ally. Professional media, social media, TV and radio interviews can all be used to tell people what they need to hear. The public need to believe you are not above the law. They won’t forgive you until you show humility and remorse. As Ched Evans now understands, the 12 jurors in court might not be the most important jury you face.

It is not necessarily the case that celebrities are dealt with more leniently in the USA, it may just be that they are better and more experienced at understanding and dealing with the bigger picture. In the cases I have examined, administering justice is now only partially about the law. 

picture: Ray Rice arrives with his wife, Janay, for an appeal hearing of his indefinite suspension from the NFL, Nov. 5, 2014, in New York.