The Failure of the Criminal Justice System: The Case of James Barbour, NYC Broadway Actor and Child Molester

James Barbour.  Do not forget that name the next time you go and see a Broadway show. He had played the “Beast” in the famed “Beauty and the Beast”.  Apparently, he was a beast off the stage as well.

Last week, Barbour pled guilty to two counts of the reduced charge of Endangering the Welfare of a Child, a misdemeanor, for fondling a 15 year old girl who visited him back stage in connection with a high-school trip before the final curtain call and later having oral sex with her about a month later in his apartment.  As his sentence, he received a paltry term of 60 days jail followed by three years probation.  This was reported in the New York Times here

What is not so clear in the NY Times article is that for the case to have arrived in Judge Scherer’s part, Part 81, a New York County Grand Jury would have had to indict this defendant on felony charges.  That means it’s more than simply the felony complaint.  At least 16 grand jurors had to have “reasonable cause” to believe the victim when she said that Barbour had done these particular things to her.  Thus, any plea bargain of a lesser included charge — particularly one of a misdemeanor — offered by the Manhattan Assistant District Attorney would also have to be approved by the judge. 

Of course, it was likely during a bench conference that the misdemeanor offer was conveyed because of a supposed weakness in the case and statutory time issues.  Nonetheless, the sentence underscores something larger with the criminal justice system as it relates to sex crimes, which is a lack of will to uniformly punish those who have committed crimes against the weakest of victims:  children.

For one, it is simply hard to believe that this was the first time Barbour did this “backstage.”  Sex crimes are not aberrant acts.  It involves a clear course of conduct, and Barbour’s acts and the circumstances surrounding it indicate that they were certainly no exception.  Indeed, this is the first time Barbour was caught.  But for the fact that he had good luck in the past doesn’t mean that should have been the guiding consideration in offering the misdemeanor. 

Next, what kind of message does a 60 day sentence on a misdemeanor send?  Don’t worry, have sex with an underage person and get a mere slap on a wrist.  You won’t have a felony record at least.  It’s ridiculous. 

That leads to the other issue of whether Barbour’s “celebrity” status gave him sway for the deal.  If anything, given his status, Barbour should have been set to a higher standard, not to a lower one.  The Manhattan Assistant D.A. had felonies he/she could have gone forward with at a trial.  The Manhattan Assistant D.A. could have easily won the misdemeanor counts in front of a jury, despite any perceived issues with the witness.  The Manhattan Assistant D.A. should have tried with a trial and not copped out with a half a loaf.  The whole thing sends the wrong message and even with D.A. Morgenthau’s advice to prosecutors, getting a plea in this case was not “the right thing” to do.  It would have been better to go forward with a trial on the felonies and lost than it was to take this plea.   

What also is troubling are statements by Jay Binder, Barbour’s casting director.  He said that he should be judged by his “talent” as an actor as opposed to his criminal record.  I would hope that a production company looks closely at his background as a child molester and not merely his supposed talents as an actor in deciding whether to cast him.  And certainly paying customers should, too. 

In the end, the case of James Barbour expresses one thing only:  don’t get caught.  It’s not that child molesting is wrong in and of itself, it’s simply if you get lucky make sure that the young child doesn’t rat on you.  That is the wrong message to send.

In the meantime, I will not attend any play with James Barbour.  I suggest you boycott any play with him in it, unless it shows on the playbill that he is a child molester and that he changes his self-promoting website to say that he is a child molester.

A Broadway actor admitted on Thursday that in 2001 he seduced a 15-year-old girl who visited him backstage, and agreed as part of a plea bargain to reveal that admission to anybody he works for in film, television or theater for up to the next three years.  The actor, James Barbour, was accused of having criminal sexual contact with a high school student who was an aspiring actress when she attended a performance of “Jane Eyre” in June 2001.

The student’s drama teacher arranged for her to visit the Brooks Atkinson Theater with her parents. Mr. Barbour told Justice Micki A. Scherer of State Supreme Court in Manhattan that the girl visited him in his dressing room before the final curtain call and that he fondled her, knowing that she was only 15 years old.  He also told the judge that he had oral sex with the girl in his apartment the next month. She did not come forward with her account for several years.

Under the negotiated deal, Mr. Barbour, 41, pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors, in exchange for a promise that he would be sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years’ probation.  Mr. Barbour’s lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, said his client accepted the deal because if a jury had convicted him of the original felony sex charges against him he would have been forced to register as a sex offender, “which basically would have ended his career.”

His lawyer said that the prosecutor’s agreement to a misdemeanor plea showed the weaknesses of its case. But Mr. Barbour had to agree to a lengthy series of conditions of probation that are very similar to those that apply to convicted sex offenders.  While he is on probation, he must inform the manager, producer or assistant director of any theatrical, film or television project he works in that he has been convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, “having engaged in oral sexual conduct and sexual contact with a 15-year-old child.”

And he has to get permission from the court or his probation officer to participate in shows employing child actors or to give backstage tours to children.  He must also attend sex-offender treatment and cannot visit playgrounds, arcades, amusement parks, school grounds or Internet chat rooms frequented by children without permission from his probation officer.

In a signed statement to the police in April 2006, Mr. Barbour said that he was just acting as a mentor to the girl, that he had done no more than touch her knees and kiss her and that he thought that she was 16.  But in court on Thursday when asked by Justice Scherer, “Were you aware of her exact age?” Mr. Barbour replied, “Yes.”

“What was that age?” Justice Scherer pressed.  “Fifteen,” he replied.

At least one Broadway veteran said on Thursday that Mr. Barbour, who played the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” for about eight years, might find himself less marketable for family-friendly shows for awhile.  “I think if he did a show with adults, he might be entitled to a second chance,” said Emanuel Azenberg, a Broadway producer. “‘Sweeney Todd,’ O.K. But even then I certainly wouldn’t put it in the bio.”

Saying on Thursday that those conditions could turn out to be “a big price to pay,” Mr. Azenberg said producers might be concerned about the moral and legal liability involved in casting an actor convicted of endangering a child.  Producers could be wary of financial and artistic repercussions, he said, because casting directors would feel obliged to reveal Mr. Barbour’s conviction to the parents of any children who might audition for a show, “and then your casting choices would be compromised.”

But Jay Binder, a casting director who said he had begun Mr. Barbour’s career by casting him in “Beauty and the Beast,” said he would make decisions based on talent.  “James Barbour is a first-rate Broadway leading man,” Mr. Binder said. “If he were the actor that the entire creative staff agreed upon, there would be no professional reason not to hire James Barbour.”

Mr. Fischetti said he expected his client, who will be sentenced next month, to be out of jail in time to perform in “A Tale of Two Cities” if it comes to New York. Mr. Barbour played Sidney Carton during a pre-Broadway tryout in Florida last year. The producers of the show declined to comment on Thursday.  He said Mr. Barbour was recently married in a civil ceremony — his wife accompanied him to court on Thursday — and was planning a formal wedding in Hawaii. Mr. Fischetti said the woman Mr. Barbour was convicted of endangering is now an actress. (Source: NY Times)