Jackson’s Witness List Is a Who’s Who of Stars
They don’t call them “celebrity trials” for nothing.
In fact, the defense witness list unveiled Monday at Michael Jackson’s child-molestation trial was loaded with stars nearly as famous as Jackson himself.
Prospective jurors were given a tantalizing glimpse of a roster that reads like the guest list of a Hollywood benefit, with possible appearances by such show-biz luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Jay Leno, not to mention record producer Quincy Jones, actor Chris Tucker, basketball sensation Kobe Bryant and CNN interviewer Larry King.
Additional witnesses include Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes,” talk show host Maury Povich, Backstreet Boys singer Nick Carter and his younger brother Aaron.
Of course, not every witness on a courtroom list takes the stand. In fact, some legal experts interviewed on Monday predicted quite a few no-shows.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville told the potential jurors to expect fewer people to actually testify, and a prosecutor suggested that the defense was merely attempting to dazzle them with star power.
“Would the testimony of someone like an Elizabeth Taylor influence you disproportionately?” Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen asked potential jurors.
No way, each of them replied.
As if to underscore the point, a silver-haired 62-year-old man misidentified Deepak Chopra, one of Jackson’s possible witnesses, as a rap star. Chopra is a best-selling New Age author and physician.
One woman said she had met quite a few celebrities through her uncle, a film editor in Los Angeles, and couldn’t quite understand all the fuss.
“They’re people,” she said, “like anyone else.”
On Monday, defense attorneys and prosecutors had their first chance to interview the people who may determine whether Jackson is guilty of molesting a 13-year-old cancer patient and conspiring to cover it up.
The first 18 of about 250 prospective jurors sat in a packed courtroom for five hours answering questions about their views of the media, the legal system, Michael Jackson and the credibility of children.
To find out whether any of them knew possible witnesses, Jackson’s attorney, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., read approximately 350 names, including those of celebrities with no apparent connection to the case.
One puzzling inclusion was actor Corey Feldman, 33, who, as a child star, was befriended by Jackson. Last week in an interview with ABC, Feldman said that when he was a teen, Jackson showed him nude photos of men and women in a book about venereal disease, a seemingly incriminating admission for someone on the defense witness list.
Feldman reportedly has been subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution as well.
For their part, prosecutors ran through a list that included dozens of law enforcement personnel, a young man who accused Jackson of molestation in 1993, and the singer’s ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, who is challenging him for custody of their children.
Also on the list are a former maid at Jackson’s Neverland ranch and her son, who reportedly have accused Jackson in another molestation incident.
If stars are being asked to vouch for Jackson’s character, defense attorneys may have a tough time persuading them to show up, according to some observers.
“The problem with character witnesses is that ... on cross-examination the prosecution can ask them anything,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor.
“As a prosecutor, I used to salivate when the defense called character witnesses because I could put that witness’ whole life on trial,” she said.
Jackson may also be hurt by the size of his celebrity-studded witness list, said Kirby Behre, a Washington, D.C., criminal defense attorney who represented Linda Tripp during the impeachment of President Clinton.
“Doesn’t that sound like a clumsy attempt to let the jury know you have a lot of famous friends -- hoping that a juror would think, ‘Gee, if that famous person likes Michael Jackson then he can’t be bad’?” Behre asked. “I don’t know what the defense’s objective is, but if a juror just thinks they’re showing off their famous friends, that could backfire.”
Such concerns may resonate with a 40-year-old university researcher who was a jury candidate Monday. Asked by Mesereau about the impact of the media on the court system, the man suggested that justice suffers in the limelight.
“I worry that some people may get more of a fair trial than others because of who they are,” said the man, who also said he was fearful that reporters would end up “camping on my front lawn.”
Jackson’s attorneys signaled in their questioning that they would take the media to task during their client’s trial. None of the prospective jurors had a problem with that.
“They can’t even get the weather right!” a woman said to laughter and applause. “The media has overblown this -- it’s really irritating.”
The same prospective juror, a former Santa Barbara resident who once made a living performing singing telegrams, was the only one who acknowledged that parents sometimes get their children to lie. The point will be a key one in the trial because Jackson’s attorneys contend that his young accuser was manipulated by a greedy mother.
When she was a child, the prospective juror said, her parents sometimes would ask her to put off unannounced visitors.
“Tell them we’re not here,” she said they would tell her. “You haven’t seen us!”
The group included an 18-year-old man who said he indulged in karaoke singing every day, a retiree who casts Western sculptures in bronze and a woman who teaches emotionally disturbed children.
Another woman said she had been falsely accused twice -- once of molesting a young relative and another time of assaulting a student at the school where she taught.
“I know that children can lie,” she said. “I empathize with Michael Jackson in regard to the accusation.”
Attentive and serious, Jackson nodded as the woman related her story. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison on 10 felony counts.
Jackson wore a dark suit with a gray armband, a multicolored vest, a chain of medallions across his waist and a gold sunburst on his breast pocket.
It seemed clear that the singer’s attorneys would not try to change his appearance for the trial or frame him as a regular guy who happens to cut one of the most distinctive figures in the world.
But whether others who are rich and famous can be persuaded to take the stand on Jackson’s behalf is an open question. Representatives of many of the stars on the witness list had no comment.
Most of the celebrity witnesses will be able to avoid testifying, observers said. And even if Judge Melville agrees to subpoena some from the list, the spectacle of defense attorneys appearing to force people to say nice things about Jackson may not play well.
“If they’re subpoenaed, they may have to testify, but you kind of defeat the purpose of defending your client when you bring a guy kicking and screaming to the stand,” Behre said.
As for Kobe Bryant, who settled a rape allegation just before he was to stand trial in Colorado last year, he and Jackson have met, but outside observers were puzzled when his name came up as a possible witness.
“Kobe Bryant didn’t want to be called in his own case,” Levenson said. “Why would he want to take the stand in somebody else’s trial?”