Less than a week before he is due to be arraigned on a grand jury indictment, Michael Jackson replaced his high-profile lawyers with another well-known defense attorney -- a move one of the attorneys in the case said involved "a complicated series of legal and practical issues."
Benjamin Brafman, Jackson's co-counsel with Mark Geragos, confirmed that both he and Geragos were no longer representing Jackson, who faces allegations of child molestation. Brafman said they both decided to "step down" Sunday. He said it "would not be appropriate to discuss in public" their reasons, and added that the move had been "evolving for a while."
"I wish Michael Jackson well and I hope at the end of this ordeal he will be completely exonerated," Brafman said.
Geragos declined to comment Sunday, citing a judge's gag order in the case.
The pop superstar is now represented by Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. The attorney, who met with Jackson in Florida over the weekend, said Sunday night that he would not comment on the case until he appears in court Friday. Jackson's decision to switch attorneys came as his case is about to move into a new and more serious stage. The 45-year old singer was indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury last week after the 19-member panel heard nearly two weeks of testimony. Still unknown, however, are the precise charges that he will face at his scheduled court appearance Friday in Santa Barbara.
In December, prosecutors charged Jackson with seven counts of committing lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under age 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent to the child.
Mesereau, who wears his silver-white hair past his ears, had been in the spotlight in another celebrity trial until stepping down earlier this year as actor Robert Blake's counsel of record. At the time, he cited unspecified "irreconcilable differences" for his decision to walk away from Blake, who is facing murder charges in the 2001 shooting death of his wife.
"Jackson tried to hire him [Mesereau] several months ago when he was representing Blake. Now that he's off the Blake case he's available," said attorney Dana M. Cole, who said he spoke to Mesereau, a former law school classmate, on Sunday morning. "Michael Jackson is very impressed with Tom's credentials with what he's done for the African American community."
Cole said his understanding was that Michael's brother Randy had played a key role in the hiring of Mesereau, a longtime volunteer at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles who gained national attention for successfully defending clients in death penalty cases in the Deep South.
Cole said Mesereau, who is known for his smooth courtroom demeanor, told him that he had spoken to Geragos, who wished him "good luck" on the case.
"There was no infighting or backstabbing here.... It is what it is," Cole said.
Melanie Lomax, an attorney and friend of Geragos, said she spoke with him Friday and he gave no indication that any change was imminent. Lomax said, however, that "behind the scenes there has been poor communication. You have a high-profile case like this -- you have to be in lock step with your counsel; there can't be any conflict."
Lomax said her impression was that even within the Jackson camp the singer was hearing from "a multitude of voices and conflicting views" on how best to win an acquittal.
"I think the indictment, even though it was expected, signaled a reduction in confidence" in the lawyers, she said.
Some legal experts had wondered how Geragos would juggle the Jackson case at the same time he serves as lead counsel for Scott Peterson, the 31-year-old Modesto man accused of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and the son she was carrying.
Geragos had agreed to work for Jackson months before taking on the Peterson case, although his role as Jackson's attorney became known only after new allegations that the singer molested a child were made public by the Santa Barbara County sheriff last summer.
Attorney Harland Braun, who is friends with Geragos and Mesereau, said he was not surprised by the move.
"Jackson's history is to switch advisors and lawyers consistently," he said. "He's had different accountants, different civil lawyers, different managers."
Braun said he believed that Geragos could have handled both the Peterson and Jackson cases well. "But you normally don't have two such high-profile cases at once," he said. "That is tough, and to be tied up daily in the Peterson case is tough. Obviously, that was one of [the Jackson camp's] concerns."
Braun said he saw no reason why the change of attorneys would delay Friday's arraignment. "Jackson will go to court and plead either guilty or not guilty," he said.
At that point, Braun said, a transcript of the grand jury testimony is expected to be turned over to Jackson's new defense team, which is likely to make challenges to the proceedings.
"As a defense attorney, you're usually pretty anxious to get a look at that testimony," he said. "It usually gives you a pretty good indication of what kind of case the prosecutors have."
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times