When Norma Talmadge left George Jessel and ran away with a doctor to Miami, George gave chase. He barged into their hotel room with a gun and took a shot at the guy. He didn’t leave a mark on his intended target; he was not much of a marksman. Instead, the bullet went on a downward trajectory out the hotel window and lodged in the buttocks of a gardener leaning over in someone’s lawn two blocks away. In court, the judge asked Jessel how he managed to miss so badly.
“I’m an actor, Your Honor,” he said. “Not Buffalo Bill.”
Of such stuff have celebrity court appearances been traditionally made. Theater by other means. Jessel predated Johnnie Cochran, so we were spared having this phrase in our culture: “If the gardener can sit, you must acquit.” Still, there was a sense that the putative crimes themselves had an air of the absurd. When the defendants walked free, citizens did not huddle petrified behind barred doors. They chuckled indulgently at the foibles of the roving Thespian class.
Not so lately. O. J. changed all that. Most people believe that he is a vicious killer who might well repeat his crime if similar circumstances arose. His acquittal was more chilling than amusing. And for the first time people began to worry that their grant of wealth and celebrity to players and jesters had spawned a monster.
Which brings us to Michael Jackson, a jury of whose peers experienced reasonable doubt about his guilt. Or at least reasonable annoyance with the mother of his accuser. This leaves Michael walking freely among us, to whatever extent a man who needs a man to hold an umbrella open for him at all times can be said to walk freely. Naturally we ask ourselves: Was all this a waste? Did the Prosecutor, Mr. Sneddon, just dump a big load of taxpayer money down the drain?
The answer strikes me as simple. It was well worth the expense. The situation is somewhat akin to the position of the police officer who knows that a certain fellow is definitely a criminal, although evidence is hard to come by. He can be excused for rousting and harassing and following this man, making it difficult for him to ply his illicit craft. As long as this power is not abused by stalking innocent citizens, we are comfortable with the use of intimidation as an instrument of policing.
In much the same way, a prosecutor can arrive at a point where the guilt of a particular party is obvious. Sometimes he sits in his office and sees a traumatized rape victim fall to pieces at the merest mention of her attacker. He knows that he cannot subject this person to the ordeal of testifying. Whatever self-possession she clings to will be shattered by facing a sneering defense lawyer and seeing the man who hurt her simpering in his Sunday suit just a few feet away.
That prosecutor is not without recourse. He has some weaker witnesses, some carpet fibers, some partial fingerprints, some fuzzy video. This is enough to take this rapist off the street for two years awaiting trial, put him through his paces and, if the man has a few dollars, make sure they end up papering the deck of some lawyer’s yacht. Even O. J. Simpson, we might recall, spent over a year in jail and considerable sums of money as a partial penance for his sins. It is never fun to sit behind that table peering at twelve impassive faces and trying to divine your fate in their eyes.
Michael Jackson is said to owe his attorneys ten million dollars, but I’m sure that the actual billing has not yet been completed. A paper clip here, a staple there, and before you know it there goes another million in expenses. By the time the vultures have been placated, Michael will have paid through whatever he uses in place of a nose. Not to mention his months of meandering haplessly in his pyjamas, being castigated by the judge and fearing the worst. Nor does he have much of a reputation left. No one will ever look at him again as the beatific benefactor of the innocent child.
It reminds me of George Burns’s story about the producer who took The Diary of Anne Frank on the road so his beautiful but untalented girlfriend could play the lead. The audience quickly grew disgusted with her and when the Nazis burst into the house in the Second Act, shouting “Where is Anne Frank?”, the audience did not hold their tongues. They shouted back: “She’s in the attic.” Mr. Prosecutor, anytime you can scare up another complainant, feel free spending my tax money to put Michael on trial again. You’ll find him under the umbrella.