Victims take the heat in celebrity trials

One of the toughest challenges a prosecutor faces in our system of criminal justice is to balance the rights of the accused against the rights of the victims. This is particularly true in high-profile cases such as the Kobe Bryant rape case and the Michael Jackson child molestation debacle, both of which are already being tried in the media.

For a few months before I moved back to Nevada in 1995, I worked as a volunteer victim - witness advocate in the Alexandria, Va., District Attorney's Office, where I learned how difficult it is to be a witness in criminal proceedings. And that's because all too often, the defense attorney's strategy is to blame the victim for what happened. Which is exactly what's occurring in the Bryant and Jackson cases months before they actually go to trial.

In the Bryant case, the 25-year-old Los Angeles Lakers' basketball superstar is charged with raping a 19-year-old Colorado woman last June in his room at the luxury hotel where she worked. Bryant's attorneys want the woman's medical records to be released in an effort to prove that she had mental problems clouding her perception of what actually happened in that fancy hotel room. Despite the felony rape charge, Bryant contends that they had consensual sex Ð and maybe they did, but too many people are jumping to conclusions before the facts of the case are known.

In a world of 24-hour cable news channels, where self-described "experts" babble and speculate endlessly on the smallest details of every high-profile case, it becomes increasingly difficult to find impartial jurors and to protect the legal rights of both the defendants and their alleged victims. Between the Bryant and Jackson media circuses, and the ghastly Scott Peterson murder case in Modesto, I don't know how the courts will find enough unbiased jurors to determine the facts and decide whether the famous defendants are innocent or guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And don't forget the murder trial of actor Robert "Barreta" Blake in Southern California later next year.

Of course the granddaddy of all celebrity court cases was the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Although Simpson was found innocent of the criminal charges, thanks mainly to his "Dream Team" defense, he was held liable for the deaths of his wife Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, in a civil trial and ordered to pay millions of dollars in compensation and damages. Then, as we know, Simpson moved to South Florida, where he continues to search for the "real killer" to this very day.

But at least as spectacular as the Simpson media extravaganza is the bizarre case of pop singer Michael Jackson, a lovable and talented African-American youngster who eventually transformed himself into a grotesque, middle-aged white woman, thanks to the magic of plastic surgery and God only knows what else. Jackson, who paid millions of dollars to the family of a young boy to settle another child molestation case 10 years ago, is accused of "lewd and lascivious acts" involving a 12-year-old cancer victim at the singer's "Neverland" (think Peter Pan) ranch near Santa Barbara early this year.

Even though we don't know the facts of that case either, both Jackson's defense team and the Santa Barbara district attorney are spilling their guts to the media as part of carefully calculated public relations campaigns designed to influence potential jurors. Jackson's opening gambit was a multi-million-dollar "welcome home" party for 600 close friends at his ranch last weekend; meanwhile, the DA has contracted a PR firm to handle media inquiries. Only in California - or maybe not.

Jackson also hired a video production company to tape the alleged outpouring of genuine love and affection that flowed during the party and we can expect to see the finished product just as jury selection begins at his trial. I trust this TV show will be more palatable than the last one, during which the 45-year-old "King of Pop" happily revealed that he likes to sleep with little boys. Nothing sexual of course, just warm milk and cookies. Meanwhile, Jacko's defense team is already trashing the alleged victim's family at every opportunity, claiming that they're only in it for the money, and that the DA is seeking "revenge" for his failed 1993 case against the singer.

Well, I'm being cynical again and for that I apologize, although it's easy to be cynical about Jackson, given his other-worldly appearance and weird behavior. Meanwhile, Jacko's admirers/enablers claim that he provides clowns and pony rides for the kids because he loves them so much. Does he ever! Which raises a key question: What are the parents thinking when they take their children to Neverland for sleep-overs? They seem to be willing to sacrifice their own kids in order to rub elbows (or worse) with a famous celebrity. So perhaps some of those parents should be charged as co-conspirators.

Anyway, since my original point involved the protection of victims' rights in high-profile criminal cases, I should shut up about these victims and their families. As for Bryant, Jackson and the other celebrity defendants, I hope justice is done when they finally face the serious charges against them in a court of law. Happy New Year!

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"RACIST" COLUMN? It was distinguished African-American author Toni Morrison, and not me, who proudly described Bill Clinton as "our first black president." And besides, my recent Clinton column was a spoof. Get over it!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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