The first glimpse prosecutors gave of their case against Michael Jackson turned out not to be of child molestation allegations but a bizarre tale of a family's alleged imprisonment at the entertainer's Neverland Ranch.
Legal experts said the story outlined by Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss at Tuesday's pretrial hearing runs counter to public assumptions about what is alleged to have happened between Jackson and the 12-year-old boy authorities say he molested.
"It's not what we expected as the theory," said Loyola University Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "It seems backwards."
The case, meanwhile, is proving so complicated that Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville agreed to a defense request to delay the start of Jackson's trial 4 1/2 months, to Jan. 31, 2005.
Jackson, who did not attend Tuesday's hearing, is charged with committing a lewd act upon a child, administering an intoxicating agent and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He is free on $3 million bail.
In the scenario described by the prosecution, Jackson met the 12-year-old boy, a cancer patient who would become his accuser, and decided to use him for the perfect "photo op" while doing a documentary with a British TV network.
The 12-year-old is seen holding hands with the entertainer in the documentary in which Jackson defends his practice of having boys sleep with him, calling it "sweet" and non-sexual.
But after "Living With Michael Jackson" aired, Auchincloss said Jackson panicked and launched into a bizarre attempt at crisis management.
"The fact that Mr. Jackson rationalized this behavior on national television was his downfall," Auchincloss said during the hearing on a defense motion to dismiss the case. "It represented the complete and utter ruin of his empire. ... It made him an international object of loathing and scorn."
The prosecutor then said Jackson gave the boy and his family luxurious gifts, flew them to exotic vacations where they met celebrities and took them to his Neverland ranch to make a "rebuttal video" in which they would say that nothing sexual happened between the boy and Jackson. But according to their timeline, nothing did happen until much later.
"The person Jackson perceived could put out this (public relations) fire was John Doe and his family," the prosecutor said, referring to the alleged victim. "If he could get them on tape describing Mr. Jackson as a wonderful person, it would quell this fire."
Defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. ridiculed the assumption that the trips constituted false imprisonment, saying, "The idea that they were imprisoned and forced to fly on private jets to Florida, to socialize with celebrities such as Chris Tucker, is absurd on its face. It would be laughed out of court by a jury."
Auchincloss also suggested that two still-secret sections of Jackson's indictment "show the seduction of John Doe." But he did not reveal any details of molestation and the judge refused to release the documents that might explain more.
One trial observer, defense attorney Steve Cron, said of the story so far: "It would seem sort of weird that he would get this kid on tape saying he had not done anything and then he would go out and do it."
Cron suggested that Jackson's defense team may be pleased that the prosecution showed its hand in public.
"I would be thinking, `If this is all they have, I want people to hear it. This is not the scandalous stuff that won't get into court.'"
Levenson said, "This either portrays a faulty prosecution theory or a bold and reckless act by Jackson. ... There may be a fine line between whether he was committing a criminal act or showing the family a good time."
Levenson also noted that the judge may have created "false assumptions" by keeping all details of the case secret. The judge continued that pattern, turning down about a dozen more motions by a coalition of news media organizations to open the records.
The case's next hearing begins Aug. 16 when the chief prosecutor, District Attorney Tom Sneddon, is due to testify about his own role in conducting surveillance in the case.