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Dispatches from Santa Maria

Susan Filan has more dispatches from Santa Maria.


When the circus leaves town (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

The case of the People vs. Michael Jackson is over for good. No hung jury. No re-trial. No convictions. No sentencing. No appeals. It is done.

In one fell swoop, the jury rendered its verdict and acquitted Michael Jackson of all charges. The aftermath of the verdict from a media perspective is stunning. Journalists from more than 134 countries around the world had gathered around this small courthouse in Santa Maria, California, and had set up shop in makeshift tents. Print journalists, radio broadcasters, television anchors, cameras, crews, technicians, producers, bookers had all set up shop on the asphalt in the parking lot of the courthouse. You staked your claim to a piece of parking lot and called it home for several months. Yet immediately after the verdict was announced, the place started to empty. Crews packed up, journalists left, and the media began to leave town. The frenzy died down almost instantly. The place we called home for so long is morphing back into what it always was: a courthouse parking lot. It feels as if the circus came to town and we all got swept away by its magic and excitement and allure, only to wake up one morning to find it gone. Packed up in the middle of the night, tents down, rides over- moved on to somewhere else.

Michael Jackson Found Not Guilty
SANTA MARIA, CA - JUNE 13: Ladders and makeshift signs lie on the ground as fans and media leave the area after hearing the verdict of not guilty on all charges in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse June 13, 2005 in Santa Maria, California. Jackson was found not guilty of all 10-count indictments which included molesting a boy, plying him with liquor and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Justin Sullivan / Getty Images North America

There are still a few broadcasting from around the courthouse, winding the story down, but for the most part, it is over. Television has moved on to its next big story, and Michael Jackson will be a footnote in Santa Maria’s history. What had consumed us all around the clock, 24/7, is now yesterday’s news.

I think members of the media feel a mix of sadness and relief. This was a very long trial to cover and most are anxious to go home to their lives. Others are anxious to find out their next assignment. But friendships were formed, and connections were made. There is always a sweet sorrow in saying good bye and moving on, but also a relief that the tension and high drama that has consumed our lives throughout this trial as we sought to bring it live to our audience is over, at least for now.


June 13, 2005 |

Has the Jackson judge been keeping the public in the dark? (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

Has the jury been having read backs all along with the public kept in the dark?  Has the jury been asking questions all along with the public kept in the dark?  Why at the end of a public trial have the deliberations become secret?  Does this judge have the right to hide this part of the case from the public? The answer is, no, he does not.

Judge Rodney Melville has refused to allow requests from the jury to be held in open court or to make public what those requests might be. Customarily this information gives court watchers some indication of where the jury might be in its deliberation.

NBC News has learned that the jury in the Michael Jackson case asked to hear at least parts of the accuser's testimony. The reading back of the testimony began in the late morning Friday.  It is unknown whether the jury asked to hear the entire testimony, which could take more than 2 days to read.

Judge Rodney Melville has refused to allow requests from the jury to be held in open court or to make public what those requests might be. Customarily this information gives court watchers some indication of where the jury might be in its deliberation.

What this judge is doing is contrary to any trial I have been involved in. I have never heard of a judge behaving in this manner.  I am outraged.  I have been impressed with Judge Melville throughout the course of the trial but I cannot understand what he is doing now, nor can I imagine his reasons why. It would be bad enough if he let us know the jury had a question, or asked for a read back, without letting us know what the request is, but to prevent us from even learning that there have been requests effectively seals this proceeding from the public.  In order to close a courtroom, a hearing must be held and good cause established.  We do not favor secret proceedings in the United States.

The press has filed a motion asking the judge to allow the public access to the deliberations but he has scheduled it for June 16, 2005, which will most likely be after a verdict has been reached in this case. 

If the jury has been asking questions all along, and asking for read backs, it is quite likely they will be reaching their verdict sooner rather than later, assuming they are not hung.  We could get a verdict as early as Monday or Tuesday. 

I understand the need to protect deliberations.  I understand what is at stake.  But I cannot understand proceeding in a manner that is antithetical to the constitution.



