Celebrity endorsement expert Melissa St. James testified to the Kristin Rossum's potential star power.
St. James Delivers $100-Million Expert Testimony at Murder Trial
Kristin Rossum poisoned her husband in November 2000 in a scandalous murder that had all the makings of a Hollywood script. So to ensure she couldn’t cash in on her crime through book, magazine, or movie deals, her dead husband’s family sued for punitive damages last month. Based on the sole expert testimony of Assistant Professor of Marketing Melissa St. James, who has established herself as an expert on celebrity endorsements and notoriety through years of academic research, the jury awarded the family damages of up to $100 million.
St. James completed her doctoral dissertation on celebrity endorsements and has published research papers on the impact negative publicity can have on such contracts for celebrities like Kobe Bryant and O.J. Simpson. She received the call from the prosecution as a referral from a company with whom she had done previous celebrity endorsement work, and she says that the Rossum case had all the components to make Hollywood come calling with lucrative offers.
“It had all the elements of intrigue that Hollywood craves – sex, drugs, and beautiful people. That makes it much more marketable,” says St. James, who enjoyed putting her research to practical use. “When it comes to research, academics like me sometimes feel like we work in a vacuum. We present a paper or write a journal article, but this was very rewarding because it was putting my research into action.”
Dubbed the “American Beauty” Killer, Rossum drugged her husband, Gregory de Villers, with a cocktail of narcotics including the powerful painkiller, fentanyl, in their La Jolla, Calif. home and then sprinkled rose petals on him to make it look like a suicide reminiscent of a scene from the 1999 film, “American Beauty.” She stole the drugs from her job site as a toxicologist for San Diego County and killed her husband because she was allegedly involved in an affair with her boss.
To calculate Rossum’s hypothetical Hollywood potential, St. James pored over laws and previous cases, and talked to experts in the movie and publishing industries. The first thing she did was analyze the “Son of Sam” law, which was enacted in 1983 to prevent the killer for whom the law was coined from profiting from such deals. The complicated law that varies from state to state was overturned in California in 2002 when ruled unconstitutional. She then researched other notorious criminals and how much they had profited from their stories such as former mobster Salvatore Gravano who earned at least $1 million for the movie rights to his story as an informant against mobster John Gotti, and John Wojtowicz, a bank robber who received two percent of earnings for “Dog Day Afternoon,” a movie based on his crime.
In the end, St. James told the court that Rossum could expect to make as much as $2.5 million with unlimited future earning potential. The prosecuting attorney took this testimony and asked the jury to up the award to $50 million as a preventative measure. After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury came back by doubling the request to $100 million.
“The [de Villers] family doesn’t ever expect to see a dime from Kristin Rossum – it was a preemptive strike to prevent her from going after such deals,” St. James explains. “But if she ever does, the family will now be the ones who benefit.”
During her testimony, St. James referred to Rossum’s notoriety – and how that would transfer to bigger payouts – by using a “notoriety scale” the CSUDH professor developed. Without simplifying or making light of the crime, St. James used the scale to make her analysis easier to understand for the jury. Giving the example of a murderer who stabs a bouncer at a bar and is convicted with very little media fanfare as a one on the scale, and O.J. Simpson as a 10, St. James testified that she views Rossum as a six. She regarded Rossum as just over the middle of such a scale because of the killer’s physical beauty (and that of her lover and victim), the intrinsic connection with the “American Beauty” crime scene that already tied the case to Hollywood, and the public’s insatiable appetite for stories where murders and love triangles intertwine. In addition to Simpson, St. James referred to Scott Peterson as another notorious figure near the high end of the scale.
“The notoriety comes from the media attention and sensationalism. Really, O.J. is like a 12,” she says.
And in the Rossum case, this ruling had major implications because it appeared as if the Rossum family was looking for such media attention. The convict and her family had appeared in a variety of television interviews including segments on “48 Hours” and “E! True Hollywood Story” and had given print interviews with Good Housekeeping and People. In addition, Rossum’s mother works as a marketing professor at Azusa Pacific University, and though the mother insisted she did not plan to market the story because she maintained her daughter’s innocence, she admitted the offers from Hollywood were knocking down her door. St. James says that the mother’s obvious understanding of the power the story could wield in securing lucrative deals combined with their apparent willingness to give interviews suggested that such a story deal might have been in the works.
In any case the staggering $100-million verdict returned by the jury guarantees Rossum will never benefit financially from such deals. The award was so large that St. James began doing some digging into the frequency of such sizable punitive awards have been. She found a study out of Harvard that showed that between 1985 and 2003, there were only 64 blockbuster punitive damage awards of $100 million or more in the country. It made the Rossum verdict and St. James’ testimony that much more significant, but also got her thinking of a new thread for potential research on the correlation between notoriety and punitive awards.
“It was a huge judgment, so I’m already trying to think of a way to get the plaintiff’s lawyer involved in a research paper with me to explore whether a level of notoriety leads to larger judgments,” says St. James.
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