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Americans Fascinated by Stars in Trouble

The King of Pop, complete with golden armband, returned to court in the child-molestation case against him as supporters cheered. Courtney Love (search) received a date for her trial on drug charges. Prosecutors lost a key appeal in the rape case against NBA star Kobe Bryant.

That wasn't all. A woman accused of stalking Catherine Zeta-Jones was ruled fit to stand trial. And Alexis Hornbuckle, 18, the Women's Basketball Association national Player of the Year, agreed to 50 hours of community service in West Virginia after being cited for shoplifting.

It all happened this week in America on a national court docket brimming with star wattage even more than usual — cases against, and involving, the famous.

A burst of celebrities gone bad? Probably not. More likely, entertainment-industry watchers and legal experts say, it's a media-age sign of the times — and not surprising for a land where millions sit riveted to a show called "Celebrity Justice."

"The fact that... a half-hour show could be derived from this single subject not only tells you the state of things but the level of interest," said film critic Leonard Maltin.

Americans watching celebrities rise and fall isn't new. We follow vaunted marriages that end in nasty divorces, high-paying careers that crash and burn, and the trudge of celebrities in and out of court for sundry infractions — from Glen Campbell (drunken driving) to Winona Ryder (search) (shoplifting).

"There is a real delight to seeing celebrities falter," said psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers. "There is a really warm, embarrassing side that you're thankful it's not you."

Part of it, she said, is simply the natural extension of celebrity-watching.

"They are all going through our worst nightmares, the worst things you can think of," she said Monday. "There's a part of us that says 'See, they have money and look at them.'"

Brothers says the days of the American glitterati getting away with things — or having their more questionable doings swept under the rug by police and a complicit press — are gone: "Being a celebrity doesn't excuse you."

Decades ago, people were fascinated with a paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin (search) and the murder trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors until he was charged in 1921 with killing actress Virginia Rappe. Though Arbuckle was unanimously acquitted, his acting career was ruined — but not before an appetite for the legal peccadilloes of celebrities took root.

The public appetite for "the sordid details... gave rise to an entire industry of celebrity-obsessed, and celeb-baiting, journalism that persists to this day," author Jerry Stahl wrote in the foreword to his 2004 novel, "I, Fatty," which retells the story from Arbuckle's perspective.

Today, the Chaplin and Arbuckle cases would be two ripples in a vast ocean of star-watching. Americans have more ways to find out — and, says one media expert, more stressful things to forget about as well.

"It's the Shakespearean soap opera," said Michael Levine, who heads a Los Angeles firm that has handled PR campaigns for Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Charlton Heston. "Americans are overly involved in their lives of quiet desperation and wanting to take their minds off what's going on in the world."

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey (search) also appeared in court Monday, but she is isn't accused of doing anything wrong. The billionaire was picked to serve on the jury of a murder trial in Chicago.

Beyond the court cases that unfolded earlier this week, there is a raft of other cases to follow. Among them:

_Rapper Lil' Kim, accused of lying to a grand jury investigation into a 2001 shooting allegedly involving members of her entourage. She maintains her innocence. "This case is a witch hunt against the hip hop industry," she said in a statement Monday.

_Robert Blake (search), former star of the "Baretta" television series and a one-time child-acting sensation, charged with murdering his wife, Bonny Bakley, in 2001. She was shot to death in their car outside a restaurant where they had dined. Blake denies killing her.

_Music legend Phil Spector, charged with killing actress Lana Clarkson, found shot in his mansion on Feb. 2, 2003. He also denies the charges.

_Anthony Anderson, the rotund comedic co-star of "Kangaroo Jack" and the original "Barbershop," charged with aggravated rape — an accusation he denies.

_"Saving Private Ryan" actor Tom Sizemore (search), arrested this month when probation officers conducting random visits discovered drugs at his home, authorities said. Sizemore was sentenced in October to six months in jail for physically abusing former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss during their two-year relationship.

All will have their day in court — and another moment in the limelight.

"In the old days of Hollywood, a great deal was covered up," Maltin said. "We live in a different world today."