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Celebrity Justice : When Laws Are Broken, Fame Isn't the Shield It Used to Be

October 05, 1989|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

Cynthia Garvey went to jail. The Godfather of Soul is already there. Leona and Zsa Zsa are about to receive their sentences. Rob Lowe has already served his.

What's going on?

Celebrity justice. Or maybe it's celebrity in justice.

In the old days, that meant one lenient set of laws for the famous and a harsher set of laws for everyone else. Even now, we think celebrities are no more equal in the eyes of Lady Justice than they are to the maitre d' at Spago. We expect those privileged enough to enjoy the perks that accompany wealth or fame to obey the law. And we know that when they don't, their high-priced lawyers and high-placed connections will get them off.

But not anymore. Increasingly, well-known people who get into legal trouble are having a harder time getting out of it, judging by the growing list of Who's Who offenders--O.J. Simpson (spousal battery), Eugene Fodor Jr. (breaking and entering), Todd Bridges (bomb threat), Sean Penn (probation violations), Jan-Michael Vincent (drunk driving), Tony Danza (assault).

Plenty of Court Time

Some celebrities have spent more time in criminal courts than on the tennis courts, or maybe it just seems that way because of all the media attention their cases generate. And with so many stars ordered to perform community service, perhaps Hollywood has decided to put George Bush's "1,000 points of light" program of volunteerism out of business.

Take last Friday, for instance.

While a Beverly Hills jury was ending Gabor's media miniseries, on the other side of town David Carradine was pleading no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol.

And though no one condones that kind of activity, legal experts say Carradine was handed a harsher-than-average sentence, even for a second-time offender: three years' summary probation, 48 hours in jail, 100 hours of community service, 30 days' work picking up trash for the California Department of Transportation, attendance at a drunk driving awareness meeting and completion of an alcohol rehabilitation program.

Unusual? Maybe not, according to Hollywood lawyers, publicists and managers.

Could it be that officials seek out star offenders just to make examples of them? Do courts crack down harder on personalities than their crimes warrant? And who really benefits from pursuing a celebrity's case--the public, a politically ambitious prosecutor, or even the celebrity?

'Worst Kind of Position'

"I think the worst kind of position you can be in is to be a celebrity charged with a crime," declared lawyer Harland Braun, whose clients have included director John Landis of "Twilight Zone" trial fame.

"Because what would be a normal disposition in a regular case might not be available to a celebrity because everyone's afraid of being criticized for looking like they were giving someone special treatment."

Howard Weitzman, known as the celebrities' favorite lawyer what with a client list including Sean Penn, O.J. Simpson, John DeLorean and Mike Tyson, believes that "prosecutors take a harder look at situations where a high-profile personality is involved. And (whether) they pursue it sometimes depends on whether or not they have a need to satisfy their own ego and get their name in the spotlight."

Speaking of spotlights, surely Gabor must be in a special category all her own: perhaps the only celebrity in recent memory who relished going on trial for the resulting publicity.

"Let's face it," said her Beverly Hills prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Elden Fox, "this is the greatest thing to happen to that post-menopausal lady's career. But should we just not prosecute someone like this because of who they are?"

Naturally, Prince Frederick von Anhalt believes a VIP like his wife deserves VIP justice.

"I think the rich and famous should be treated differently when they do something wrong. They bring the money into Beverly Hills," he declared, vowing to spirit away his convicted cop-slapper to a European castle rather than see her rot in jail.

Some Take Their Chances

But those stars who don't have a Bavarian bungalow to flee to must take their chances with the law like everyone else.

"There is no question that the public perception is that a celebrity can get off easier. And there is no question that it's absolutely not true," maintains criminal lawyer to the stars Robert Shapiro, who has defended Johnny Carson and F. Lee Bailey on drunk driving charges.

"I'd go so far to say that two cases being equal, one involving a celebrity and the other not, the ordinary citizen has a much better chance of getting a better result."

Just look, Shapiro says, at Jose Canseco's recent brushes with the law.

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