Would the Public Forgive King of Pop?

Some fans of the King of Pop are standing by their man, holding candlelight vigils in his honor and chasing down his motorcade with supportive signs.

But if Michael Jackson goes to trial on charges of child molestation, the American public may not be so forgiving, and his already faltering career may never rebound.

America has been fickle in its treatment of fallen stars. Some celebrities recover from criminal accusations and convictions.

Winona Ryder, for example, seems to have bounced back from her shoplifting conviction last year. Hugh Grant's solicitation of a prostitute in 1995 seems like a footnote now to his successful film career. And Robert Downey Jr., for his multiple arrests and imprisonment on drug charges, still gets movie roles.

Still other accused celebrities, perhaps most notably O.J. Simpson, are banished to the netherworld of notoriety, unable to resuscitate careers or acquit themselves in the court of public opinion.

Severity of Charges, Nature of Act Matter

"It's a relatively complicated calculus," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. "It depends on the crime you're accused of. It depends on the kind of act you're known for doing."

Take Paul Reubens, for example. In 1991, the actor who played the children's television figure Pee-wee Herman was arrested inside a movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., for allegedly exposing himself.

"The thing itself he was charged with is probably forgivable and in some people's eyes not that big of a deal," Thompson said. "The fact he was the star of a kids' morning show made that a much bigger problem."

Whether law-crossing celebrities are forgiven by Hollywood or the American people usually depends on the nature of their crimes or alleged crimes, says Jerry Reisman, a Long Island, N.Y., entertainment attorney. Allegations of crimes of "moral turpitude," such as child molestation, can fall into the unforgivable category, he said.

"This in the long run will have a catastrophic impact on his [Jackson's] career," he said. "With the notoriety he may have in the short run he may be able to sell his CD, but that's a knee-jerk reaction. I think he's going to lose a tremendous amount of appeal."

But what of the fans who wave their placards in support of Jackson, even as details of the molestations allegations start to surface?

It's all part of our culture of celebrity, says Leonard Steinhorn, communications professor at American University.

"It's sort of a very sad statement on our society that we have hundreds of soldiers that have died in Iraq, continuing poverty in our cities and 43 million Americans without health care and yet some people are doing vigils for Michael Jackson," he said.

How have other celebrities fared in their skirmishes with laws and moral standards?

R. Kelly: The Grammy Award-winning R&B star was indicted in June 2002 on 21 counts relating to child pornography charges after a videotape surfaced in which the singer was allegedly having sex with an underage girl. In January he was arrested and charged with 12 counts of possession of child pornography. Since then, his album Chocolate Factory has become one of the year's best-selling records. He recently performed for hundreds of thousands of military personnel overseas in a charity performance broadcast around the world.

Mike Tyson: The famed boxer was sentenced to prison in 1992 for raping a contestant in the Miss Black America pageant. In March 1995, Tyson was released on probation. The following year, he was back in the ring against Evander Holyfield. Though Tyson lost that match, he earned more than $75 million in 1996 alone.

Roman Polanski: In 1969, Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered along with several friends in a mass slaying directed by Charles Manson. A decade later, Polanski was arrested for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge to one count of unlawful sex with a minor but fled before sentencing. This year, his friend Harrison Ford presented the fugitive director with his Academy Award for best director for the movie The Pianist at a film festival in France.

Jerry Lee Lewis: In the late 1950s, the singer had positioned himself to rival Elvis Presley for the title of King of Rock 'n' Roll with hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire." When his marriage to a 13-year-old third cousin met with public disapproval, though, his career hit a tailspin. Lewis performed in small clubs until 1968, when he switched to country music.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: The silent movie star was accused of raping a 25-year-old starlet during a party. The woman later died. Arbuckle, the target of the first real Hollywood sex scandal, was acquitted after three trials marked by sensationalism whipped up by yellow journalism. Although cleared, Arbuckle was emotionally and financially drained from his troubles and his career never recovered. Largely forgotten by the public, he died of a heart attack in 1933.