Following years of accusations and three swift weeks of jury selection, the trial of Michael Jackson is to begin in full today, with opening statements expected to raise one troubling question: Is one of the world’s most recognized pop stars a pedophile?
Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon has built a case hinging on charges that Jackson in 2003 molested a 13-year-old leukemia patient at his secluded Neverland ranch, and that he and his employees held the boy and his family there against their will. Sneddon is also expected to allege that Jackson molested others, including a 13-year-old boy in 1993 whose family was reportedly paid a multimillion-dollar settlement by the singer.
In denying the charges, Jackson’s attorneys, led by Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., are likely to paint the eccentric singer as an easy target for greedy parents willing to manipulate their children into making allegations of molestation. They will argue that Jackson’s overly generous nature makes him vulnerable to con artists with hard-luck stories. They also will suggest that Sneddon has been on a personal vendetta against Jackson since the 1993 probe.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville, known for maintaining control in the courtroom, has placed a gag order on both sides, banned cameras from the courthouse and chides attorneys who stray from the point. It has been suggested that Melville will get the case to the jury well ahead of the expected five-month timetable.
“Onward,” he advised attorneys on Friday, at their final hearing before opening arguments. “Onward.”
Jackson, 46, who faces 20 years in prison if convicted on all 10 felony counts, was indicted after an investigation that lasted nearly two years and produced 1,900 pages of grand jury testimony. Leaked excerpts from the transcript have prompted some legal experts to place the prosecution in the lead.
“Prosecutors are out ahead at this point,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor. “But they should be. They got a crippling indictment against Jackson.”
As is customary, prosecutors will make their opening statement first. They are expected to contend that in pursuing a friendship with the young boy, Jackson was “grooming” him for a sexual relationship.
Jackson himself fueled those suspicions in a 2003 documentary, when he told British journalist Martin Bashir that he enjoys sharing his bed with young boys. Bashir is expected to be the first witness for the prosecution.
The defense is expected to detail how Jackson has invited thousands of underprivileged children to Neverland over the years. The attorneys also will present expert testimony explaining the susceptibility of children to suggestion, especially by parents, therapists and investigators.
They will present a paper trail allegedly showing that the accuser and his family were staying in a hotel and going on shopping sprees courtesy of Jackson when prosecutors say the singer was holding them against their will.
Mesereau has indicated that he will have to go hard after the accuser’s mother, alleging that she has a history of attempting to shake down celebrities and businesses.
Melville ruled that the defense could mention a legal settlement in which the boy’s family received $150,000 in 2001 from J.C. Penney Co. The family said that store security guards beat and held them against their will after the accuser and his younger brother allegedly left the store with merchandise.
The day after the alleged beating, Mesereau argued in court, the mother returned to the store and embraced employees there, and later amended her initial claim to include an allegation that store guards had groped her.
According to Mesereau, she ordered her son to use his illness to solicit money for family expenses. What donations she received, Mesereau said, the mother spent on such things as cosmetic surgery.
“She got a breast enhancement and a tummy tuck and then told Mr. Jackson and all these people that she was destitute,” Mesereau said.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen argued that the spending issue was irrelevant. “The question is whether a man who admits to sleeping with children was sleeping with this child, and what he did with this child,” Zonen said. “That’s what this case is about.”
Mesereau faces the delicate task of skeptically analyzing the now-15-year-old boy’s allegations while appearing sensitive to a patient in remission from a life-threatening illness.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, acknowledge that they have been trying to jail Jackson for years because, they say, he molests children.
“Was there frustration in 1993? Yes,” said Jim Thomas, who was Santa Barbara County sheriff during the first case. “The frustration was that the case should have gone to court. “
The finances of both Jackson and his accuser’s family are expected to be important issues.
Prosecutors contend that the broadcast of Bashir’s documentary stung the star financially as well as emotionally. Frightened that his tottering empire would collapse under the weight of negative publicity, Jackson held the young accuser and his family hostage to secure their help in a rebuttal video, they argue.
In a motion for expert testimony on Jackson’s finances, prosecutors describe the star as “a multimillionaire, albeit with a billionaire’s spending habits.”
“His motive in this case was to preserve both his fortune and his reputation, the integrity of which was central to his ability to continue to earn a significant income,” prosecutors said.
For their part, defense attorneys say that the real motive was greed on the part of the boy’s mother -- even before the time of the alleged molestation.
At a pretrial hearing last August, the boy’s stepfather, a career Army officer known in court only as “Mr. Doe,” testified about negotiating with a Jackson aide over payment for the family’s cooperation in a video rebutting the Bashir documentary.
The father said the Jackson representative promised the family a house and college money for their three children. But the father said he held out for more.
“I said that’s all well and good, but you’re making millions off this,” he testified. “What are you willing to do for this little family, financially?”
Both sides may present expert testimony on the reliability of children as witnesses.
“It’s not a ‘whodunit,’ ” said veteran Santa Barbara defense attorney Steve Balash. “It’s whether it happened at all.”
About 1,100 journalists from around the world have requested credentials to cover the trial in Santa Maria, a farming town of 77,000 people.
The trial may include appearances by former teen stars who have been friends with Jackson, including Corey Feldman, Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin.
Feldman, who once defended Jackson’s behavior with children, may testify for the prosecution. The defense hopes to call a host of Jackson’s Hollywood friends and acquaintances, including Jay Leno, Quincy Jones and Elizabeth Taylor.
Over the weekend, a man was selling a mint-condition vinyl copy of Jackson’s “Thriller” album, the biggest-selling album in history, on EBay. “Get it now!” the owner wrote. “If MJ gets convicted the price will skyrocket!”
Times correspondent Sally Connell contributed to this report.