Behind closed doors (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

Just what is the jury doing in their deliberation room?  The first thing they do is choose the foreperson.  After that, they have to find a way to proceed in an orderly fashion.  We know they asked a question at 9:50 on day one of deliberations but we have no way of knowing what the question is.  Ordinarily, in most courtrooms, questions from the jury and requests for readback are presented to the bailiff by way of a note.  The judge calls the lawyers into the court room, brings the jury into the box, the note is made a court exhibit for the record, and the court stenographer is in place.  The question is read aloud, and the Judge answers it on the record.  In this trial, however, the Judge simply goes back into the jury room with the stenographer and the lawyers.  

Thus, we are in the dark which is a shame for two reasons.  First, since the court room is open to the public and a trial is a public proceeding, this part of the trial should be public also. Second, questions from the jury are extremely interesting indicators of what is happening in deliberations.  Sometimes, you can tell what count they are on, and if they are leaning toward conviction or acquittal.  We are reading tea leaves during deliberations and we are without a very important clue.

My guess is the jurors' question was simply a procedural one and probably had to do with the jury instructions.  They are 98 pages long, and perhaps they wanted to know if they had to read and review them before beginning deliberations.  The Judge's answer would be they are allowed to proceed in any manner they choose.  Next, the jurors might take a quick vote to see where people stand with respect to the various charges.  In a long and complicated case as this one, I doubt they took a quick vote.  More likely, they had to devise a strategy for tackling deliberations.  Sometimes, jurors have a huge grease board and are making a list of all the witnesses, and all the exhibits they want to review.  They probably want to replay several videos, and the video of the accuser's first disclosure in particular.  My guess is after reviewing witnesses and video, they will venture their first vote.  Then depending on where people stand, they will begin to discuss and debate, referring to their notes and their memories.  And then the going gets tough.  

Friendships that were formed no longer matter.  Alliances change.  People take their vote very seriously and are not quick to change their opinion.  The undecided are up for grabs.  I believe it will take some time for this jury to go through all the evidence, exhibits, and testimony.   It is still possible that there will be a mixed verdict: acquittal on some charges, conviction on some charges, and hung on some charges.  My prediction is that this jury will deliberate for 5 to 7 court days before rendering their verdict.


Stay tuned for more from the courtroom from Susan Filan, MSNBC legal analyst, and former Conn. prosecutor.


Verdict watch (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

I arrived at court Monday thinking it would be an easy day.  I brought two books I have been trying to read throughout the trial, one is the biography called “Michael Jackson, the Magic and the Madness” by J. Randy Taraborrelli and the other is “The Importance of Being Famous” by Maureen Orth, a behind the scenes look at the “celebrity industrial complex.”  I also brought laptop so I could write.  In my experience, waiting for a verdict is a waiting game—  the goal is to pass the time without going crazy.

"Liar" chants  and rumor mills
Monday was anything but quiet.  It seemed like there were even more fans than during the trial, and they were much more vocal in their support of Michael Jackson and in their derision of the media.  They chant and rant and call us “liars” and worse.  They hate us.  We are the villains here.  The second  distraction was the appearance of hordes of new media overnight.  The place is swarming with photographers, reporters, camera and sound crew and correspondents from 30 different countries.

The third distraction was the rumor mill.  One moment, someone would say, “The jury has a question.”  Another moment, “They are switching out a juror and bringing in an alternate because a juror’s granddaughter was on Good Morning America and is talking about a book her grandmother wants to write.”  I was outside the whole day trying to find out what was going on.  At one point, Joe Jackson arrived at the courthouse, sounding confused, saying “Where is my son?  I want to be with my son.”  Michael Jackson is not here… he is waiting for the verdict at Neverland.   Michael’s other brother Randy arrived at court, but no one knew why.  Several of Jackson’s black Escalades left Neverland and that started another raft of rumors.  Is he coming to court?  Could that mean a verdict?  Is he going to hospital?  Is he really ill?  The rumor mill decided the cars just went out for a car wash and Jackson was not in them.

