Monday, June 20, 2005

Innocent. Until. Proven. Guilty: 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Michael Jackson, Juries, and Tom Sneddon

Posted by AmishThrasher at 11:22 pm
Fatty Arbuckle
Fatty Arbuckle:
Everyone knows he's guilty...

I want to start this post off with a little story:
Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle (March 24, 1887–June 29, 1933) was an American silent film comedian who gained the nickname "Fatty" (a name that he hated, and only used professionally) from his portly frame and who is best known for his involvement in the "Fatty Arbuckle scandal".


[At] the height of his career, Arbuckle was under contract to Paramount Studios for $1 million a year, at the time an astronomical sum. On September 3, 1921, Arbuckle took a break from his hectic film schedule, driving to San Francisco with two friends, Lowell Sherman and Fred Fischbach. The three checked into the St. Francis Hotel. The three decided to have a party and invited several women to their suite. During the carousing, one of the women, a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe, became seriously ill, and she was examined by the hotel doctor, who concluded she was merely intoxicated. Rappe died three days later of peritonitis. Matthew Brady, the San Francisco district attorney, quickly pursued charges against Arbuckle, releasing a statement to the press that essentially accused Arbuckle of raping or attempting to rape Rappe with a champagne bottle and crushing her with his weight. However, the doctor who conducted the autopsy on Rappe found no evidence that violence had played any role in her death, nor did he find any evidence that she had been assaulted. Brady proceeded to try Arbuckle anyway. During the trial, Arbuckle testified that he had found Rappe vomiting in the bathroom and screaming in pain, that he had helped her to a bed, and that he had been alone with her no longer than 10 minutes.

Roscoe Arbuckle's career is seen by many film historians as one of the great tragedies of Hollywood. Although Arbuckle was acquitted of the allegations involving Rappe, the case had to be tried three times before he was pronounced innocent. The resulting infamy destroyed his career and his personal life. During the trial, morality groups nationwide called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death, and studio moguls ordered Arbuckle's friends in the industry not to come to his public defense. Buster Keaton did, however, and he testified in support of Arbuckle, calling Roscoe one of the kindest souls he had known.

SOURCE: WikiPedia article on Fatty Arbuckle

Even though Mr. Arbuckle was cleared of his charges, he had already been judged guilty in the court of public opinion. Undoubtedly, the public reaction of the day would have been one of outrage; that a man who everyone knew was guilty was let off because a jury a doubt about whether he guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the years since Arbuckle's death, historians have shown that the jury was right in having doubts about Arbuckle's guilt - after all, most of the research since then suggests that he was almost certainly innocent.

This raises a few questions for us: is it better to have a legal system that lets 100 people off if it ensures that an innocent man (like Arbuckle) is not thrown in jail for a crime he didn't commit? How just would a 'justice' system be if it throws men like Arbuckle in prison, even when a jury of their peers (after hearing all the evidence) has reasonable doubts over whether he's guilty? Similarly, if you were Roscoe Arbuckle, and everyone around you has decided that you are absolutely guilty of a crime that you didn't commit, would you want to have a legal system that gives you a fair trial, and assumes that you are innocent until the prosecution can prove you guilty? Or would you rather one that assumes that you are guilty as sin (even though you're innocent), and then forces you to have to prove to a jury that you are not guilty, and if you don't, you either get thrown in prison or fried on the electric chair (for a crime you didn't commit)?

I think the answer is self explanitory. One of the most basic rights of anyone living in a modern democracy is the right to a fair trial, if you have been accused of a crime. And the law should assume that you are innocent until such time as you are proven guilty, to the point where none of the jurors have any reasonable doubts about your guilt. In fact, they're the most important constitutional rights you have as a citizen of the UK, USA, or Australia. It's not a perfect system: sometimes guilty people get 'let off' as a result. However, it's infinitely better than the legal system that was running under Stalin in Soviet Russia, or the one that was running in Nazi Germany (where people often didn't get fair trials; they were simply assumed to be guilty and shot dead). And if, like Mr. Arbuckle, you ever have the misfortune of being arrested for a crime you didn't commit, these constitutional rights could save your life.

