Should celebrities get involved in the criminal justice system?

Alice Marie Johnson sentence was commuted after Kim Kardashian got involved in the case Credit: Michael Buckner/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s been a long time since the Kardashian name was associated with the legal system—approximately 24 years, in fact, since the family patriarch Robert acted as one of the defence attorney’s working on behalf of O.J. Simpson during his 1995 trial.

But now, here we are in 2019 and Kardashian’s more famous progeny Kim is stepping into legal and political circles. Earlier this year, her latest attempts to break the internet came when she announced she wants to become a lawyer, beginning a four-year apprenticeship and studying for the bar.

The news comes after she campaigned for the release of Alice Marie Johnson last year, a 63-year-old who had been serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offence in Alabama. She had already spent 21 years in prison when Kardashian became involved in her case, campaigning Trump to commute her sentence. He complied and Johnson was released. The decision to continue her legal career came after, “The White House called me to advise to help change the system of clemency,” as she told Vogue during an interview. Naturally, the internet took the news well.

Kardashian isn’t alone in her newfound quest. Celebrities have long championed their personal causes, which include taking up the case for inmates they think were wrongfully convicted. Rihanna, Cara Delevigne and Kim all campaigned on behalf of Cyntoia Brown back in 2017.

And they’re not alone. Programmes like series one of Making a Murderer and even the first series of the podcast Serial raised awareness of the flaws in the criminal justice system for many of us. They made some of us advocates for justice reform; Obama had to speak out on it after almost 130,000 people signed a petition asking him to grant Steven Avery a pardon. And celebrities weighed in, too. Mia Farrow said she was ‘outraged’ and called the documentary a ‘scathing indictment of law officers in Manitowoc County’, Ricky Gervais wanted it to get the Nobel Prize and Alec Baldwin tweeted that those who live in Manitowoc County should be ‘scared to death’ (ignoring the fact he misspelled Manitowoc).

But that support can look misguided in the face of criticism of the series that has said that it provided a biased account that leads to one conclusion: Avery is innocent. It also failed to include evidence that worked against Avery and much of the less savoury aspects of his past, like his history of physical and sexual violence.

Kim Kardashian is also facing criticism in light of her most recent cause: the case of Kevin Cooper, a convicted murderer and death row inmate serving time in San Quentin for a quadruple murder. Cooper has always denied his involvement and there is evidence to support claims he was framed, including the fact that the sole survivor initially indicated it was a group of white men who had committed the murders. Kardashian is campaigning for his DNA to be tested, which many of his supporters say could exonerate him of the crime.

Meanwhile, the mother of one of Cooper’s alleged victims, Mary Ann Hughes has spoken out against Kardashian, saying Cooper is using her and that her actions have caused Hughes “immense pain.” She also slammed Kardashian for portraying herself as a supporter of women’s rights, but campaigning for a convicted rapist (a crime that happened before the murders).

It raises the question of how much good celebrity advocacy actually does, especially for those who have no prior training or experience in the cause they’re working on behalf of. Kim Kardashian automatically brings attention not everyone may want—especially victims’ families— and she is yet to pass the bar. Her advocacy can feel misguided, however well meant. How should celebrities use their platforms?

One of the most famous cases of celebrity involvement in the criminal justice system is that of the West Memphis Three. The men found heavy support from the musical community (including Metallica, who they were fans of). Henry Rollins organised benefits, then made an album with Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister. Johnny Depp (a long-time supporter) solidified his commitment by getting a matching tattoo with Damien Echols. Peter Jackson petitioned after the men’s release to have them exonerated and released his own documentary on the crime. Much of this came after the release of the documentary Paradise Lost. But there are those who believe the men were guilty and the celebrity endorsement misguided, especially given the bias towards the men of the documentary.

Then there was the case of the Central Park Five: a group of black men who were convicted of the rape of a white woman in 1989 in Central Park, a case which Donald Trump waded into. He called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and for the five men to be executed. He even took out full page ads in four newspapers. The problem was, the Central Park Five were innocent. Convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed in 2002, which was later confirmed by DNA. The five men’s confessions were deemed coerced and they were exonerated. Trump refused to apologise.

Oprah, on the other hand, conducted a special interview with the five men after the release of a Netflix documentary on the case. She did the same with the two men who accused Michael Jackson of sexual abuse in Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck. In it, she used her own experience of sexual abuse to advocate for other victims. 

Who is right? Should celebrities stay in their lane or use their platform as a source for good? It’s undeniable that there are causes out there that could benefit from high profile advocacy. But there’s also evidence that support that isn’t fully informed can cause real damage. After all, Robert Kardashian himself admitted he had doubts about Simpson’s guilt in the murder of Nicole Simpson Brown and Ron Goldman and those doubts plagued him after Simpson was found not guilty. It’s a lesson his daughter should keep in mind: tread with care.

By Amy Lavelle