What about Jackson’s trips to the hospital?  His trips over the weekend sent the media into a tail spin.  Is he really sick?  Or is this just another media ploy to get attention.  No one disputes that Michael Jackson looks sickly and weak.  Rumor has it he now weighs around 87 pounds and that he was at least 120 when the trial began.  The Jackson who jumped on top of his SUV and danced after his arraignment has turned into a fragile man who is so thin, he looks like a twig that could snap in half.  He shuffles as he walks into court, and it seems to take an effort for him to lift his hand to wave to his fans.

Is Michael Jackson wasting away because he is an innocent man who has been vilified?  Or is he wasting away because he knows that his past has finally caught up with him and he cannot bear how his world has come crumbling down?

Reverend Jesse Jackson says Jackson feels betrayed by those closest to him.  Still not taking any responsibility for his actions, he blames those around him for the situation he is in… a situation of his own making, whether he innocently shared his bed with young boys, or whether he seduced them.

The world's eyes on U.S. justice system
There is considerable international attention on this trial.  The world is watching and waiting for the verdict.  Monday, I was interviewed by journalists from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, England and Canada.   The Netherlands does not have a jury system and wanted to know how ours works.

With the world watching, and the international media attention this trial has attracted, it is my fervent hope that this jury will deliberate fairly and wisely, without sympathy or bias for the accuser or the accused.  With the world watching, this case is not just a referendum on Jackson’s guilt or acquittal, but it is a referendum on our criminal justice system.  The Netherlands wants to know why anyone would rather be tried by a jury than a judge.  The British seem to have a prurient fascination by the combination of a mega super star on trial for such salacious charges.  The Czechs want to know if Jackson can receive a fair trial.  The cornerstone of our criminal justice system is a fair jury trial.  If Michael Jackson cannot receive one, under the daily scrutiny of the international medial, then who can?  Or is there different justice for a celebrity?  I think the world is watching and waiting and soon enough, we will know.  A quick three hour O.J. like verdict would not have been good.  As of now the jury has had the case for two hours on Friday, and six hours on Monday.  With over 130 witnesses, over 680 exhibits, 10 counts and 28 overt acts, 98 pages of jury instructions, and a thirteen week trial, this jury has its work cut out for them. 

Let’s hope they are not influenced by the media, by celebrity, by the hope of future book deals or personal profit.  I have a vested interest in this trial ending on a high note, whether it is an acquittal, conviction, hung jury, or any combination thereof.  I need to believe this jury listened to the evidence and decided the case fairly and squarely.  Then, we as Americans can hold our heads high, and let our international friends know that we do indeed have a most magnificent system of criminal justice.



Soon, it's going to be all about the jury (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

Tuesday morning court reconvened as usual, at 8:30 a.m., but there will be no jury to receive evidence and hear testimony. Instead, lawyers and the judge did .

Do not underestimate the importance of jury instructions. They are the road map by which jurors will decide their verdict. The “directions” this judge gives this jury will determine the route of their deliberations. This is why the attorneys must argue so vigorously to make sure their “road map” of the case is the one the judge gives the jury.  Usually, the judge knows how he wishes to instruct the jury well before the case is over and is just asking for input from the attorneys so the record will be complete in case of appeal.  But in this case, I understand there are some issues that have never been put to a jury before, thus the lawyers and the judge are in uncharted territory and must work together to prevent reversible error. 

Jury instructions are the first place an appellate lawyer looks when filing an appeal. The rule is that the trial attorney cannot set up the judge to make a mistake and then claim that as an issue on appeal. The rule is that the trial lawyers have to work closely with the judge to make sure the jury instructions are right. You have an opportunity to place your objections to unfavorable instructions on the record, but you don't have the right to trick the judge into making a mistake and then seeking to overturn a conviction on appeal.

In California, the judge has the option to give the jury instructions before or after closing argument. Judge Melville has not indicated his preference, but most believe he will pre-instruct this jury and then the lawyers will deliver their closing argument.

The jury will not be summoned back to court until the jury instructions are complete and both sides have had enough time to prepare their summations.