I write this because of the number of people who have written opinion pieces this past week, or so, attacking the jury in the Michael Jackson trial. But the fact is that the jury in the trial did their jobs. Just like Roscoe Arbuckle, and just like you, Michael Jackson - when he was charged with a crime - had a right to a fair trial. The job of the prosecutor in the case - Tom Sneddon - was to prove to an impartial jury that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Michael Jackson was guilty of the crimes that he was accused of. The jury's job in the trial was simple: to decide whether Sneddon had done his job - and they decided that he hadn't. If you don't like their verdict, don't blame the jury; blame Sneddon.

An example of such an opinion article is at ( ). In this article, Ken Hughes writes that "What bothers me is the reason given by the jury for acquitting Michael on all charges. 'They didn’t like the victims mother'. She could have been Ma Barker, her sins shouldn’t be cast on her son."(ibid.) But the problem with this argument is not that the jury 'didn't like' the mother, but rather that they couldn't trust a single word that was coming out of her mouth. In fact, from some accounts Jackson's lawyer did a good job of pointing out the contradictions in the story of the prosecution witnesses, while mercilessly destroying others. For example, prosecution witness had claimed that he had seen Jackson molest Macaulay Culkin in the past, yet later in the trial the 'victim' (Culkin) took the stand in Jackson's defence and claimed that Jackson had never touched him. In the face of this attack, Sneddon failed to back up his case with hard evidence.

Hughes goes on to write that "One juror said he believed Michael had molested children just not that child. With the number of charges filed, the jury could have found at least one or two to convict on."(ibid.) Jackson wasn't on trial for what he may, or may not, have done in the past; previous allegations were only allowed to suggest that Jackson had a history of paedophilia, which Sneddon believed would help show Jackson's guilt.

As for the charges that Jackson was facing:
* count 1, overt acts 1-28: 182(a)(1) - conspiracy, involving unlawful controlling, withholding, concealing, enticing, and threatening the accuser, his mother, his sister, and his brother, to commit:
236 - false imprisonment
278 - child abduction
518 - extortion

* count 2-6: 288(a) - lewd act upon a child: four times plus one attempt (664): two times (counts 2 and 3) reported by the accuser, two times (counts 4 and 5) witnessed by his brother, while the accuser slept, and an attempt to have the accuser perform a non-penetrative sexual act on Jackson (count 6). 288(a) should not be confused with 288a.
* counts 7-10: 222 - administering alcohol to enable and assist oneself to do this (four times); in June 2005 Melville ruled that alternatively the jury can consider the lesser charge of just supplying alcohol to the accuser.

Some have suggested that a pivotal mistake was introducing count 1, which shifted proceedings from the main counts (2 - 6). Jackson's lawyer - Tom Mesereau - created reasonable doubt by illustrating that the family making the accusations could have freely left Neverland at any time. As I said earlier, fundemental contradictions in the stories of a number of prosecution witnesses (including the mother), as well as the lack of any hard evidence, is how the defence created reasonable doubt in counts 2 - 6. Finally, if there's reasonable doubt about whether Jackson molested the accuser, it is difficult to see how there would be no reasonable doubt in the claim that Jackson used alcohol to molest the accuser.

Hughes goes on to write that "This was a jury bought and paid for, perhaps not with cash from Jackson but with the prospect of fame and fortune after the verdict was announced. Their first sojourn was to Neverland ranch for a victory party. That alone is worth a few thousand dollars from the tabloids."(ibid.) If Hughes has any evidence at all of this, he should really go forward to the authorities: bribing a jury is a very serious offence indeed. But I doubt this is the case, and if so, Hughes (and the company hosting the article) should really avoid making such serious and false allegations - they are opening themselves up to a very serious defamation case.

Finally, Hughes concludes by stating that "When they return to their homes, they’ll have to explain to their neighbors why they let a child molester go. They’ll be marked forever as incompetents."(ibid.) But they clearly did their job competantly; rather, it's Tom Sneddon and the prosecution who were incompetant (especially if this case really was such a slam dunk). And if you are looking for the reason why Jackson was released, it was because of the prosecution, and the holes punched in their case by Mesereau. And we don't throw people in prison - even when the prosecution case has more holes than swiss cheese - because the court of public opinion has decided that they must be guilty. And given some of the misscarriages of justices produced by trial by media (think of the case of Arbuckle), this is for good reason.

Don't take this as a defence of Michael Jackson; it's not. Rather, it's a defence of some of the most important constitutional rights you and I have, in the face of a 'media panic'. And while the system that these basic rights uphold is far from perfect, it is far superior to any of the alternatives.