A Superior Court judge cleared the way Friday for lawyers in the Michael Jackson sexual abuse case to share information with prosecutors, a move that Jackson's attorneys aggressively contested.
In addition, Judge David M. Rothman declined to approve a sweeping order that would have prevented lawyers from discussing with the media any information gleaned during the discovery process in a lawsuit brought against Jackson by a 13-year-old boy who says the entertainer sexually molested him.
The judge's refusal to grant the order means the lawyers can openly discuss the case, although attorneys on both sides said they would use discretion, and they agreed to steer clear of certain topics, such as identifying children or releasing medical records.
"My position in this case has been to meet fire with fire," said Larry R. Feldman, the lawyer for the boy who is suing Jackson. "If they comment, somebody has to respond on our side, and we will."
Johnnie Cochran Jr., one of several lawyers representing Jackson, said he expects the entertainer to make a public statement about the case early next week. But Cochran would not disclose what Jackson might say or whether he will agree to take questions.
Friday's hearing lasted all day, as Rothman heard extensive arguments from both sides--as well as from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara prosecutors investigating Jackson and from lawyers representing The Times and radio and television stations. The proceeding was interrupted for several hours after a power failure forced bailiffs to clear the Santa Monica courthouse.
Near the end of the hearing, Rothman conceded that the Jackson case, with its enormous international publicity, has already become difficult to manage.
"We're dealing in this case with an extraordinarily difficult case because of the media attention," Rothman said. "You'd have to be kind of nuts not to recognize that this is one of the biggest media events ever."
Cochran and Howard Weitzman, two of Jackson's lawyers, fought vigorously to prevent information obtained during the discovery process in the boy's lawsuit from being turned over to prosecutors. They argued that investigators were trying to use the suit to advance their criminal investigation, a technique that Jackson's lawyers said should not be allowed.
But Lauren Weis, who heads the sex crimes unit of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said investigators should be able to review that material to assist them in deciding whether criminal charges are warranted against Jackson. Although law enforcement sources previously said a decision about whether to file charges could be reached by January, Cochran said he was recently notified that it will not be concluded before February.
"We have a right to know if these witnesses made contrary statements at other times," Weis said, in arguing for access to the civil discovery material, which includes sworn statements by possible witnesses. Four people--a chauffeur for Jackson and several maids, including one who alleges that she saw Jackson naked in the shower and in a whirlpool bath with young boys--have been deposed so far in the civil case.
Rothman ruled that prosecutors should be allowed to review that material, but declined to rule on the question of whether Jackson's deposition, scheduled for Jan. 18, should be shared with authorities.
Cochran said he did not believe Rothman's order meant that Jackson's deposition would be shared with authorities. He added, however, that he and Jackson's other representatives are weighing the possibility of having the singer refuse to answer questions at that session and instead invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
"We have to consider all of the various options," Cochran said. "No firm decision has been made on that yet."
Although Rothman ruled quickly on the question of turning over material to prosecutors, he deliberated at length over whether lawyers should be barred from sharing information with the media. The problem, Rothman said, was that with such widespread media attention, Jackson's right to a fair trial could be compromised by discussing the results of the discovery process.
Rex Heinke, a lawyer representing The Times, countered that Jackson's attorneys had not shown that potential jurors would be affected by the disclosures. In the absence of evidence that a fair trial was in jeopardy, Heinke added, the judge should protect the public's right to open access to the proceedings.
Rothman agreed. First, however, Jackson's lawyers and Feldman met privately to draft a list of subjects they would agree not to discuss with the media. They include: any issues related to statements by minors, any hospital or psychiatric records and any information about Jackson's personal security. In addition, both sides agreed not to release videotapes of the sworn depositions.