A grand jury in Santa Barbara County has begun issuing subpoenas to take sworn testimony in the Michael Jackson child molestation investigation, lawyers for the entertainer said Tuesday, signaling that the criminal case against Jackson continues to mount and could result in an indictment.
Bertram Fields, Jackson's civil lawyer, went so far as to tell a Superior Court judge that "you've got a district attorney sitting up in Santa Barbara, probably about to indict. . . . You can't get too much closer to an indictment than to have a grand jury sitting there."
After stating that, however, Fields and Howard Weitzman, Jackson's criminal attorney, backpedaled, attempting to play down the significance of grand jury involvement. They said that while at least two subpoenas have been issued for witnesses to appear before the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury, they have no information indicating that an indictment is imminent. Weitzman said his colleague "misspoke" when he suggested that an indictment might be returned soon, and added that he is not even sure the grand jury has been impaneled.
"I think Mr. Fields really misspoke himself, because I, perhaps, delivered the message too quickly," Weitzman said. "I have no idea whether a grand jury has, in fact, been impaneled and is going to consider evidence. What I was told is that subpoenas have been issued."
Legal experts said that if a grand jury has issued subpoenas, it demonstrates that it has been impaneled and is at least preparing to hear evidence in the Jackson case. That would be the clearest signal to date that investigators are pushing for a criminal indictment against the world-renowned entertainer, whose Neverland ranch is in the Santa Barbara County town of Los Olivos.
News that Jackson's lawyers believe a grand jury is subpoenaing witnesses in connection with their client came at a time when the singer's legal woes are compounding by the day. Monday, five former security guards filed a lawsuit against Jackson, claiming that they were fired because they had knowledge of his "nighttime visits with young boys."
Fields vehemently denied those allegations Monday evening, saying that no Jackson employee has ever been fired because of the reasons stated in the lawsuit. Weitzman agreed, calling the security guards "five opportunists" who have brought "a totally bogus suit."
Tuesday morning, Jackson's lawyers lost a bid to delay a civil case brought by a 13-year-old boy who says Jackson molested him over a period of about four months earlier this year.
The boy's lawyer, Larry R. Feldman, said he was "excited and ecstatic" after the ruling in the civil case, which could clear the way for trial to begin in March.
Feldman would not comment on the criminal investigation of Jackson, saying that authorities were not keeping him apprised. But sources have said that at least four agencies--the Los Angeles Police Department, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's offices in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties--are investigating allegations that Jackson sexually molested the 13-year-old.
Those agencies all have jurisdiction because Jackson owns homes in both counties. The Neverland ranch, an expansive property with an amusement park, is his principal residence. Police searched that home in mid-August and have searched other locations, including the Encino home of Jackson's parents, a hotel suite in Las Vegas that Jackson sometimes uses and a condominium he owns in Century City.
Sources close to the investigation have said they believe it will not be finished until early next year. At the conclusion of the criminal investigation, prosecutors in Los Angeles County or Santa Barbara County, or both, could ask grand juries to return indictments against Jackson.
Jackson has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of a $20-million extortion attempt by the boy's father.
Jackson has not been seen or heard from publicly since Nov. 12, when he abruptly halted his world concert tour and dropped out of sight to undergo treatment at an undisclosed location in Europe. In a tape-recorded message released that evening, Jackson said he was suffering from an addiction to painkillers that he developed in part because of the stress brought on by the allegations of sexual molestation.
Citing Jackson's need for treatment and legal issues related to his criminal case, his lawyers sought to delay the civil suit against their client.
At a hearing Tuesday before Santa Monica Superior Court Judge David Rothman, they argued that the civil case should be delayed because Jackson wants to testify in that proceeding in order to fight off the allegations that he molested the boy. The problem, the lawyers said, is that if Jackson is forced to testify in the civil case before the criminal investigation is complete, his testimony could be used against him in the criminal proceeding.
That, they argued, would violate Jackson's 5th Amendment right not to be compelled to give testimony against himself.
"The Constitution requires that you not put him in that box," Fields told Judge Rothman.
Feldman countered that California law requires a judge to set a trial date within 120 days when a case, as does this one, involves an alleged victim under age 14. That law, Feldman said, was intended to speed up cases involving young victims so that their memories are fresh and they can put the trial behind them and heal from injuries they may have suffered.
Rothman said the positions of the two sides forced him to balance the boy's right to a speedy trial against Jackson's right not to be forced to incriminate himself. But since Jackson has not been charged with any crime, Rothman ruled that his rights, at least for now, were "theoretical," while the boy's were real.
"In balancing a theoretical right against a real right, I have little difficulty in setting the case for trial," he said.
Rothman set March 21 as the trial date. He added, however, that he would consider changing the date if criminal charges are brought against Jackson--an event that would make Jackson's assertion of his 5th Amendment rights a more immediate concern.
"We are excited and ecstatic that we are only 120 days away from justice," Feldman said at the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, which was attended by dozens of journalists from around the world.
Weitzman and Fields said they might appeal Rothman's ruling, but they took heart in the judge's comments suggesting that he would reconsider their request if criminal charges are filed.
Rothman's ruling cleared the way for both sides to begin deposing witnesses. Among the people Jackson's attorneys want to interview are the boy, his mother and father, his father's former lawyer and others close to him. First on Feldman's list is a request for records belonging to Anthony J. Pellicano, a private investigator employed by Jackson.
After that, Feldman expects to take depositions from a chauffeur and a maid who worked for Jackson. Feldman said he does not expect to depose Jackson within the next two weeks, but Rothman ordered Jackson to give that deposition before Jan. 31, 1994--a date that also could be changed if Jackson is charged criminally.
* RECORD DEAL: EMI Music is expected to announce a record-setting deal to help Jackson exploit his catalogue of others' music. D2.