In the US, the criminal justice system isn’t exactly fair.
In an ideal system, if you break the law, your punishment should be determined by the severity of the crime. But in our system, it’s skewed by all kinds of other factors. For instance, people of color receive much harsher sentencing than white people. Class plays a huge role as well — wealth can buy you the best lawyers and freedom from punishment.
And another privilege that can make you immune from consequences is celebrity status.
Below are five famous people whose actions killed people, intentionally or not. And thanks to their privilege and wealth, they all got away with it — without facing the consequences the average person would face.
In 1987, Broderick visited Ireland with his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Grey. While driving along the road during their vacation, Broderick swerved onto the wrong side of the road, resulting in a severe head-on collision with a Volvo. Broderick and Grey both survived, but the two people in the Volvo — the driver and her mother — passed away almost immediately.
Broderick was charged with causing “death by dangerous driving,” an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
So how much time did he end up serving? None. Because of his massive wealth and fame, he managed to have his charge reduced to “careless driving,” a charge usually reserved for much more innocuous transgressions. And rather than serving any time in prison, he paid a measly $175 fine.
Headlines about the incident read “Matthew Broderick Injured in Car Crash,” not even acknowledging the two women who tragically died.
In February of 2015, Jenner was driving her Cadillac Escalade on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu as she would on any other day. But today, she was driving rather recklessly.
As she was approaching a traffic light, she realized she was driving at an unsafe speed, so she veered into another lane and rear-ended a Lexus and a Prius sitting at the red light. The Lexus was then propelled into oncoming traffic and struck by a Hummer. Tragically, the woman in the Lexus, 69-year-old actress Kim Howe, died immediately.
Investigators confirmed that Jenner was at fault for the crash. Nonetheless, Jenner and her attorney accused the woman in the Prius of causing the accident by being “inattentive.”
Even though most cases like this would result in criminal consequences, Jenner was cleared of any charges. And even though vehicular manslaughter is often charged as a felony, Jenner wasn’t even charged with a misdemeanor.
As her attorney Blair Berk said,
We are heartened the district attorney has agreed that even a misdemeanor charge would be inappropriate.
On a November evening in 1963, when Laura Bush was 17, she negligently ran a stop sign, leading her to crash into another car. The driver of the other car quickly died. Strangely, the victim of the crash was her close friend and schoolmate Michael Dutton Douglas, whom she was rumored to have once dated.
Neither Bush nor her passenger were severely injured, and they seamlessly recovered from their minor injuries.
And even though Douglas died, she was never charged for the incident — perhaps partly because of her young age.
While I don’t think we should incarcerate minors for a transgression that was truly a mistake, it’s important to acknowledge the double standard at play with cases like these — people of color and lower-class individuals are much more likely to face criminal charges for the exact same actions.
For instance, in one case, a young Black autistic man was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a fatal car crash. And in another case, a 13-year-old boy in Tennessee was charged with vehicular homicide after running a red light and fatally colliding with another car.
The bottom line is that laws should be applied fairly and consistently, not based on privilege.
This case is still not fully resolved because no one was there to witness the events. Now known as the Chappaquiddick incident, it happened on the night of July 18th, 1969, when Kennedy was 37. He was driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne at around midnight. They had left a party together at around 11:15 pm, and he was allegedly driving her to a ferry landing so that she could get home.
But on the way there, he allegedly made a wrong turn that led to a bridge with a one-lane road. His car skidded off the bridge, catapulting into the pond below. After the car was submerged, he quickly swam to safety, leaving Kopechne to drown in the car. He later claimed that he had attempted to rescue her but failed to.
What’s strange is that he didn’t report the crash or seek help from anyone until 10 am, about 10 hours after what transpired. And police investigations determined that the abrupt turn toward the bridge had been intentional, revealing that Kennedy may have intended to harm Kopechne. In a televised statement, he said that his failure to report the incident within a reasonable timeframe was “indefensible” and that his own behavior “made no sense to me at all.”
Despite these potential indications of malice, the only consequence he ever faced was his driver’s license being suspended for 16 months after the crash.
Throughout his lifetime, which spanned from 1905 to 1976, Howard Hughes was recognized as one of the richest men in the world. He was a business magnate, investor, film producer, and founder of a successful aircraft company.
In 1936, when Hughes was 30, he hit and killed a pedestrian at a residential intersection in Los Angeles. A witness reported that Hughes was clearly at fault, since the victim, Gabriel S. Meyer, was standing in the pedestrian safety zone when he was fatally struck. The witness said that Hughes had been driving too quickly and recklessly.
Thanks to his immense privilege, Hughes was able to avoid any consequences for Meyer’s death.
And 10 years later, Hughes had a similar accident — except this time it was with a plane. In 1946, Hughes was testing a reconnaissance plane when he accidentally crashed it into a house. The crash completely demolished the house and almost killed the person who lived there. And just like 10 years earlier, Hughes wasn’t held accountable.
The disparity between the punishments that ordinary and famous people receive for the exact same transgressions could not be starker.
Rich celebrities get off scot-free for crimes that would destroy an ordinary person’s life.
The takeaway from this isn’t that we should ramp up the punitive nature of the criminal justice system. Rather, the answer is that we should create a system where the law is enforced equally. Our system should be understanding if the transgression was truly a reasonable mistake. And it should hold perpetrators accountable if there was malicious intent. But the key is that it should do so consistently — not based on the perpetrator’s race, class, or level of fame.
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