Once the jurors are back, court will resume and before you know it, this jury will have this case. We will then be in verdict-watch. O.J. Simpson's verdict came just three hours after deliberations began. Speculation has already begun as to how long this jury will be out. After almost 14 weeks of trial, over 138 total witnesses, and 684 exhibits, how long they will take is anybody's guess. Some feel this jury has already decided this case and are just going to select a foreperson and take a vote. Others feel that the jury will go back and pore over the testimony of each witness and look at each exhibit before rendering their verdict. It is unlikely that they will be sequestered. 

In a few short days, we will no longer be thinking about the lawyers. In fact, they will fade from view with no role to play during deliberations. All eyes will be on the jurors, and like reading tea leaves, every request for a read back, every sigh, and every movement will be subject to scrutiny by those of us trying to divine their verdict before they know it themselves.



Why the defense's decision to rest was a brilliant one (Susan Filan, MSNBC analyst and former Conn. state prosecutor)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

In a surprise move, the prosecution rested on Friday afternoon. In an even more surprising move, the defense rested moments after.

At 1:15 p.m., the judge told the jury, “You have heard all the evidence you will hear in this case.”

The evidence portion of the Michael Jackson trial is over.  In a way, however, the trial is just about to begin.  Once the jury gets a hold of it, the case takes on a life of its own, and is out of everyone’s hands.  Nerve wracking.  Exciting. 

On Wednesday or Thursday, the judge is expected to instruct the jury on the law, and then the lawyers will deliver their closing arguments to this jury.  Then the case is theirs.  It will belong to the 12 men and women selected months ago to decide the case.

So how did the case end? The last witness the jurors heard from was the accuser himself.  It was a victory for the prosecution to be allowed to introduce the videotape of the accuser’s initial interview with the police. In a dark and hushed courtroom, we watched the video in which the accuser told the police that Michael Jackson put a hand down his pants and masturbated him. He said it happened about five times.  The Judge cautioned the jury that they were not hearing the videotape for the truth of the matter asserted therein, but only to observe the demeanor of the accuser.  he prosecution alleges this boy was sexually molested by Michael Jackson. The defense contends that the boy made it up, and this videotape is scripted lies. 

The defense had told the court that if the videotape was played, they would recall the accuser to the witness stand for yet another grueling round of impeachment.  But the judge reminded the lawyers that the “case in chief” was over, and that they were in rebuttal and sur rebuttal now.  This would have limited what Tom Mesereau could ask the accuser on the witness stand.  Judge Melville said, “I am not opening up this case again for anybody.”  Mesereau had also threatened to recall the accuser’s mother, the psychologist Dr. Katz, and attorney Larry Feldman.  But in a surprise move, Mesereau rested without calling any more witnesses to the stand, letting this accuser and the prosecution have the last word.

Some courtroom observers think that Mesereau got boxed into a corner by the district attorney and that the defense case ended in the weakest possible way.  Prosecution sources indicate that the prosecution is elated and feels they ended their case in the strongest possible way.  My view of the end of this case is that the district attorney was absolutely correct to rest after the videotape played. Leaving the jurors with one last look at what this case is all about set them back on track and in position to deliver closing argument with the allegations fresh in the jurors’ minds.  But Mesereau’s move was equally brilliant. I know many disagree with my analysis.  Debates rage here in Santa Maria, California about whether Mesereau blew it in the end and over whether the videotape of the accuser was the turning point, or tour de force that some thought it to be.

Here is why Mesereau did the right thing: Mesereau could not put the accuser back on the stand as his final witness.  Had his examination been limited, and had he not been able to score the points he needed to, and had he been perceived as beating up on a vulnerable cancer survivor who claims he was sexually molested, he would have essentially served this case up to the District Attorney on a silver platter. The defense would have called the boy as their witness, which means they would be conducting a direct examination in which leading questions are impermissible. The D.A. however, would have this witness on cross-examination, which means they could ask all the leading questions they like, even limiting his answers to “yes” or “no” answers only. 

For example, assuming the Judge allowed these questions and did not find them beyond the scope of direct, the D.A. could have asked:

“Isn’t it true that Michael Jackson molested you?”“Yes”.“Isn’t it true that Michael Jackson showed you erotic materials?”“Yes.”“Isn’t it true that Michael Jackson plied you with alcohol?”“Yes.”  “Isn’t it true you told the truth on that videotape?”“Yes.”

