Jackson Settles Abuse Suit but Insists He Is Innocent

Lawyers for Michael Jackson and a 14-year-old boy who alleged in a lawsuit that the singer sexually molested him announced Tuesday that they have settled the case, abruptly ending one chapter of a scandal that has dogged the internationally renowned pop icon since August.

Although the attorneys declined to discuss any aspect of the settlement, sources close to the negotiations said it was for $15 million to $24 million, with some of the money paid to the boy in cash and the rest funneled into a trust fund. The terms of the settlement were reviewed by a judge who has been appointed to serve as the boy's guardian.

After a brief court hearing Tuesday, Larry R. Feldman, the boy's attorney, said he and his client were "very happy with the resolution of this matter."

Despite the settlement, Jackson's attorneys said their client stands by his assertions of innocence and agreed to the deal so that he could get on with his life.

"The resolution of this case is in no way an admission of guilt by Michael Jackson," said attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of two lawyers representing Jackson in the matter. "In short, he is an innocent man who does not intend to have his career and his life destroyed by rumors and innuendo."

As part of the settlement, however, Jackson publicly recanted his charge that he was the victim of an extortion attempt by the boy's father. That claim, long advanced by Jackson's advisers and by the entertainer, has been the mainstay of his defense since the first days of the case, which erupted in August.

The settlement of the civil case resolves Jackson's most immediate legal troubles and may effectively put an end to a criminal investigation. The boy's lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in March. In preparation for that, a judge had scheduled Jackson to be deposed this week.

Jackson previously had resisted giving a deposition, and had the case not been settled he might have been forced to choose between answering questions and refusing to respond based on his right to not incriminate himself--a common legal maneuver but one that could have had grave public relations implications for the superstar.

Now, those immediate problems have been lifted, and he will avoid the spectacle of a nationally televised civil trial probing the most intimate aspects of his personal life.

But the civil case was only a part of Jackson's legal woes. The longer-term question that the end of the lawsuit raises is whether Jackson might still be prosecuted.

That answer is more complicated. One prosecutor said Tuesday that the investigation will continue, but most legal experts agree that it now appears unlikely that Jackson will be indicted--at least for any alleged abuse of this boy.

Feldman, who waged an aggressive legal effort on behalf of the boy, would not say Tuesday whether his client would testify if prosecutors sought to file criminal charges against Jackson. He emphasized that the civil settlement in no way committed his client to remaining silent, but at the same time Feldman repeatedly suggested that the boy might be better off by getting on with his life.

"He cannot heal, he cannot get better until he puts this matter behind him," said Feldman, whose client has met with psychologists in recent months. "He wants to put this behind him."

In a statement released by his office, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said the criminal investigation will go forward.

"The criminal investigation of singer Michael Jackson is ongoing and will not be affected by the announcement of the civil case settlement," Garcetti said. "The district attorney's office is taking Mr. Feldman at his word that the alleged victim will be allowed to testify and that there has been no agreement in the civil matter that will affect cooperation in the criminal investigation."

Santa Barbara County prosecutors, who also are weighing the possibility of criminal charges against the entertainer, declined to comment on Tuesday's developments.

Although the terms of the settlement were not made public, nothing in the document is likely to prevent the child from cooperating with authorities, lawyers said, because the law prevents anyone from conspiring to obstruct the work of police and prosecutors as they investigate a possible crime.

"There's no way that a civil settlement can somehow keep the prosecution from seeking information in a criminal investigation," said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor. "But the pragmatic reality is that with an uncooperative victim, the prosecution would be unable to secure a criminal conviction."

Arenella and other legal analysts agreed that if the boy and his family determine that it is in his best interest to put the case behind him, there is almost no chance that prosecutors could proceed without him. Under California law, children can and sometimes are forced to testify against their will, but the law does not allow authorities to punish alleged victims of sex crimes who decline to testify.

Section 1219 of the California Code of Civil Procedure states that "no court may imprison or otherwise confine or place in custody the victim of a sexual assault for contempt when the contempt consists of refusing to testify concerning the sexual assault."

Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola University and a former federal prosecutor, said that provision would prevent prosecutors from calling the boy to the stand if he elects not to testify. And without the alleged victim, Levenson said, prosecution becomes extremely difficult.

"Without the victim," Levenson said, "there is no more case."

The end of the lawsuit brings down the curtain on a tumultuous act in the extraordinary life of Jackson, one of the world's richest and most recognizable entertainers. The allegations that he sexually molested the boy--who was 13 at the time of the alleged abuse and turned 14 earlier this month--surfaced in August as Jackson was leaving on his "Dangerous" world tour.

At first, Jackson's advisers insisted that the allegations were leveled only because Jackson had rebuffed an attempt by the boy's father to extort $20 million from the singer. Monday, however, Garcetti's office announced that prosecutors had declined to prosecute that case, and Jackson's lawyers agreed Tuesday that Jackson "withdraws any previous allegation of extortion."

Jackson's tour was dogged by the molestation allegations and by the singer's apparently fragile health. A number of concerts in Asia were canceled or delayed when Jackson fell ill, first with dehydration and later with migraine headaches and other ailments, according to his doctors.

Then, on Nov. 12, Jackson suddenly called off the remainder of the tour dates and released a tape recording in which he said he was suffering from a debilitating addiction to painkillers brought on in part by the stress of being falsely accused of child molestation. Jackson disappeared from public view, touching off an international media manhunt for the celebrity.

Jackson sightings were reported around the world: A Jackson look-alike stirred paparazzi in London, a hotel operator in the French Alps announced that the singer was staying at his resort, and a newspaper in Connecticut quoted an "impeccable source" who said Jackson was recovering at a nearby drug treatment center. All those reports were false.

When Jackson eventually did return to the United States, four weeks after disappearing, he was whisked from the Santa Barbara Airport to his nearby Neverland Ranch. From there, Jackson issued a public statement via satellite hookup Dec. 22 in which he reasserted his innocence, denounced the media for its coverage of the case and thanked his friends, family and fans.

"As I have maintained from the very beginning," Jackson said that day, "I am hoping for a speedy end to this horrifying, horrifying experience to which I have been subjected."

Jackson supporters rallied to his defense from the start--fans in Upstate New York posted a huge outdoor message to the entertainer and offers of marriage poured in. But the case even divided the Jackson family. His parents and most of his brothers and sisters steadfastly stood by him, but his sister LaToya--long alienated from the rest of the clan--called a news conference in Israel to proclaim that she believed her brother had molested children for years.

The settlement means that Jackson will not get the chance to argue his innocence in a civil trial, but, as with the boy, it does not bind him to silence. His lawyers, in their statement, said Jackson will soon speak out about "the agony, torture and pain he has had to suffer during the past six months."

"The time has come for Michael Jackson to move on to new business, to get on with his life, to start the healing process and to move his career forward to even greater heights," the statement said. "This he intends to do."

Neither Cochran nor Howard Weitzman, Jackson's other lawyer, would answer questions Tuesday. Anthony Pellicano, an outspoken private investigator who worked for Jackson until resigning last month, said the settlement merely reaffirmed his belief that the boy and his family were after the singer's money.

"I have maintained Michael Jackson's innocence from the very start, and I still maintain that he is innocent," Pellicano said. "Obviously, there has been an exchange of money to settle this case. It all boils down to money."

That echoes a theme that Jackson's advisers have reiterated again and again--that the singer's enormous fame and wealth make him a magnet for false claims and extortion attempts. Legal analysts agree, but they also note that the settlement could send an equally troubling signal about the role that fame and wealth have had on the conduct of this case.

Harland W. Braun, a criminal defense lawyer and former deputy district attorney, said the settlement could be interpreted as "the rich man's exemption in a child molestation case" and added that it could stir controversy in some quarters. Others agreed.

"For the general public, there may very well be the troubling message that if you have the means, you can get your criminal troubles to go away," Levenson said. "That may not be the facts in this case, but some members of the public will believe that Jackson was able to buy his way out of this."

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