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Jackson '05: The courtroom thriller

Michael Jackson -- the physically transformed, faded King of Pop -- who will enter a cramped, nondescript courtroom in a California farm town Monday morning to face charges of child molestation.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It is hard to hold both images in the mind: the child prodigy, little Michael Jackson, spinning like a top in 1970, singing the No. 1 hit "ABC" when he was 12 years old.

And the Michael Jackson of today, the physically transformed, faded King of Pop, who will enter the cramped, nondescript courtroom in a California farm town Monday morning to face charges of child molestation.

The multimillionaire international icon, whose 1982 "Thriller" remains among the best-selling albums of all time, will be on hand as lawyers begin selecting a jury that could put the 46-year-old father of three in state prison for more than two decades.

After his arrest, a 10-count indictment and months of pretrial wrangling, the Jackson trial will start Monday with jury selection, which is expected to take several weeks. Once opening arguments begin, the trial could last four to five months, according to the attorneys. The world press -- as many as 1,000 credentialed journalists -- are descending on Santa Maria in western Santa Barbara County, the jurisdiction closest to Jackson's ranch.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled that no cameras will be allowed in the courtroom, so unlike the O.J. Simpson trial, the public will have to rely solely on reporters and commentators detailing the day's events -- though the cable channel E! Entertainment announced it would employ actors to reenact testimony from court transcripts each day.

If the jurors find the charges true, Jackson will be branded an especially devious pedophile, a predator enabled by his celebrity and wealth who lured a young boy to his fantasy palace called Neverland, "designed to entice and attract children," prosecutors say. Jackson is charged with giving wine and liquor to a 13-year-old recovering cancer patient and sexually molesting him on four occasions at the 2,700-acre ranch and in a Miami hotel.

If he is acquitted, if Jackson's lawyers succeed in their defense that the entertainer is the victim of a grifting, manipulative, lying mother, then the toll on his career, his reputation, still will be profound. Jackson, free on $3 million bond, has pleaded not guilty and has called the charges "a big lie."

'It's doubly tragic'
"This is one of the greatest tragedies imaginable," said Alan Light, editor of Tracks, a music magazine. "Michael Jackson was never allowed a childhood. He had four number one singles by the time he was 10 or 11. He has no idea what childhood is."

Yet he stands accused of robbing the innocence of a child. "If these things are true," Light said, "they are indefensible, inexcusable."

Sheryl Huggins, cultural critic and editor in chief of NiaOnline, a Web site for African American women, said, "I think a lot of Americans, black or otherwise, remember Michael Jackson from their childhood, growing up with his music and his personality. It's doubly tragic. It's tragic because of the charges but it's also tragic because we feel something that was special to us growing up is now tainted and being dragged down."

The son of a steel millworker, the stern taskmaster Joe Jackson, young Michael began performing with brothers Marlon, Tito, Jackie and Jermaine when he was 4 years old in Gary, Ind. The Jackson Five signed with Motown Records when he was 10.

There were a string of hits with his brothers -- including "I Want You Back" and "ABC" -- and then his solo career took off with platinum records and hits such as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." His anthem "We Are the World," co-written with Lionel Richie and sung by an ensemble of artists, was a global smash. Jackson wowed the world with his "moonwalking" routines. He made the dance music video the commercial art form it is today. He went to the Oscars with Madonna and was friend and confidant to Liz Taylor, Brooke Shields and Quincy Jones.

A sharp fall
But Jackson today is a subject of derision. The brutal transformations from plastic surgery. The pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. His reported attempt to purchase the skeleton of the "Elephant Man," John Merrick. His belief that by lying in a hyperbaric chamber he could extend his life span. His quickie marriages, first to the daughter of Elvis Presley and then to a nurse, Debbie Rowe, from the office of his dermatologist.

For a time, Jackson was considered an eccentric genius. Then a strange presence in the tabloids. Now, he is often labeled a freak.

"Here you have a defendant that is better known than the president of the United States," said Bernard S. Grimm, a criminal defense attorney in Washington. "And his life transcends bizarre."

Strangeness is one thing. But allegations of pedophilia create a whole different category. In recent memory, there has not been a more famous celebrity on trial for such serious charges.

"This is America. A whole lot of people have fallen down and been picked back up. But this is not Martha Stewart, who has been charged with lying to the government," said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, who has written widely on hip-hop culture. "Can the most popular person in the world stand child molestation charges? If he's convicted and he's guilty, forget it. It's over."

In 1993, Jackson faced a sprawling investigation into allegations that he molested a 13-year-old boy at his Neverland Valley Ranch; details of the case closely track the current charges.

The criminal pursuit, though, was dropped after Jackson reached an out-of-court settlement with his accuser, now an adult, and his family, for a reported $20 million -- a deal that Jackson now says he regrets and blames on greedy managers who just wanted to settle the case and get back to making money.

His current troubles began in February 2003 with the airing of a BBC documentary that showed Jackson defending his practice of sleeping with boys in his bed and in which he said, "Why can't you share your bed? That's the most loving thing to do is share your bed with someone."