That would have been a much worse way for Mesereau to end the case he has spent months dismantling. Whereas the boy’s credibility may now be in question, putting him on the stand one more time would have given the prosecution a second chance to rehabilitate his credibility and make him into a sympathetic victim. 

The defense’s move to end the case also telegraphed to the jury that they did not think much of the videotape.  They were essentially telling the jury that they were not worried about the videotape, that the jury should not worry about it either.  They will argue the videotape is just one more example of rehearsed and scripted lies from an accomplished liar.

This trial has been one giant chess game, and while Sneddon’s move was a great one, Mesereau’s move was equally great.  I repeat, many disagree with me, but I say wait until closing arguments.  There you will see each side turn this videotape to their own advantage and then you will see the jury have to decide whose version of the case they believe.  The videotape clearly put the district attorney’s case back in the hunt, but Mesereau’s decision not to “make a mountain out of a mole hill” was very clever.  He essentially declined to dignify it with a response, signaling to the jury his confidence in his case.  Perception is in part reality, and so much of what goes on in a courtroom is about not giving your opponent the edge.  In the end, juries do not miss a trick, see through all the games, get down to the business of deciding the facts of the case, apply the law to the facts, and render their verdict. 

I have great faith in our jury system, in our criminal justice system, and our rule of law. To see the machine of justice at work up close and personal in this complicated trial has been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. 

I have to commend Judge Melville for the way in which he presided over this trial. His sense of decorum in the courtroom, his tight legal rulings, his ability to keep the case on track and reign in the lawyers, and his sense of humor have added to my admiration for him.

Stay tuned for more from the courtroom from Susan Filan, MSNBC legal analyst, and former Connecticut prosecutor.




Prediction: Jackson trial will have a hung jury (Susan Filan, Conn. state prosecutor and Abrams Report regular)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

Thursday was my fourth and final day at the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria, California.

Michael Jackson arrived looking almost spry and chipper, a big change from his demeanor the last three days which seemed dark and dour. He wore new trousers, a new blazer with its infamous armband, and a robin’s egg blue vest. The atmosphere in court felt like school kids on the last day of school before vacation... there is no court Friday and court ends early again today because the judge has to rule on a raft of legal motions before resuming testimony on Monday. 

Judge Melville keeps a very unusual schedule. Court begins promptly at 8:30, goes until 9:45, breaks for ten minutes, goes until 11:30, breaks for fifteen minutes, goes until 1:15, breaks for ten minutes, and ends for the day at 2:30. If you are not back in the courtroom by the end of a break, you are locked out of court. There is no lunch break. During break, there is mad dash for the rest room and always a long line. I hardly have enough time to turn on my cell phone, check my messages and return my calls. I have to move quickly during each break— I am breathless from the pace!

When court resumed Thursday morning, we heard more from Brian Barron, the former Neverland Valley Ranch security guard, now a Guadalupe police officer. The defense continued its painstaking cross exam about the logs, which was some of the most boring testimony in trial history. At one point, it was so bad, the judge looked at the clock and said, “For a minute, I thought the clock was going backwards.” Everyone laughed. Poor Barron worked the night shift the night before and was exhausted during his testimony. Finally, near the end of his testimony, the defense lawyer said, “This is the last page I am going to show you.” “Excellent,” replied Barron without missing a beat. Laughter erupted in the courtroom.

On redirect, the prosecution was able to establish two things: One, there was a mistake in the logs with respect to the dates— so the accuser’s mother was not wrong about the time frame (clearing up the previous day’s confusion). Two, that in all his five years at Neverland, Barron never saw a sign posted anywhere at Neverland which prevented a guest from leaving. This is a key point for the prosecution.

The judge ruled on several motions at the end of the day. The state is not allowed to call its expert witness on battered women syndrome. This is not only a correct legal ruling, it saves the prosecution from going down the rabbit hole. Had their expert testified that the accuser’s mother was a battered woman, the defense would have tried to show she was a batterer and not a victim. This would be another trial within a trial, unnecessarily prolonging the case creating one more legal sideshow.

