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.

Originally published