Prosecutors increased Michael Jackson's legal jeopardy Friday with the unsealing of a grand jury indictment that accused him of a conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion in addition to molesting a 12-year-old boy.
With a slight nod, Jackson pleaded not guilty during the arraignment. Unlike his demeanor when he was arraigned in January on criminal child molestation charges filed by Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon, the pop star was subdued, both in court and outside.
The conspiracy charge stunned many of Jackson's supporters.
"This was a terrible day for Michael," said Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist who has organized bus trips to the courthouse here in support of Jackson. "This takes the case in an entirely new direction."
Details of the new charge were not revealed in the indictment, and the names of other alleged conspirators, who have not yet been charged, were whited out in the copies released to the public.
However, the alleged victim's mother has accused two of Jackson's former employees, Vincent Amen and Frank Tyson, of threatening family members to keep them from going to the police, according to Joseph Tacopina, the New York attorney who represents the two men. Amen and Tyson also have been accused of holding the boy and his family against their will at Jackson's Neverland Ranch.
Tacopina on Friday said he did not know whether his clients, who deny the accusations, were named in the indictment.
"I wish someone would tell me," he said.
Whomever the alleged co-conspirators turn out to be, adding the conspiracy charge could give prosecutors substantial advantages, legal experts said.
To prove the molestation charges, prosecutors will have to rely to some extent on the testimony and credibility of the alleged victim, who has been described as a recovering leukemia patient. Testimony from children in such cases is often problematic. In 1993, Jackson was accused of molesting another boy, but after the singer and the child's family reached a multimillion-dollar civil settlement, the boy declined to testify, and no charges were ever filed.
By contrast, the conspiracy charge could be proved with witnesses other than the alleged molestation victim, particularly if prosecutors can win the cooperation of one or more of the alleged co-conspirators.
Moreover, proving that a defendant tried to cover up his or her conduct is often easier than convincing a jury about the conduct itself, both prosecutors and defense attorneys say.
"I would call this the Martha Stewart phenomenon," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School. "If you don't get the defendant on the critical act, then you try to get him on the coverup.
"Prosecutors love conspiracy charges," she added. "They're not hard to prove. You just have to prove two or more people agreed to commit an illegal act" -- even if the act never was carried out.
Los Angeles criminal attorney Stanley I. Greenberg made a similar point, suggesting that if jurors can't agree on the alleged molestation, they might be able to reach a consensus on the alleged coverup conspiracy.
Robert Landheer, a criminal defense attorney in Santa Barbara, saw the conspiracy charge as reflecting an even greater aggressiveness on the part of prosecutors.
"This is really the shot across the bow in this case," he said. "They've just declared war on Jackson."
The charge might put pressure on possibly reluctant witnesses -- including Amen and Tyson. It also will allow prosecutors to introduce a broader range of evidence at trial, Landheer said.
"It certainly allows you to bring in a lot of information about a defendant's consciousness of guilt," Landheer said. "There can be some very lethal testimony."
The original charges against Jackson included seven felony counts of lewd and lascivious behavior and two counts of providing an intoxicant to a minor. In addition to the conspiracy charge, the new indictment includes four counts of lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor under 14, another charge of attempting to commit a lewd act with a minor, and four counts of providing an intoxicant to a minor in order to seduce him.
Prosecutors have said that the maximum sentence Jackson might face for the molestation charges would be about 20 years. A conviction on conspiracy could add as many as nine years to a prison term.
The new conspiracy charge emerged after three weeks of grand jury testimony last month. The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury accused Jackson of conspiring with an undisclosed number of people to commit the crimes of child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
Under California law, child abduction is the malicious taking of any child by a person who has no custody right. False imprisonment is "the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another." Extortion, most commonly used in connection with demands for money, can also mean obtaining things of value -- such as silence in a criminal case -- through threats to expose a person's personal secrets or accuse him or her of crimes.
As the indictment was read, the mood in the courtroom was somber.
Wearing a black suit, red armband and wire-rim eyeglasses, Jackson gazed attentively at Judge Rodney S. Melville instead of focusing elsewhere in the room, as he did during his last court appearance, in January. He listened intently as the judge listed the grand jury's charges.
In keeping with the atmosphere of unprecedented secrecy that has surrounded the case, the judge edited out of the public copy of the indictment two special-circumstance provisions that could have significance in sentencing decisions if Jackson were found guilty. Melville has said he worried that disclosure of such items in court could taint potential jurors and invade the alleged victim's privacy.
After the hearing, Jackson was all business.
He greeted a throng of fans with a wave and a peace sign, but there was no jumping atop a van to show them a few dance moves as he did in January. The crowd was enthusiastic, but smaller; police estimated that fewer than 1,000 supporters showed up, compared with about 2,500 in January.
Jackson and his lawyer both made statements. Jackson was backed by his family, including brothers Randy and Jackie. Speaking first, attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. signaled a new defense strategy in the case by praising the judge, the city and his client
One sign of the new strategy was the replacement of Jackson's usual phalanx of Nation of Islam security guards with a private security firm.
"It is a great honor and privilege to appear before Judge Melville," said Mesereau, who was hired last week after Jackson fired lead attorneys Mark Geragos and Ben Brafman. "This case is not about lawyers or anybody else becoming celebrities. It is about establishing the innocence of Michael Jackson, who is a wonderful man."
Jackson, in a voice that could barely be heard, said he wanted to thank his fans around the world for their support.
"I love Santa Maria," he added. "I love this community."
As in January, Jackson's fans flocked from all over to the city in northern Santa Barbara County.
Carlos DiPedro, a 28-year-old graphic designer, said he flew in for the hearing from his home in the Andalusia region of Spain. His dedication, he said, is not hero worship.
"Michael Jackson isn't my idol," DiPedro said. "He's my friend."
About 100 supporters climbed onto three chartered buses in the "Caravan of Love" that rolled through the Los Angeles area before dawn.
Most of the passengers slept, lulled by soft jazz. Others chatted quietly about the benefits of joining the Michael Jackson fan club.
One girl used her cellphone to play ring tones that were snatches of Jackson songs throughout the entire three-hour ride to Santa Maria.
Watts resident Cathy Youngblood, 52, her daughter and two grandsons waited more than three hours for one of the buses at a stop in Crenshaw.
"I'm teaching my grandsons if you believe in someone, and they put out a call for support, you go out and support them," she said. "We would have walked."
Times staff writers Erin Ailworth and Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.