There is only so much one should heap upon a jury that has much to sort out and sift through. Plus, it does not look good when you have to call an expert witness to explain your own witnesses’ testimony. Even though the prosecution looked really disappointed, I think the prosecution is better off without this witness in the long run. It falls under the “Be careful what you wish for” category.

The prosecution scored one victory in that Chris Carter, the former Neverland security guard who is incarcerated in Nevada on state and federal armed robbery and kidnapping charges, can testify even though he is going to invoke his Fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. Usually, once you invoke the Fifth, you can’t testify at all. Judge Melville is going to allow him to take the Fifth outside the presence of the jury. The court will let the jury know that the witness is locked up in a Nevada jail but, the defense cannot ask him any questions about his pending charges. He will say that he saw the accuser with alcohol at Neverland, another piece of corroborating evidence for the prosecution.

The state is also going to put on one more 1108 (prior bad acts) witness before they rest.
It does not seem likely that the state can finish their case next week, but the case feels like a horse heading for the barn. The state is going to have to fight hard to keep the case on track once the defense gets going, and prepare its rebuttal case at the same time.

The popular opinion is this jury will not be able to reach a verdict, and we will have a hung jury. Anyone for Michael Jackson Two?


Read Dan's take on .

April 21, 2005 |

Neverland logs and guard's testimony confusing (Susan Filan, Conn. state prosecutor and Abrams Report regular)

Susan Filan
Susan Filan

Wednesday was day three for me at the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria, California. We heard from Brian Barron, the 60th witness for the prosecution, and the only witness to testify today  (Court ended early, at 11:30 a.m. instead of the usual 2:30 p.m.).

Now a Guadalupe, Calif. police officer, Barron used to moonlight at Neverland Ranch as security guard for Michael Jackson. A red head with a clean cut, youthful appearance, Barron was a credible witness with no axe to grind. Barron told the jury that there was a sign posted at the security gate at Neverland Ranch: This was posted on a grease board at the gate and was kept in a Neverland security log corroborating the accuser's mother's testimony that the family was held against their will and were not free to leave Neverland.

On cross-exam, Barron testified that it was Neverland policy not to allow children to leave Neverland without permission if they were not supervised by an adult or accompanied by a parent. But if that was standard procedure, then why go out of the way to make sure John Doe does not leave Neverland? Why put it on a grease board? Why put it in a log? It sounded sinister when we heard it in the courtroom and it was a significant point for the prosecution.
The rest of the cross centered around a detailed and painstaking examination of the Neverland log book. This was significant because it appeared that some of the dates in the log contradict the mother's testimony as to the time frame of when they were at Neverland and when they were in Miami.

The prosecution is going to have to clean up any misunderstandings the cross-exam created with respect to dates and time frame. While this discussion may seem hypertechnical, and the testimony may have seemed dull and dry, it is a necessary piece of the puzzle to get straight.  The logs are tricky but important.

Thursday will be about more from Brian Barron about the logs, and then the prosecution will argue its motion about whether it may put an expert witness on the stand to testify about battered women's syndrome.

The accuser's mother, who claims she was a battered woman, survived the defense attorney's battering on the witness stand. After five days on the witness stand, it will be up to the jury to decide whether Tom Mesereau merely bruised her credibility or killed her outright. The prosecution wants her testimony to make sense to the jury and they think the jury will better understand her, and therefore more readily believe her, if they understand the way battered women think, act, react, and behave.

The feel in the courtroom is a mix of exhaustion and elation as the prosecution nears the end of its case. But there is also an air of wonder... is this it? Has the state proved its case? If the state rested next Friday and the defense said: "No witnesses, the defense rests," has the state proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt? The defense has promised a six week case, and the state will continue to try its case through its cross examination of the defense witnesses, but what if, next Friday, it was over? Who won? That is the $64,000 question.

More from me tomorrow on Thursday's day in court.


April 20, 2005 |

Moments of levity inside the Jackson courtroom (Susan Filan, Conn. state prosecutor and Abrams Report regular)

Tuesday was day two for me at the Michael Jackson trial. The accuser's mother finished her testimony on the witness stand. She was not decimated by Mesereau as predicted, but he did put some dents in her credibility. 

