US justice blinded by celebrity


Only a coma, or a desert island shipwreck, could have saved you from coverage of Paris Hilton's brush with California's legal system, but few will have heard of Elisa Kelly's travails. Elisa Kelly and Paris Hilton are both US citizens. They have been convicted of alcohol-related offences. They are currently serving prison sentences.

Elisa Kelly is a 42-year-old mother of two from Earlysville, Virginia. Paris Hilton is a 26-year-old wealthy heiress and minor celebrity from west Hollywood, California.

In August 2002 Elisa Kelly and George Robinson (now divorced) organised a 16th birthday party for Elisa's son, Ryan. A month earlier one of Ryan's schoolmates, Brittany Bishop, had died in an alcohol-related car accident following a similar party.

Elisa, George and Ryan's father, Marc Kenty, took a pragmatic approach. Since the teenagers were likely to drink, they decided that the party would take place in Elisa and George's isolated rural home on Bleak House Road, where they would provide and control the drinks.

They spent $1,000 on food and drink for the party, including some $340 on beer and wine. Their deal with the revellers was that all car keys had to be surrendered and that everybody would stay the night.

Police raided the house at about 11pm and arrested Elisa and George, who were charged on 44 counts of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor". This was later reduced to 16 counts, and then to nine - as only nine of the partygoers had small amounts of alcohol in their systems.

Under Virginia state law the legal drinking age is 21. It is an offence for adults to supply drink to anyone under that age.

Paris Hilton was arrested in September 2006 for erratic driving under the influence of alcohol. In January of this year she was stopped and informed that her driving licence had been suspended. Shortly afterwards she accepted a reduced charge and was placed on three years probation. In late February she was stopped and ticketed for driving while suspended.

In Virginia, the Albemarle County prosecuting attorney, James L. Camblos, an elected Republican, offered Elisa and George a deal. If they pleaded guilty, he would request a 90-day sentence which, under Virginia custodial practice, might be suspended.

Defendants who plead guilty in the US do not normally face trial - they are simply brought before a judge for sentencing. Judge Dwight Johnson of the local Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court rejected the prosecutor's recommendation and sentenced the couple to eight years imprisonment in February 2003.

On appeal, in September 2003, Judge Paul Peatross, of the Virginia Circuit Court, reduced their sentence to 90 days for each of the nine counts - 27 months in jail.

An appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, challenging the right of police to enter private property without a warrant, was rejected last January.

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear the case. On June 11th, Elisa and George began to serve their 27-month sentences in Albemarle regional jail, where Elisa's sons can visit her for 15 minutes once a month. The pair have incurred $300,000 in legal fees. In the best of circumstances they can hope to be released in a little over a year.

Paris Hilton has begun serving a month's custodial sentence in Los Angeles. The Hilton case has received blanket media coverage in the US and across the world. US television networks interrupted their coverage of last week's G8 summit in Germany to show live pictures of Ms Hilton being driven to court.

Elisa and George's judicial nightmare made the front pages of their local Charlottesville Daily Progress, plus an opinion column (which endorsed their sentence) in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and eventually, because Charlottesville is a little over 140km from the White House, the Washington Post.

One classic definition of "news" is that it is the reporting of something that has some bearing on the reader's, or viewer's, life. Accordingly, the arrest of a minor celebrity for a drink-driving offence is not news, while the deliberations of the G8 on global climate change clearly is. Celebrity gossip is titillating and, to be fair, we all enjoy it a bit. The news media can therefore devote reasonable coverage to the Paris Hilton story - provided that they also cover hard news.

Call me old-fashioned, but the imprisonment of parents for allowing semi-adult teenagers to drink beer in the supervised setting of their own home qualifies as news since it illustrates the age-old conflict between the intolerance of belief and the tolerance of freedom.

Puritans believe that all alcohol, including watery US beer, is evil. Their Virginia compromise with democracy is that you have to be 21 to drink - in a state where you can vote, or be sent to die in Iraq, from 18.

Elisa Kelly's story is a universal one of intolerance, perhaps the greatest threat our modern civilisations face. It is the one that deserved universal coverage.

• Mary Raftery is on leave