The extraordinary secrecy imposed by judges in the cases of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart has some media experts and scholars warning that the US is developing a two-tiered justice system -- one for celebrities and one for everyone else.
"The idea that you have justice and then you have celebrity justice is really offensive," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"Does the public understand what preferential treatment these people are receiving from the system?" Dalglish said.
"If they decide celebrities are entitled to a different kind of justice," Dalglish said, "we have lost press oversight of the system. Without that, we will never know if the rich and famous are getting the same justice as the rest of us."
In Jackson's child molestation case in California, the judge has sealed almost all documents and has imposed a sweeping gag order. In the Bryant rape case in Colorado, a gag order also restricts comment by the two sides, and many hearings on the accuser's sex life are held in secret. In New York, Stewart's judge closed jury selection to the media and the public.
In all three cases, the judges cited fears of sensational publicity tainting the jury and interfering with a fair trial. Loyola University Law Professor Laurie Levenson acknowledged that these are extraordinary celebrity cases, but said "the actions taken in high-visibility cases end up defining the law" for everybody else.
The Jackson and Bryant cases are in early stages and it is too soon to tell whether the secrecy orders will withstand challenges filed this week by media lawyers.
In the Stewart case, however, 17 news organizations challenged the federal judge's decision to select the jury in secret, and the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals held that the judge erred by excluding the press and public.
"To hold otherwise would render the [Constitution's] First Amendment right of access meaningless," the court said.
It noted that openness of the court process "acts to protect, rather than to threaten, the right to a fair trial."
It doesn't take the arrest of a celebrity for a legal case to draw such a spotlight that the defendant becomes a household name. That happened to 19-year-old English au pair Louise Woodward, convicted in Massachusetts in 1997 of killing a baby by shaking him violently.
"A judge's overriding concern is the tainting of a jury pool or the jurors after they are selected," said retired Massachusetts Superior Court judge Hiller Zobel, who reduced Woodward's sentence from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.
"But when you start having justice in the shadows, you're looking for constitutional and societal trouble. The circumstances have to be quite extreme before a judge can shut off media access to matters of serious public interest," Zobel said.
In the Bryant case, a court reporter mistakenly e-mailed transcripts from a two-day closed-door hearing to news organizations. District Judge Terry Ruckriegle ordered news organizations not to use the material, and the Colorado Supreme Court this week upheld Ruckriegle's order.
No court as high as Colorado's Supreme Court has ever approved of such prior restraint of the media. Media groups have asked the US Supreme Court to intervene.
In the Jackson case, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said he was sealing parts of the indictment to help ensure an unbiased jury.
"It has been a consistent concern of the court that, in the extraordinary high-publicity environment of this proceeding, the integrity of the jury pool is threatened if extensive disclosure of evidence that may or may not be admissible at trial takes place before the jury is selected," he wrote.
Jackson's lawyers and prosecutors endorsed Melville's secrecy rulings, using their few public filings to lambast the media as purveyors of salacious stories aimed at a voyeuristic audience. Among the documents sealed are the details of the charges against Jackson.
Attorney Theodore Boutrous, who represents a coalition of news organizations, complained that Jackson is seeking "a blanket celebrity exception to the First Amendment," which guarantees the right of access to information.
‘CONFESSED’: A court in Beijing said that former CCP member Ren Zhiqiang abused his power at a state firm and embezzled almost US$7.14 million of public funds A Chinese tycoon who called Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) a clown and criticized his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was yesterday jailed for 18 years for corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds. Ren Zhiqiang (任志強) — once among the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) inner circle — disappeared from the public eye in March, shortly after penning an essay that lambasted Xi’s pandemic response. His outspokenness had earned the former chairman of state-owned property developer Huayuan Group the nickname “Big Cannon.” Yesterday’s verdict said that Ren embezzled almost 50 million yuan (US$7.4 million) of public funds and accepted bribes worth 1.25 million
AUSTRALIAN SITE: China has had a contract with SSC’s Yatharagga station since at least 2011, but the last time it used it was in June 2013. No final date has been given China would lose access to a strategic space tracking station in Western Australia when its contract expires, the facility’s owners said, a decision that cuts into Beijing’s expanding space exploration and navigational capabilities in the Pacific region. The Swedish Space Corp (SSC) has had a contract allowing Beijing access to the satellite antenna at the station since at least 2011. The station is located next to an SSC satellite station primarily used by the US and its agencies, including NASA. The Swedish state-owned company said it would not enter into any new contracts at the Australian site to support Chinese customers after
OFF BORDER ISLAND: The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel wearing a life jacket and leaving behind his shoes, indicating an intentional move, Seoul said North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a COVID-19 precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said yesterday. It is the first killing of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill. The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, the official said. More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and
The scarcity of commercial flights landing at Sydney Airport has been a disaster for airlines and workers, but for hobby pilots the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity of a lifetime. The quieter-than-usual runways mean that private pilots have been given the chance to land at the international airport for the first time. When Sydney Flight College club captain Tim Lindley put out a call, he received an overwhelming response. He eventually organized for 14 light aircraft to fly into Sydney airport on Sunday. “For a lot of the pilots involved, including myself, it was a childhood dream to land in a big