Justice, Interrupted

Justice, Interrupted

Justice, Interrupted

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 4 2002 5:09 PM

Justice, Interrupted

Why Winona Ryder will do time for O.J.'s crimes.

Winona Ryder
Ryder: She fought the law

If Winona Ryder hadn't been cast in this movie, it would have gone straight to video. Scratch that. It would never even have made it to Lifetime, Television for Women. "Doe-eyed girl shoplifts at Saks, spends three years in prison"? Please. There are only two possible reasons that an alleged Beverly Hills shoplifting incident has launched a felony prosecution, complete with press conferences, photo ops, and a spin campaign worthy of a summer blockbuster: Either the Los Angeles district attorney's office is seeking payback for the O.J. Simpson trial, or District Attorney Steve Cooley is gunning for an Oscar.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

The actress is charged with four felony counts—second-degree burglary, grand theft, vandalism, and possession of a controlled substance—in connection with an alleged shoplifting incident last Dec. 12 at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She was indicted for allegedly stealing between $4,000-$5,000 worth of designer clothes and purses and for illegally possessing painkillers. Ryder's trial is scheduled to begin Monday, Oct. 7. She faces three years in prison.

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From the get-go, her lawyers have insisted that she is innocent and has merely been singled out for her notoriety. While this is hardly a novel tactic in celebrity cases, the suggestion that Ryder woke up last December in a Kafka story has been reinforced by the bizarrely overzealous prosecution she has endured.

First, there was the ridiculous press conference, staged by the L.A. district attorney's office and over very strong objections from Ryder's counsel, less than 24 hours after her arrest. At the conference, police announced that video surveillance cameras had caught her cutting tags off merchandise with a pair of scissors. Then, when the grainy Zapruder-type video was released to every news outlet in the free world, all of America witnessed live footage of Winona ... shopping! Except, after seven or eight viewings, we all assumed that we were either missing something or seeing the wrong bit of tape (precisely what the jury pool will assume). Because the district attorney's office wouldn't lie about the evidence, right?

Two months later, the district attorney's office, which had by now had time to not only view the surveillance tape several thousand times but to enter it in the Sundance Film Festival, was still repeating the claim that they had videotape evidence of Ryder's crime. Only months later did it become clear at a preliminary hearing that there was no smoking-gun video, just the testimony of a single security guard who apparently saw Ryder clipping tags.

Then, there is the felony "drug" charge. At the time of her arrest, Ryder was in possession of two tablets—two—of endocet, the generic version of Percocet. She has the prescription for the Percocet, by the way. But the DA's office is pursuing the drug charges because she had the generic version rather than the pricey designer kind. (Evidently Ryder's taste in painkillers is less extravagant than her taste in handbags.)

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The fact that there were felony charges filed at all is astonishing in its own right, as an exposé conducted by the entertainment tabloid Extra,Celebrity Justice (dogged friend to celebs everywhere!) revealed that in court records of all 5,000 grand theft felony cases filed in Los Angeles County last year, not one defendant was facing penalties as harsh as Ryder's. In fact, in all cases involving theft exceeding the amount alleged in Ryder's case, the defendants received standard misdemeanor plea deals. The district attorney's office has refused to accept a plea for anything less than a felony in Ryder's case.

In fact, the district attorney's office has refused to accept Saks' own multiple requests to drop the charges against Ryder. In a recent article in the National Review online, Joel Mowbray writes that the Los Angeles district attorney's office warned Saks that if they didn't cooperate in the Ryder prosecution, their attorneys would no longer prosecute shoplifting cases at the Beverly Hills location. Hey, that will send a message to shoplifters!

Instead of pleading this case out and getting on with the business of prosecuting murderers and rapists, Cooley's office has now diverted at least eight attorneys to work full time on this case, with a deputy district attorney having to reschedule a murder prosecution so she can convict Ryder.

It's not my job to argue that Ryder is innocent; I don't get paid enough to do that. She still has to account for a whole mess of unpaid-for merchandise that accompanied her out of the department store last winter. But it's hard to believe that righting societal wrongs against the poor victims at Gucci and Prada is more pressing for the district attorney's office than prosecuting killers.

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The most common theory for Steve Cooley's ferocious zealotry is that this is an easy way to restore the sheen to an office so tarnished by failure. Cooley's predecessor—former District Attorney Gil Garcetti—left office in a welter of criticism over failed prosecutions ranging from Rodney King and Charles Keating to the debacle that was O.J. Simpson. Garcetti will be remembered by history as the guy who never could win the big one.

That Garcetti's successor, Steve Cooley, thinks nailing Winona Ryder might be a "big one" is either evidence of desperation or a uniquely Hollywood lack of proportion.

There's one other, more pernicious theory circulating for why Ryder is paying for the long string of failed prosecutions coming out of Los Angeles: According to a new study by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, Ryder is paying for a national gender bias against wealthy, successful women. In the poll, conducted last week by the new company WomanTrend, 75 percent of the 800 women polled believe that "successful women are more likely to receive negative attention when accused of improper conduct than men who are accused of the same, and 87 percent say that while women are ridiculed and criticized for doing something bad, or unfavorable, men earn a 'cool' or 'humorous' image from ... the same behavior."

Before you write the study off as unvarnished feminist nonsense, consider Martha Stewart, Kathie Lee Gifford, and now Winona. Now think about Robert Downey Jr.

Is he adorable or what?

Americans have long argued that the famous enjoy an unfair double-standard, using their notoriety and wealth to walk away from serious drug, violence, and even murder charges with a rap on the knuckles and an autograph for the judge's wife. But it's equally true that the unscrupulous prosecution of someone famous can make a career, even when the charges are basically groundless. Think Ken Starr.

Steve Cooley may well go down in history as the guy who put a shoplifter behind bars by publicly mischaracterizing the evidence, diverting scarce resources, and refusing to plea bargain in good faith. Will it redeem O.J.? I doubt it. Will it make the world safer? No. Will it make a good movie? Probably not even on Lifetime.