June 16, 2004

Jackson verdict no surprise to law professor

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Celebrity status might have its pitfalls, but a Southern Illinois University Carbondale law professor also believes it can provide "Get Out of Jail Free" relief in some cases.

Monday's acquittal of entertainer Michael Jackson on child molestation charges hardly surprised long-time law school professor William A. Schroeder. Jurors in cases involving high-profile defendants appear to demand "whether consciously or subconsciously, a higher burden of proof," making it "almost impossible" to convict a celebrity, Schroeder said.

"They seem to demand almost proof beyond any doubt at all in these kinds of cases – particularly when these people are able to hire very good attorneys who are very good at generating doubt," said Schroeder, who predicted to his students prior to Jackson's trial that the pop singer would be found not guilty.

"I think that jurors have trouble seeing celebrities as people; they see them as almost super-human, and so they have trouble equating them with these kinds of acts," he said.

Schroeder, a former prosecutor and defense attorney with 32-1/2 years legal experience, said he would have been "shocked" if the jury convicted Jackson. Three distinct elements are at work for celebrities facing criminal charges:

  • A celebrity's status places them, at least initially, on a different level than average citizens at the start of a case and trial.
  • Celebrities, with virtually unlimited financial resources, "can hire very good attorneys" who can "punch holes in any case."
  • Jurors have an "unwillingness" to find celebrities guilty because of fears they will have to publicly defend their positions.

Schroeder suggests that if challenged to defend a verdict, jurors say they have "reasonable doubt" about a celebrity's guilt. Based on his experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney, which included 150 serious felony criminal cases, Schroeder said there often are "flaws" with evidence and witnesses in trials that might generate some reasonable doubt in the minds of rational observers. Nonetheless, convictions against "Joe Everyman" are common. In celebrity cases, such as the Jackson case, it seems as if higher standards need to be met, Schroeder said.

He can also see where prosecutors might become more reluctant to file criminal charges in cases that involve celebrities. Prosecutors, who are generally elected officials, don't want to lose because political opponents can then say the prosecution was either malicious or the prosecutor was incompetent.

"I think a lot of prosecutors are going to be very reluctant to file in these kinds of cases," he said. "What to me is so distressing is that even the most overwhelming kind of evidence cannot lead to a conviction."

But prosecutors don't make random selections in deciding to file criminal charges, he said.

"The vast, vast majority of people brought to trial for serious crimes are brought to trial because the prosecutor firmly believes in his or her heart that this person is, as a matter of fact, guilty. Prosecutors don't operate out of vendettas in a desire to bring down people that they have some sort of quarrel with," he said.

Despite its shortcomings, the nation's legal system remains the best in the world, Schroeder said. He returned from Lithuania in December after spending 4 1/2 months teaching and participating in lectures in law schools at the University of Vilnius and the Law University of Lithuania.

"We have a very good system," he said. "I really believe that the Anglo-American system accounted in part for the prosperity and freedom we have."

Other countries that have hard economic times can likely trace some of their problems to their civil and criminal legal systems, Schroeder said. In Mexico, for example, trials are not open to the media and public. In the U.S., corruption is "very difficult when it is out in the open like our legal system is."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.