During the scene, the alleged victim -- a boy from East Los Angeles who first met Jackson when he was 10, while undergoing chemotherapy for a rare cancer -- is shown snuggling his head against the singer's shoulder and holding his hand.

Secrecy surrounds case
Understanding the exact case and evidence against Jackson is complicated because of Melville's ruling to keep under seal or to heavily redact many of the court documents, including grand jury testimony and lists of items seized during searches of Neverland. He also placed both sides -- including lawyers and representatives -- under a strict gag order, hoping to keep the jury pool from being tainted with pretrial information.

But from pretrial hearings, court documents and interviews with criminal attorneys not associated with the case, a rough picture of the trial has emerged.

The prosecution's case, led by Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon (who participated in the aborted 1993 investigation and whom Jackson excoriated in a 1995 song) will likely focus on the testimony of the alleged victim, his younger brother, older sister and his mother.

In the indictment, Jackson is accused of sexually molesting the boy and giving him "intoxicating agents" to abet his crimes, and of imprisoning his family in the days after the BBC documentary aired in the United States on ABC.

In an appearance during the pretrial hearings, the mother seemed by turns shrewd and naive. The false imprisonment charges revolve, the prosecutors will argue, around the Jackson camp's attempt to shield the alleged victim and his family from the media; the mother told investigators that "Michael's damage-control people" warned the family there were death threats against them; there was talk of sending them to Brazil.

Still, the boy and his family made a videotaped statement (also aired on ABC) to rebut the BBC documentary, praising the kindness of the singer. The prosecution will likely seek to show that the video was made under duress.

In addition, Sneddon and his team will also try to buttress their case with items taken during two searches of Neverland as well as a raid on the offices of one of Jackson's private investigators and the house where the rebuttal video was made.

The prosecution has removed and analyzed bedding from Neverland and had seized sexually explicit books, magazines and DVDs. They have also taken DNA from Jackson, a swab of saliva and skin cells from his mouth.

Other details have emerged from leaked documents, including grand jury testimony which appeared earlier this month on the Web site and in excerpts on ABC News, which contend that Jackson gave the alleged victim wine in a soda pop can, which he called "Jesus juice," showed him pornography and masturbated him.

"I've never seen a case with as much secrecy," said Stan Goldman, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "I know the judge is trying very hard to prevent prejudicing the jury pool, but the chance of finding 12 jurors who don't know what's going on seems highly unlikely."

Jackson has already gone through two lawyers and is now represented by a lead defense attorney, the silver-maned Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., who defended boxer Mike Tyson.

Mesereau will likely focus on the testimony of the accuser, now 15, and more intensely, on that of his mother.

"The jury has to believe the kid," said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola. "Here, though, we have the extra complication that the jury also has to believe the mother."

The mother, outside attorneys speculate, will be grilled about her motives, her hiring of attorneys (including one who represented the child in the 1993 incident) and a lawsuit against JCPenney, in which she won a settlement after she was allegedly manhandled by security after being accused of shoplifting.

"I think the mother will be the big problem for the prosecution," said Jayne Weintraub, a criminal defense attorney in Miami. "Who in their right mind has a child who comes to you and says he's been molested and you don't report it to the police. First you go to a lawyer? Her first agenda was getting money."

The mother, however, in early statements through a lawyer before the gag order was imposed, said she never asked for money from Jackson and would not seek any.

The defense, too, will likely focus on previous statements the alleged victim and his family gave to child protective service investigators in Los Angeles, which found no evidence at the time to pursue a case against Jackson.

Regarding an issue crucial to both sides, prosecutors have asked to present evidence of past allegations of sexual abuse by Jackson, including details of the 1993 investigation.

A 1996 California law allows the introduction of past acts to demonstrate that a defendant in a sexual molestation case has shown a "propensity" to commit abuse. Melville, however, said he would postpone a decision on whether to allow past, unproven accusations until after the prosecutors present their case.

"The biggest hurdle for the state will be getting in that other incident from 1993," said Grimm, the defense attorney from Washington. If the prosecution succeeds in that, "it'll be over. The jury is going to say this is too coincidental."

Will Jackson take the stand? If the case boils down to "he said, he said," some attorneys speculate that the jury will want to hear Jackson tell his side. But therein lies great danger for Jackson, who would open himself up to cross-examination.

After Michael's arrest, Jermaine Jackson said the charges against his brother were "nothing but a modern-day lynching." In early court appearances, Jackson surrounded himself with advisers and bodyguards from the Nation of Islam, bringing the combustible issue of race into the mix.

Outside observers are not sure, though, how much of Jackson's heritage will play a role in the trial.

"Some people do think he's being taken down as a black man. But he's done so many physical things to change his appearance. What is his racial identity at this point?" said Huggins, the editor of NiaOnline.

The court issued summonses to several thousand prospective jurors, who will come to the courthouse in shifts of 150 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to fill out jury questionnaires. The following week, lawyers are scheduled to begin their voir dire questioning of potential jurors.