After the accuser's mother testified, the accuser's grandmother testified. There were some moments of levity in her testimony. She needed to testify through a Spanish interpreter. At one point, she said to the prosecutor on direct examination, "Could you please speak up, I cannot hear you." The prosecutor looked puzzled, but began to project his voice loudly toward the witness. But it was the interpreter who could not hear the questions, not the grandmother. When this became apparent, the prosecutor said, "Oh, I was wondering why she needed to hear me if she could not understand me!"

The whole courtroom erupted into peals of laughter. The jury was howling. It took a few moments for all to settle back down. It was much needed comic relief from the tense testimony of the accuser's mother.

Another humorous moment was when the grandmother was interrupted by a defense objection, again. The judge overruled the objection. The judge instructed the witness to answer the question, and the witness asked, “Why does he do that— tell me to answer,” referring to the Judge. The prosecutor, without missing a beat shot back, “Because he can.”  Again, the courtroom burst into laughter. The jury loved the grandmother as a witness, and she restored good will in the courtroom again between the jurors and the prosecution. It was obvious that the jury was tired of the accuser's mother and they had begun to hold it against both the prosecution and the defense. 

A school counselor testified that the accuser and his brother were absent from school for more than ten days. He contacted their mother and told her she had to get the boys back in school pronto, or take them out of school and return their textbooks. She indicated she could not withdraw them, but someone else would. Who came with a note from the mom to take the boys out of school? None other than Vinnie Amen, one of the unindicted co-conspirators. This could be seen as significant corroboration for parts of the mother's testimony. The counselor also testified that the boy was a discipline problem in school before he was allegedly molested.  The defense tried to use this to show that the boy's behavior was not different after the alleged molestation occurred, as his mother and grandmother had claimed. This could be helpful to the defense, but it sounded more like a “blame the victim” strategy that I think will backfire. Just because he was a “bad boy” in school does not mean he was not molested or that he was not truthful in court.

All in all, it was another fascinating day in court. Michael Jackson looked pale and frail again today, but he quietly sat through all the testimony, still as a mouse, stiff as a rod. He conferred with his attorneys in a huddle from time to time. Michael's mother was the only family member again today, and she was not in court for all the testimony. 

Judge Melville was in good spirits. Everyone seemed buoyed by the fact that Wednesday is half day, and that there is no court on Friday. Certain motions must be ruled on by Thursday, one of which is whether the state may call an expert on battered woman syndrome.

That's all for now, stay tuned for more from Santa Maria tomorrow at the Michael Jackson trial...


April 20, 2005 |

My first day at court (Susan Filan, Conn. state prosecutor and Abrams Report regular)

Monday was my first day visiting the Michael Jackson trial. I arrived with NBC's Mike Taibbi and saw all the media tents outside the small brick courthouse. I met the pool coordinator and got my press credentials. Then all the press people lined up to enter the courthouse. I passed through the security check (yes, the same one you see Michael Jackson pass through every day), and was whisked through, courtesy of MSNBC analyst Jim Thomas.  The sheriff's deputies began to check my shoes, but laughed when they saw my high heels. I took my seat next to Jim Thomas and studied the jury box. 

The jury sits in movie theater seats, two rows long. The actual jurors sit closest to the witness box and the alternates sit closest to the public. Their notebooks were neatly piled on their seats waiting for them after their weekend break. Some jurors had already filled four and five steno pads, held together by a rubber band.  At 8:15 a.m., Tom Mesereau wheeled in his voluminous notebooks and began stacking them on a table in anticipation of his continued cross-exam. The three prosecutors came in shortly thereafter and took their seats at their table, but did not have nearly the amount of material the defense had (their office is in the building and if they need something they can probably leave the courtroom to get it).  The sheriffs gave us their "rules of the road" orientation, which they take very seriously, and to which the press half-heartedly listened, having heard it all before.  "Yeah, yeah" was muttered under breath.

