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Jackson Explains Firing of Lawyers

Times Staff Writer

Amid new reports of internal strife among his closest advisors, Michael Jackson contradicted two top defense lawyers Monday and declared that he had fired them because “it is imperative that I have the full attention of those who are representing me.”

Jackson’s comments were directed at attorneys Mark Geragos and Benjamin Brafman. Brafman announced Sunday that they were stepping down, but said nothing about being fired.

“My life is at stake,” Jackson said in a statement released by his Washington, D.C., publicist. “Therefore I must feel confident that my interests are of the highest priority.”

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Geragos, who had been the entertainer’s lead attorney for more than a year, represents Scott Peterson in a high-profile murder case while juggling a major Orange County embezzlement case. Brafman is a New York lawyer close to Geragos whose involvement in the case has meant frequent cross-country trips.

Before Jackson’s statement Monday, legal experts had speculated that his decision to replace his lawyers with Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. was prompted at least in part because of Geragos’ conflicting schedule.

“I think Jackson wanted a full-time lawyer,” said attorney Connie Rice. “I would be very nervous if my lawyer had another big case that was taking up his time.”

Only last week, Jackson was indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury, and is scheduled to be arraigned on those charges Friday. He was arrested in December on nine felony charges in the alleged molestation of a boy who is now 14. Jackson has pleaded not guilty.

On the surface, the split was handled diplomatically. Jackson thanked Geragos and Brafman for their work. While Geragos declined comment, Brafman said he hopes Jackson will be able to end his legal ordeal with “a full and complete” vindication.

But Brafman added a comment that reinforced reports from other sources that the switch in lawyers was largely the result of backroom maneuvering within the Jackson camp: “I have a great deal of affection for Michael personally, and I only wish those who continue to manage his life demonstrate the same level of responsibility that I have shown.”

Sources close to the Jackson family said one factor that contributed to the showdown was the grand jury indictment. While most legal experts saw an indictment as a foregone conclusion, the decision came as a surprise to some Jackson intimates.

“I think it was a denial factor,” said Los Angeles lawyer Melanie Lomax, a friend of Geragos and former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “I think they got a huge dose of reality when there was an indictment.”

Raymone K. Bain, a Washington, D.C., public relations expert hired by Jackson, stressed that the singer had personally written his statement.

She dismissed talk that Jackson was influenced by anybody in deciding it was time for a change.

“Michael Jackson makes the decisions himself,” Bain said. “There are going to be all these rumors. But nobody else is qualified to speak to the issue of who represents him. Michael is an intelligent man and he knows what he is doing.”

As several sources describe it, Jackson’s inner circle has been racked for months by disputes over proposed strategy.

Key participants have been his brothers Jermaine and Randy, and Leonard Muhammad, son-in-law of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Randy Jackson has emerged recently as the most powerful advisor, and brokered the Mesereau deal, one source said.

“There are all these multiple sources for ideas,” Lomax said. “One week it’s Jermaine. Then Randy, then Michael and then the Nation of Islam. Tuesday it’s one decision. Wednesday it’s revisited all over again. The problem is there’s still a tug of war.”

Along with the internal squabbling has come a problem with Michael Jackson’s behavior. On the day of his arraignment, he projected one image by dancing on a car roof and throwing a party at his Neverland ranch.

More recently, he showed a serious side by appearing with African American politicians and African leaders and expressing the desire to travel to Africa to help fight the AIDS epidemic.

Some suggested that the more recent associations with black leaders are an attempt to portray himself as a humanitarian for the Santa Barbara County jury pool that ultimately will judge his guilt or innocence.

But Bain said his recent activities have been in keeping with an entire lifetime of charitable work.

“He was just a little boy when he made his first trip to Africa,” she said. “He has given more than $50 million of his own money to charitable causes all over the world.”

John Burris, an Oakland civil rights attorney whose clients have included Rodney King, Gary Payton and Tupac Shakur, said that Jackson’s recent activities should help him in any future trial.

“Much of what he has done through the years is humanitarian,” he said. “He cares about children. It certainly doesn’t hurt, from my perspective, for him to be dwelling on problems such as AIDS. “

But the debate over Jackson’s image is strong.

Speaking before the ouster of Geragos and Brafman, Rice sounded a prophetic note on the difficulties lawyers face in dealing with superstars such as Jackson.

“You can’t control the super celebrities,” she said. “They live in another world.”


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