acing a trial in less than a week, movie actress Winona Ryder is trying to overcome ten months of unrelenting media scrutiny and public humiliation, all of it operating on the assumption that she is guilty of shoplifting charges. Maybe she did steal some clothes and a few purses, and maybe she didn't. But that's become irrelevant.
In a town infamous for granting celebrities free passes, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office has pursued its case against the actress with a tenacity typically reserved for high-profile murderers. Stung by a long string of well-publicized defeats, the DA's office is desperate to win a big case even if it's only a shoplifting conviction.
Since her December 12, 2001 arrest, Ryder has been portrayed by the DA's office as a serial shoplifter with a drug habit who was caught red-handed on camera. But a careful look at the undisputed facts paints a dramatically different picture.
Of the three main elements of its trial in the courtroom of public opinion, the cheapest personal shot is the felony count one of four total for possession of a controlled substance. The "controlled substance" in question was two individual pills of endocet, the generic version of Percocet. Her lawyer, Mark Geragos (who appears frequently on cable-news shows), has provided the prosecution with Ryder's prescription for Percocet, but the DA is sticking her with a felony charge because she had the generic equivalent instead of the name-brand drug listed on the prescription.
The second line of attack prosecutors have sullied Ryder with in the press is the allegation that this is just the latest in a string of shoplifting incidents. In the legal context, prosecutors would use these so-called prior bad acts to establish a pattern, making any excuses for the conduct on trial tougher to believe. But both of these "prior bad acts" boil down to a single witness in each case cryptically stating that maybe Ryder had taken a single item or was intending to. Ryder has never been arrested or detained, even by private security forces. In other words, there is no there there.
But the most damning rumor lingering is that Ryder was seen on surveillance tape clipping sensor tags off the Saks merchandise. No such evidence exists. She was, in fact, caught on camera, but the tape only shows her shopping nothing illegal. That raises the obvious question: How did such a damaging falsehood one that has the very real potential to irreparably taint the jury pool seep out to become the popularly held view? The DA's office said it had this smoking gun at a press conference less than 24 hours after Ryder's arrest.
Such a significant lapse in accuracy might be excusable because of the intensity of the situation in the immediate aftermath of the arrest, but the DA's office later continued to insist in a press release that "the actress was seen on a store security camera using a pair of scissors to cut the security tags off merchandise." This missive was drafted nearly two months after the arrest, long after the prosecution had had the opportunity to review the tape and realize there was no cutting of any kind.
Even though it eventually came out at the preliminary hearing in June that the tape had no "gotcha" moment, the coverage of the truth was the equivalent of a correction note at the bottom of page 30 for a front-page error months earlier: Few people noticed. A prominent cable-news legal analyst someone who should know the details of a media-soaked case like this one privately expressed shock that the tape in fact did not show anything that could be remotely construed as cutting off sensor tags. Even some people working for Ryder's lawyer still think the tape has the supposed evidence. "People in my office have assumed that's true," notes Geragos.
The widespread belief that the actress was caught in a criminal act on camera threatens to deny Ryder a fair trial. All it takes is for one jury member to convince the others that there was a tape he or she heard about that must have been kept out of evidence on a technicality.
Given the saturation coverage of the videotape rumor received, it is likely that at least a few jury members will believe there's evidence being kept out because of dirty tricks from a slick defense attorney. And the only time it will be officially stated as fact by the judge that there is no such evidence is at the very end of the trial long after many of the jury members' minds might have been made up about Ryder's guilt.
The security-tape fiasco should have been prevented considering the attention the DA is lavishing on the case. But justice may be falling victim to the DA's thirst for publicity. One deputy DA in that office states, "The DA is trying to make a name for himself off of Winona Ryder." The attorney further adds that the DA's aggressive actions are not sitting well with his colleagues: "Most of the lawyers here think this is just a spectacle and an utterly ridiculous waste of resources for such a petty case."
According to an NBC News study of L.A. County records, none of the other 5,000 people prosecuted for shoplifting in the last two years has been hit with such harsh charges and in two specific cases in Beverly Hills where the alleged amount stolen exceeded that in Ryder's case, both defendants pleaded out with misdemeanors something that prosecutors have adamantly refused to do for the movie star.
Perhaps the NBC News findings could be excused if they don't reflect some newfound fervor within the DA's office to zealously pursue petty crimes but Ryder's case is very much an anomaly. "The policy regarding shoplifting cases has not changed except for Winona Ryder," comments a deputy DA in that office.
The prosecution has even pursued this case against the wishes of Saks, the retailer whose merchandise was allegedly looted by Ryder. Sources close to Saks confirm that the retailer has on several occasions requested that the matter be dropped, but the DA has taken the highly unusual step of ignoring a store's wishes in a shoplifting case. The DA's office told Saks that if the retailer didn't cooperate, attorneys would no longer prosecute shoplifting cases at the Beverly Hills location.
In fact, the felony charges may have been an attempt to prevent Saks from having the whole affair disappear. Under California law, misdemeanor charges can be handled as a civil matter if the complaining witness which in shoplifting cases is the store agrees to drop criminal charges.
It appears that the last thing the DA wants is for the whole mess to go away. A source inside the DA's office says that in the past month the only plea bargain that prosecutors were willing to accept was for a felony. Such a "deal" would "destroy her career, just on a practical level," notes Geragos. Asked if the DA's office ever seeks a plea bargain down to a felony on a shoplifting case, a deputy DA flatly responds, "Never."
The case is also unprecedented for the sheer amount of resources devoted to a theft charge against a defendant with no criminal history. In the three months before a June court date, the DA's office had one attorney who handled nothing other than preparation for a preliminary hearing on a shoplifting case. To put this in perspective, a typical deputy DA handles 20-30 cases per day, or anywhere from 1,200-1,800 cases in the same time span that that one attorney spent preparing solely for a single pre-trial hearing.
There are now upwards of eight lawyers working full-time in the frenzied few weeks leading up to next week's trial a little less than one attorney for every item they allege she stole. It's not like the DA's office doesn't have other important cases to prosecute, either. In fact, the lead deputy DA assigned to Ryder's case is trying to postpone a murder trial so she can fulfill her duties prosecuting a shoplifting charge.
Ironically, the DA's office issued a press release stating its "strong objection" to Geragos requesting a continuance in May so that he could defend in a murder case in LA. Thus, the DA criticized Ryder's attorney for seeking a continuance in a shoplifting matter to handle a murder trial, while his office sought a continuance in a murder case to try a shoplifting charge.
Aside from attempting to throw the book at Ryder in the courtroom, the prosecution has engaged in conduct seemingly pettier than the crimes with which she is charged.
When the actress injured her arm at the June preliminary hearing, the DA's office began spreading a rumor that she had been holding different elbows, and that morphed into a myth that her sling had switched arms none of which is supported by any proof. At the arraignment, the prosecution asked to increase Ryder's bail from $20,000 to $30,000 a monetary difference which the actress earns for a few seconds of batting her eyes for the cameras. Besides, where is a world-famous movie starlet going to hide?
At the end of the day, the elected DA may just be trying to avoid yet another embarrassing defeat the kind that cost his predecessor at the ballot box. That would certainly explain the repeated attempts to influence the jury pool long before the start of the trial. On the day of the preliminary hearing, which was not televised, the prosecution lined up the allegedly stolen items for a photo shoot, ensuring that the public would get a glimpse of the "evidence."
That stunt was simply in keeping with the DA's handling of the case. "This is Hollywood, and the DA is putting on a show for the voters," quips a deputy DA in that office.
Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.