Do Celebrities Get Fair Trials?

Michael Jackson shows wounds on his arms, attained when being interrogated.
Most Americans think celebrities get special treatment in the nation's legal system, but they also believe Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Martha Stewart will get fair trials, an Associated Press poll on celebrity justice found.

Blacks were less confident than whites that Jackson and Bryant will be treated impartially.

Nearly half the people surveyed said they think Stewart will be convicted, while far fewer believe Jackson and Bryant will be found guilty, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

Jackson faces charges that he molested a child. Bryant faces sexual assault charges in Colorado. Stewart is charged with lying about the sale of stock.

Some 60 percent of people surveyed said celebrities get treated better by the judicial system because they have a lot of money, while 12 percent think they are singled out for prosecution because they are high-profile. Only one-quarter of the public thought celebrities are treated like ordinary citizens.

"They definitely get special treatment," said Jake Minsinger, a 37-year-old welder from Hanover, Pa. "Usually, they're all out on bail. When they show up in court they're well dressed. And instead of a public defender, they have a team of the most expensive lawyers in the country."

Some said they think celebrities have it tougher in the courts.

"I think they get special punishment because they have money and people are jealous of them," said Ruth Gearin, a retiree from Milwaukee. "When they're up, people want to bring them down."

Most in the AP-Ipsos poll were aware of the three high-profile cases. But only one-fifth said they were closely following each of the trials.

Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be paying close attention to the cases against Jackson and Bryant, both of whom are black.

By a 2-to-1 margin, people said they thought the pop star would get a fair trial, and by a 3-to-1 margin they thought the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star and Stewart would get fair trials.

But there were sharp differences between whites and blacks on the question of whether Jackson and Bryant would or would not get fair trials.

Whites thought Jackson would get a fair trial by a 60-30 margin; blacks thought he would not by a 49-38 margin. Whites thought Bryant would get a fair trial by a 76-18 margin. Blacks were more divided; 54 percent said he would get a fair trial and 43 percent said he would not.

The differences in views recall the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The football Hall of Famer was tried and acquitted of the 1994 slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a friend, Ronald Goldman. A civil jury later held him liable and ordered him to pay the victims' survivors $33.5 million.

The AP-Ipsos poll found 77 percent believe Simpson was guilty. When broken down along racial lines, 82 percent of whites thought he was the killer while only 35 percent of blacks felt that he was the killer. Similar differences in attitudes between whites and blacks were evident at the time of the verdict.

While most in the poll were familiar with the three current cases, many were not that familiar with their details. Still, they had opinions about the outcome.

By a 2-to-1 margin, people thought Jackson would be acquitted, and by a slightly larger margin, they thought Bryant would be acquitted. By 48 percent to 35 percent, people thought Stewart would be convicted.

"I don't think she's very well liked, people probably go harder on her," said Kim Beach, a 39-year-old mother from Roseville, Calif. "She does these things no women can do, and then she says 'Oh, it's just so simple,' and you say, 'No way."'

Even if the three celebrities are convicted, the vast majority of Americans say they will continue watching them and buying their products, the survey found.

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Jan. 9-11 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

By Will Lester