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Fame on trial
Attorneys in the Kirby Puckett trial expect a judge to be assigned to the case this week. Puckett faces a February trial on charges that he dragged a woman into a restaurant bathroom and groped her. The trial will draw public scrutiny mostly because of Puckett's celebrity status as a Hall of Fame baseball player. Media attention is just one of the ways a trial is affected when the defendant is a celebrity.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Kirby Puckett is a World Series hero whose on-field accomplishments are memorialized in the championship banners that hang in the Metrodome. But Minnesotans also loved Puckett for who he was off the field.

When he was enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, last year, thousands of Minnesotans attended. Ron Cavanaugh of Bloomington brought his grandson along as a high school graduation present and explained that he approved of what Kirby Puckett stood for.

"One of the things he stands for is cleanliness," Cavanaugh said at the time. "He stands for politeness. He stands for being your best, doing your best. He's talked a number of times about kids staying out of trouble. So, he's just a good role model for kids and adults."

Now Puckett is charged with false imprisonment and misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct. Cavanaugh's feelings toward Puckett are more ambivalent these days.

"Whether this is true or not, I don't know. But if it is true, I'm real disappointed in him," Cavanaugh said recently.

While Cavanaugh is trying to withhold judgment, he feels certain that many people have already lowered their opinion of Puckett based on the allegations. When a celebrity stands accused, the news is often a shock to the public.

That can be problematic for defense attorneys such as Todd Jones, the former federal prosecutor who is leading Puckett's defense team.

"The difficult part is stopping people from rushing to judgment when the accusation is made," Jones said. "When there is a prominent figure that has accusations made against them there's a rush to judgment that 'Oh, my God. They did that?' without really an understanding that it's just an accusation."

Prosecutors face their own hurdles as they try to convict a heroic figure. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar declined to be interviewed for this story but she explained her position when Puckett was charged in October.

"Like most Minnesotans," Klobuchar said, "I remember watching Kirby Puckett help the Twins win two World Series. He is remembered as a great Hall of Fame baseball player by many people in this state. But that night in that bar, he was no one's hero."

Out of court settlements sometimes spare celebrities from standing trial. Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at The Wharton School who specializes in sports business, says there are people who level trumped up charges against athletes in hopes the celebrity will pay to protect his or her image by keeping the case out of court. In criminal cases, though, Shropshire thinks county attorneys are becoming less willing to drop charges against famous athletes.

"The traditional view is that these guys get a break, these guys get off easy. But I think there's been more and more of this kind of bending over backwards to make sure the public knows there's no special exception being made because of the celebrity of the individual," Shropshire said.

As for how potential jurors might be affected by a defendant's hero status, Jones concedes some may think their heroes can do no wrong.

"But I think it's a double-edged sword. Because for some reason, we like to destroy our heroes. And on occasion they don't get the benefit of the doubt. Because there's an expectation that they will meet certain standards in their personal behavior and their personal life that sets them above," Jones said.

After a judge is assigned, Jones says Puckett plans to plead not guilty. Pre-trial hearings will resume in January, with the trial scheduled for February 24th.

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