Are juries, judges or lawyers immune to the ‘fatal attraction’ of the celebrity defendant or witness? Views vary. Ask Michael Jackson’s lawyers.

THERE is a joke doing the rounds that goes:

“Knock, Knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Michael who?”
“Right, you’re on the Michael Jackson jury.”

Given the pop singer’s immense fame, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the potential jury pool for his child molestation trial would not have heard of him. Yet Rodney Melville, the judge hearing the case, is adamant that neither Jackson’s celebrity nor that of the stars on his witness list will impair the fairness of the trial.

Jackson’s roll call of potential witnesses would not look out of place at a Hollywood awards ceremony: the film stars Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Murphy, the singers Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and the basketball player Kobe Bryant. One Los Angeles lawyer, Steve Jones, has been reported as saying what others may be thinking — that Jackson’s team wants to “wow the jury” with celebrities. “People are more likely to give weight to celebrity testimony,” he says.

But is that true? Will a juror pay more attention to a soap opera star than to a shopkeeper? How juries make up their minds is a murky issue. Whereas American jurors can have their five minutes of fame and speak to the media after a trial, British jurors are like good Victorian children — seen but not heard.

The jury’s job is to decide the facts; the question of law is for the judge. The jurors listen to the witnesses, assess them and their credibility and make a decision based on whose evidence they prefer.

It is the issue of witness credibility that may be affected by celebrity status. Are jurors more likely to consider that a witness they have seen on television is more likely to be telling the truth? The truth is that a celebrity claimant or defendant who can assemble a cast of witnesses with perfect white smiles and designer outfits will not necessarily turn the jurors’ heads.

The American actress Winona Ryder appeared in court charged with shoplifting. She did not give evidence during a six-day trial, but she was present. Yet her celebrity status did not save her from being convicted of a felony — later reduced on appeal to a misdemeanour — by a jury of her “peers”. Similarly, the celebrity of the British actress Gillian Taylforth could not ensure her victory in a libel action after jurors were apparently impressed more by a video of her at a party than by her fame as an actress in EastEnders.

Many British libel trials — a civil field that uses juries — have been star-studded affairs, featuring the likes of Elton John, Esther Rantzen, Jason Donovan, Ian Botham and Imran Khan. Given that not all claimants win their actions, celebrity cannot always win out. But does a little glitz hurt? The jury in the case of the celebrity pianist Liberace must have been dazzled by his sparkling smile and rhinestone suits, finding as it did in 1959 that allegations that he was a homosexual were false and defamatory and awarding him significant libel damages. Only later did it “come out” that the Daily Mirror’s assertion was true.

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