Friday, March 23, 2012

SA044291 by Rachel Shteir

From the Gilded Age, when Emma Goldman and Mark Twain ridiculed the light punishment for kleptomaniacs in comparison with the severe penalties for starving single mothers, there has been in America the idea that treating rich shoplifters as sick, not criminal, reveals an ugly class bias. But in the 2000s, the contrast between how the rich and poor shoplifters were sentenced was amplified: Now rich shoplifters became fashion icons, and poor ones were given life sentences. At Christmastime of 2001, the case of Winona Ryder, or SA0445291, as it was later known in the Los Angeles Superior Court, redefined celebrity shoplifting. This trial, examining the relationship between fame and shoplifting, trivialized the crime. Another case – a Supreme Court case involving shoplifters serving life sentences under California’s three-strikes law – magnified the sense of a double standard.

On December 12, 2001,when the Beverly Hills police arrested Ryder for allegedly shoplifting just under $6,000 worth of designer clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard near Rodeo Drive, she was a thirty –year-old icon…

Ryder was not prosecuted for shoplifting, which is a misdemeanor charge. She was prosecuted on felony charges of grand theft and vandalism but, ultimately, it was a trial about a celebrity shoplifting designer clothing and journalists quickly shifted from analyzing witnesses’ testimony to deconstructing Ryder’s sartorial tastes and demeanor in the courtroom. “This is not a film performance that is going to garner Winona Ryder any Oscar nominations,” one article began. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick called Ryder “Felony Barbie.” According to some fashion writers, Ryder looked “splendid” in the courtroom, but because she chose to wear Marc Jacobs in court – Jacobs, among the designers whose clothing she had allegedly shoplifted – others thought she was sneering at the proceedings. They also criticized her “demure” attire, including one dress with a faux collar and matching black Mary Jane shoes, a ladylike yellow dress, a black cardigan and preppy hair band. She was trying too hard to play an innocent person, the logic went.

[At any rate], after a day and a half of consideration, the jury declared Ryder guilty of grand theft and vandalism, but not second-degree commercial burglary in which a person enters a store with the intent to steal. Judge Fox gave Ryder 480 hours of community service, five years probation, and drug counseling. Once Ryder completed her sentence, he would reduce her charge to a misdemeanor.

In the fashion world, the crime raised Ryder’s status. Marc Jacobs hired her to represent his spring collection. A few years later, the Festival Market Mall in Pampano Beach Florida, used the final minutes of the Saks surveillance video, when Ryder exists the store, along with the song “The Best Things in Life Are Free” in its ad. “Winona Knows. Why pay retail?" the caption reads.

Haute couture continues to use shoplifting as a sales tool. At Christmas of 2009, Karl Lagerfeld’s short video Vol de Jour appeared on Chanel News. Dutch supermodel Lara Stone and French boy muse Baptiste Giabiconi zoom over cobblestone Paris streets on a motorbike, the carefree beautiful people alighting at several Chanel boutiques to shoplift…in a world where haute couture is endangered, Lagerfeld treats supermodel shoplifting as an eccentricity, a taste to be indulged and a billboard for his own reinvention of brand. Ordinary mortals need not apply.

At Ryder’s sentencing the prosecution and defense bickered over whether to burn or auction the allegedly shoplifted designer clothes. Ryder’s attorney pointed out they might fetch a good price on eBay and the profits could go to charity. A representative from Saks said, “Shoplifting is a serious crime” and told the judge that the company lost $7 million the previous year because of shoplifting [ and probably spent at least an equal amount trying to guard against it].

Geragos decried Sak’s use of a “victim impact statement” to bemoan the store’s woes. Profits were up, so for Saks to cast itself as a victim was to make a mockery of real victims, he said, adding that Ryder had already been punished. “She will carry the scarlet letter S for shoplifting wherever she goes.” [It may be worth noting that today not a single photo of Ryder on Google Images depicts her involvement in the case].

In his sentencing statement Judge Fox asked the question judges have asked wealthy shoplifters since the nineteenth century: ‘Why would Winona Ryder steal…when she has enough money to buy?”

Under the three-strikes laws the California legislature passed after the murder of Polly Klaas, shoplifters could be sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2002, there were about four thousand ‘three-strikers’ in prison in California for nonviolent offenses. Of these, 368 involved shoplifting. Two of these cases had just reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Leandro Andrade, a nine-year army veteran, father of three, and heroin addict, had been arrested in 1995 for shoplifting five children’s videotapes including Batman Forever and Snow White, worth a total of $84.7. He was arrested a second time for shoplifting four tapes worthy $68.84. He had been arrested for burglaries in 1983. The other defendant, Gary Ewing, a drug addict, shoplifted three golf clubs, a total of $1,200. He had many prior theft convictions, including one for robbery with a knife. Andrade had received two twenty-five year sentences, much larger than, for instance, second-degree murder, manslaughter or rape.

In two 5-4 rulings, the Supreme court ruled against the pleadings of both Andrade and Ewing. In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the three strikes sentence was proportionate for both men even though Andrade, then thirty-seven, would not be eligible for parole for fifty years. So whereas in Beverly Hills, a jury found a movie star shoplifter guilty of grand larceny and gave her community service, the conservative Supreme Court found that two poor shoplifters deserved the twenty-five-to-life sentence.

Marc Klaas was in the courtroom at the Ryder trial to show his support for the star who years earlier had donated $200,000 to help him find his daughter. “She my be a double felon, but she has a big heart,” he wrote in a letter to the judge.

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