Pop star Michael Jackson faces legal land mines that did not exist the last time a young teenage boy accused him of molestation, including a California law passed in response to the failed 1993 case against him, legal experts said on Wednesday.
Prosecutors declined to file charges in the 1993 case after the 13-year-old accuser settled a civil lawsuit with Jackson and refused to cooperate, Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon said.
But the current case, reportedly involving a 12-year-old boy, will benefit from changes in laws that now permit prosecutors to present both evidence of a person's past acts and testimony from past victims even if they themselves refuse to cooperate.
The current victim has expressed no interest in filing a civil action against Jackson, Sneddon said. "We have a cooperative victim in this particular proceeding," he said at a press conference on Wednesday. "So I think there are some things that are very different."
In 1996, California lawmakers handed prosecutors a powerful tool in Evidence Code 1108, allowing them to introduce evidence of a defendant's prior sexual conduct. Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Albert Menaster, an evidence expert, said the law, upheld in 1999 by the California Supreme Court, appears to allow juries to hear even allegations in which charges were never brought.
"It's talking about the commission of other sexual actions. It seems to suggest they don't have to have been convicted," Menaster said. "It's very hard because basically the jury is hearing the guy is a bad guy -- it's admissible evidence."
In a 1999 case involving a California coach accused of molesting two high school athletes, defense attorney Anthony Willoughby saw firsthand the effects of the new law when prosecutors produced a half-dozen witnesses who claimed to have been molested by his client as much as 25 years earlier.
Willoughby said Jackson faced an even greater uphill battle because "the public perceives him as strange ... combined with the prior incident."
Even if the former victim refused to testify or recanted, prosecutors could invoke a California case law called People v. Green, to bring his prior accusations against Jackson before a jury, Willoughby said.
The tactic, known as "Greening" a witness, is often used in spousal abuse trials and allows prosecutors to read a person's prior statements to police even if he or she refuses to testify.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Amy Suehiro, who sent coach Turner to prison for molestation, said the new evidence laws are critical to getting serial molesters off the streets.
"I think it's really important to know that the defendant has prior victims with the same type of facts," Suehiro said. I see it as the jury should not be fooled into thinking this is the defendant's only time. His past is important."