How much does it cost to escape the law?

At the end of the movie Kingpin, Bill Murray's character, Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken wins a million dollars. Talking to a reporter, he crows "I've finally got enough money that I can buy my way out of anything [...] finally, Big Ern is above the law!" Kingpin is a comedy, and the line is obviously intended as a joke; however, given that Bernie Madoff was recently allowed to remain out of jail, it's pretty clear that Big Ern's line contains more than a smidgen of truth.

While the Claus Von Bulow and OJ Simpson trials made it seem like American justice was for sale, subsequent events have more or less erased any doubt. For example, in 2007, software executive George Anderson was sentenced to a mere 16 days in jail after he ran down a 60-year-old woman, fled the scene, refused to take a breathalyzer test, and failed a blood alcohol test. Similarly, when Lizzie Grubman, a celebrity publicist, struck 16 people with her SUV, she was not given a breathalyzer and was ultimately able to reach a plea agreement that landed her with a mere 37 days in jail and five years of probation.

Fame makes it even easier to purchase freedom. For example, Lindsay Lohan received one day in jail after pleading guilty to cocaine use and driving under the influence. By comparison, Martha Stewart's five month imprisonment seems positively draconian, particularly given that her crimes, including securities fraud, conspiracy, and perjury, weren't life threatening. Of course, she probably served only a fraction of the time that she would have been stuck with if she had been an average, middle-income American.

From Virginia heiress Susan Cummings, who literally got away with murder, to Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose crimes bordered on treason, it seems like there isn't any place in the US where money can't buy justice, and there isn't any crime that can't be bought off the books. The question is, however, how much does it cost?

In the case of Lohan, Hilton, and Libby, fame and political influence clearly carried certain privileges, but the remainder of this rogues' gallery seemingly managed to buy their way into reduced sentences. While most of them had top-notch lawyers on retainer, it is hard to discount the possibility that they also greased the palms of more than a few law-enforcement officials. This certainly seems to be the case with Madoff, who continues to enjoy confinement to his $7 million penthouse, even after he was caught sending assets to friends and family members.

While it's hard to gauge the exact sums involved, they are undoubtedly steep. Michael Jackson's recent kerfuffle over the $7 million that a Bahraini Sheik paid him to settle up his legal debts suggests that child molestation doesn't come cheap. Similarly, estimates of OJ Simpson's legal fees run somewhat north of $3.5 million. Lizzie Grubman apparently settled with each of her victims, to the tune of several thousand apiece. In other words, even Big Ern's million dollars wouldn't get him far in this culture.

It is also worth noting that, even those elites who manage to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes seem to end up paying a steep price. Robert Downey's five years of legal problems between 1996 and 2001 suggest that the justice system's incredible lenience actually cost him far more than his legal fees. After all, it wasn't until he more or less completely destroyed his career that he decided to start seriously working on getting better; arguably, this could have happened a lot earlier if he hadn't been granted second, third, and fourth chances.

Similarly, Lindsay Lohan's ability to avoid the negative consequences of her actions has only accelerated her self-destructive slide. It's harder to gauge the effect of the legal system on Paris Hilton's career, as she didn't really have any talent to begin with, but one can only imagine how many more embarrassing sex tapes and wooden performances she might be able to churn out if she can somehow stay out of trouble!
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