May 9, 2017 — New York prosecutor-turned-TV journalist and talk show host Star Jones returned to her alma mater to discuss the law's intersection with the press last Friday during a talk called, "Law, Justice & The Media" in Krost Hall at the University of Houston Law Center.
Jones, a 1986 alumna of the Law Center, began her legal career as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office before becoming a senior district attorney for New York City. She gained notoriety as a legal commentator for the cable network "Court TV" in the early 1990s. She then worked as a legal analyst and correspondent for NBC's Today and NBC Nightly News. She later was a co-host of the ABC woman-centric talk show "The View" from 1997-2006.
"When I came to the University of Houston Law Center, law and justice obviously went together," she said. "I just never thought the media would make such a vital impact on my whole career."
Jones opened the discussion by referencing the 1991 sexual assault trial of William Kennedy Smith. Smith, the nephew of former president John F. Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy, was acquitted on all charges.
"This trial was a true litmus test for television centered on live legal matters," Jones said. "The Kennedy name itself was a huge factor in media coverage. You had Kennedies, who were considered American royalty, parading into the courtroom.
"For many this case illustrated the influence of wealth and elite status within a community and how it can impact the judicial process."
Jones then spoke about the 1994 trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, brothers who were convicted of killing their parents. She said coverage of the trial helped launch her television career as well as several others.
"Coverage of the Menendez brothers' trial made legal analysts recognizable on the street and elevated the career profile of the defense attorney Leslie Abramson," she said. "It also brought broader attention to journalists like Cynthia McFadden who earned a job at NBC News as a result of her work on 'Court TV.'"
Jones also shared experiences and thoughts from the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson, often dubbed "the trial of the century." Simpson, a former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner, was acquitted in the 1994 homicides of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
"It was making a racial divide in our country bigger," she said. "It appealed to Caucasians as it appealed to African-Americans, and it divided and conquered. When that verdict came in, it did exactly what it was designed to do. I consider the way the media hyped the verdict, and led the nation to believe it was a guaranteed guilty verdict, to be one of its most poor showings.
"The way the case unraveled really and truly forced us to answer a bunch of questions about race, wealth, and the concept of unconscious bias and it brought up issues of fairness and justice."
Jones also touched on other infamous cases that became part of a national conversation: the 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King, boxer Mike Tyson's 1992 rape trial, and the murder trials of Scott Peterson in 2004, Casey Anthony in 2011, and Jodi Arias in 2013.
She said these trials are partly responsible for the tabloidization of media, and helped feed the public's insatiable appetite for celebrity news and gossip.
"With the media, there's a very fine line between reporting on a trial and sensationalizing a trial that can lead to jury dismissals, jury sequesters, and the disregarding of evidence in fear of media biases," Jones said. "Sometimes the law steps on its own toes as we saw in some of these cases. It's unfortunate, but justice doesn't always mean closure."
Jones is now president of the Professional Diversity Network (PDN), an internet software and services company that develops and operates online networking opportunities for professionals and employers seeking to hire women, minorities, veterans, LGBT and disabled professionals.
"Star Jones is one of our most prominent alums," Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes said. "She is an all-around player. She is a lawyer, she has been a legal correspondent, she's been an author, and now she's a businesswoman who is the CEO of a major enterprise. She is one of our own and I couldn't be prouder to have Star come back to the Law Center."