NEW YORK – From five-star restaurants to elite getaways, celebrities get the royal treatment wherever they go -- except in courtrooms.
At least that's what the creators of the new show Celebrity Justice think.
A spin-off of the entertainment tabloid Extra, Celebrity Justice is on a mission to uphold justice for all. But it's not the little guy they're out to protect -- it's the rich and famous.
The program, which has been called the "anti-Enquirer," is "a safe haven for celebrities who come to set the record straight," said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, Celebrity Justice's senior executive producer.
The show, which debuted this month, is a Time-Telepictures production that airs on the WB in 70 percent of households.
It first made headlines when it dug into court records showing that of 5,000 grand theft felony cases filed in Los Angeles County last year, none of them were facing penalties as harsh as actress Winona Ryder who's been accused of shoplifting. A Celebrity Justice segment of Extra also aired the security video of the actress, which seemed to help clear the Girl, Interrupted star of at least some wrongdoing.
"The video showed that she wasn't removing tags like the cops said she was," said Gregorisch-Dempsey. "We found, indeed, she wasn't getting preferential treatment, but was getting the book thrown at her."
While the actress' case has yet to go to trial, prosecutors have threatened the star with jail time, an unusual sentence for shoplifters.
Common wisdom holds that stars like Robert Downey Jr. -- who has been in and out of courtrooms almost as long as he's been in movies -- receive more lenient treatment because of their famous faces and high-priced lawyers. But some say the opposite is also true.
"People like to bust celebrities because they see something in it for them," said Eric Dezenhall, author of Nail 'Em: Confronting High Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses. "It's a chance at fame and a chance to even the score with someone who's been disproportionately lucky."
Dezenhall acknowledged a star's wealth carries certain advantages. But he also argued negatives like bad publicity, paparazzi attention and public ill-will outweigh the positives.
"They have the advantage of finding top-flight legal counsel. But prosecutors, the public and media want to skewer them independent of the facts," he said. "We like to see our own equivalent of royalty knocked down to size."
Legal experts agree stars aren't treated like everyone else.
"[Court employees] are not immune to the beguilements of celebrity. For that reason celebrities are treated differently," said Robert McCrie, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
But McCrie said that once it comes to delivering rulings, judges follow legal precedents, not award nominations.
"These decisions aren't up to caprice or how the judge is feeling at the moment," he said. "In fact, significant judicial decisions are taken after a time of reflection."
But some people think celebrities obviously get lighter sentences.
"In a case like Robert Downey Jr., if he was a regular person on the street who'd been arrested several times he'd be in jail now and no one would care," said Julie Barrett, a 29-year-old book editor. "And I think that's horribly, horribly unfair and hypocritical of our justice system."
Whether celebs are treated with kid gloves or boxing gloves, the public's appetite for celebrity dirt seems insatiable. But is it enough to fuel a five-day-a-week show?
"These stories are the best fodder for talk, for water cooler discussion," said Gregorisch-Dempsey, who insisted there's no shortage of material.
And besides, the show helps bring stars who think they're above back down to Earth, said Celebrity Justice executive producer Harvey Levin.
"People in the cases may be famous, but a lot of regular people can relate to them, [In one case] Nicole Eggert from Baywatch is having a legal fight with a plumber, Rescue Rooter. The problem is so relatable.
"And it's someone from Baywatch."