Very close to 8:30, with the press, the fans, and the public seated, Michael Jackson's mother entered the courtroom wearing a bilious green top. She unceremoniously took her seat, alone, quiet, and seemingly sad.  She was alone for the whole day; no one sat near her.  The whole row was reserved for family, but she was the only one there. Michael Jackson followed next, accompanied by his bodyguard (the umbrella does not come into the courtroom).  I thought every one would swivel around to see Michael's entrance, with hushed anticipation, like at a wedding when all eyes crane to see the bride, but there was little interest in his arrival.  Even his own lawyers seemed non-plussed to see him.  The sketch artist was the most interested, with her binoculars ready, anxiously trying to see what he was wearing today. As he arrived, she called out his attire, to herself, but audibly, "Green shirt, black jacket, arm band? No arm band, yes arm band, kind of a Gucci looking armband."  I realized during his split second entrance, that was her best look at him for the day. Once he is seated, he basically disappears, flanked by lawyers, and hidden by the podium. He sits so quietly, and so still, I kept thinking I was in Madame Tussaud's wax museum— he looked just like a wax doll of himself.  His skin is so pale (tons of white powder), he is beyond skinny— he looks small and frail, nothing like the mega super star King of Pop he once was.  He looks incapable of making music or dancing, or that he ever could.  He looks odd, strange, waif-like, but his hands are gnarled and they look oversized and old.

The jurors were now in their seats, making no eye contact with anyone as they entered, but laughing and talking amongst themselves, comfortable with each other, familiar with the drill. 
At exactly 8:30, a doorbell rang, and it was the judge entering the courtroom in his robe.  The judge is also a thin, small man, nearly the same size as Michael Jackson, but he looks alert and alive. Mesereau began his questioning of the witness, the accuser's mother.  This is the 54th witness, and Monday was her fourth day on the stand.  She is crucial to the conspiracy counts with respect to kidnapping and false imprisonment.  She is a unique witness with her own agenda, who would not comply with the court's, the prosecution's or the defense's wishes— that she simply answer the question asked.  She turns every question into an opportunity to voice her view of the case and of Michael Jackson, declaring at one point that now the world knows who Michael Jackson really is... "Now I am aware he didn't care about children.  He only cares about what he can do with children... That he's managed to fool the world. What he puts out in the world is not who he really is.  Now the people know who he really is."  The defense quickly moved to strike, their motion was swiftly denied. 

Even though the cross exam was diffuse, rambling, disorganized, too long, laborious, and inelegant, Jackson's attorneys did elicit two damaging admissions from this witness that could alone unravel her credibility and cause the jury to disregard her testimony.  First, four days before she made the infamous rebuttal documentary, she made an audiotape with Brad Miller extolling Michael Jackson's virtues, which she says was all true and came from the heart.  But four days later, the praise she heaps on Michael Jackson in the rebuttal video, essentially saying the same things, was all scripted for her and she was forced against her will, under duress, to say it. This is a huge problem because it is illogical.  It makes no sense. 

Second, after she escapes from Neverland for the final time, and goes to attorneys, she does not tell them what bad things happened at Neverland because she wants to go to the police first and because the police tell her not to tell her attorneys, for fear this would compromise their investigation. Problem: She does not go to the police until several months after she sees the lawyers, by her own admission. Again, this defies logic.

But, at other times, she held her own against Mesereau and fought back.  Whereas he may have thought she would be an easy witness to discredit and destroy, she was not putty in his hands. She was a difficult and complex witness whose testimony raised difficult and complex legal issues. For example, what to do about the JC Penney lawsuit? What to do about her taking the Fifth Amendment because of allegations of perjury and welfare fraud?  She cannot be disbelieved in whole, nor can she be entirely believed.  The jury will have to pick and choose, and may choose not to choose, meaning her testimony could be a wash.

The day ended with the prosecution on redirect. In a dark courtroom, they showed pictures of the witness' bruised face, thighs, calves, and hand, after she had been assaulted by JC Penney security guards.  Her suit brought a settlement amount of roughly $150,000.  But the defense claims the bruises were the result of her husband's beating. She has said she was a closet battered woman.  But her son's arm was in a cast and in a sling.  Did his father do that, or did JC Penney?

Signing off now, Susan Filan, a prosecutor from Conn., in from Santa Maria, California.