SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- They included a 79-year-old great-grandmother who enjoys a good game of bridge, a 21-year-old who deliberated from a wheelchair, and a 45-year-old mother of three who worked in a supermarket.
By their own admission in court Monday, jurors in the Michael Jackson child molestation case came from modest, anonymous backgrounds before they suddenly felt the “weight of the world’s eyes” upon them when they were asked to decide the fate of one of the world’s best known pop stars. It was a moment that reduced several of them to tears.
Poring over 98 pages of jury instructions and taking notes until their hands went numb, jurors said they examined every piece of evidence and set aside all personal feelings about Jackson and his behavior. As troubling as it was to some, jurors said they stuck purely to the facts of the case.
“I think that Michael Jackson probably has molested boys,” juror Raymond Hultman said. “But that doesn’t make him guilty of the charges in this case.”
While jurors issued a statement through the judge asking that they be allowed to return to “our private lives as anonymous as we came,” many willingly abandoned that anonymity in the hours that followed. As the jurors piled out of a sheriff’s van and headed to their own cars, an army of television network “bookers” showered them with free plane tickets, hotel rooms, meals and limousine rides if they agreed to appear on the next morning’s news programs.
Juror Mike Stevens, 21, of Santa Maria had agreed to appear on ABC, NBC and CBS before he rolled his wheelchair through his front door.
But the notoriety of the case and the intense media focus was the least of their concerns during the 14-week trial, jurors said. In most cases, the jury gave reporters the slip by entering through the back of the courthouse.
“It really didn’t bother us that much,” juror Melissa Herard said of the media spectacle.
What the panel found far more difficult to deal with, though, were the inquiries of spouses and friends, long sleepless nights and the grueling pace of the proceedings. Jurors plugged away at the case for six hours each day, without lunch breaks. Rest came in the form of three 10-minute breaks only.
Jurors said they hadn’t anticipated that they would come to an agreement Monday, and the weight of the decision caused some to weep in court.
“It was very emotional,” said Herard, 42, of Lompoc, one of several jurors who sobbed as the court clerk read the acquittals. The mother of four said she was not only moved by the impact of their decision -- “It’s like a no-win situation for everyone in both families,” she said -- but also because the verdict marked the end of a close and intense relationship with her fellow jurors.
“I just realized that it’s done and it’s over, and we can now go on with our lives,” Herard said.
In the end, Hultman and jury foreman Paul Rodriguez said, the prosecution’s case never added up.
“We were required to look at some very specific counts in this case,” Hultman, of Santa Maria, said. “One of the counts wasn’t that Michael Jackson was guilty of sleeping with boys or that he was guilty of having adult material in his home.”
Repeatedly, jurors said they were puzzled why certain evidence was presented to them at all. Such was the case with fingerprints lifted from pornographic magazines found at Neverland ranch.
“We went through a lot of fingerprints,” Rodriguez said. “Ridges, you name it, I think we heard it all -- things we’ve never thought about. But again, the fingerprints had a lot not to do with the case because those are adult magazines, and anyone can own them.... It doesn’t prove the charge.”
Panel members said that they found testimony from the accuser’s mother unconvincing, and her manner on the stand distasteful. They particularly took issue with her snapping her fingers at the jury and insisting at one point that an image had been burned into her head.
“She said a lot of things that ... came on very strong,” said juror Pauline Coccoz, a 45-year-old mother of three from Santa Maria. Her view seemed to jibe with defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr.'s attempt to characterize the victim’s family as opportunists with pecuniary motives.
Rodriguez, 63, of Santa Maria, was similarly put off by her demeanor. He recalled one moment in particular when the woman addressed the jury box and looked into his eyes and said, with a wink, “You know how our culture is.” The accuser and his mother are Latino, like Rodriguez. “I thought, that’s not how our culture is,” Rodriguez said.
While testimony on Jackson’s activities at his ranch might have hardened some of the jurors’ opinions of the performer, others said seeing him in person helped counteract his image as a bizarre, international celebrity.
“He’s a human,” said Herard. “Watching him throughout the whole trial, I thought, he is a normal person.... It made him real in my eyes.”
Rodriguez said viewing Jackson as a human being, not a celebrity, was an early collective decision.
“One of the first things we decided was that we had to look at him as just like any other individual, not just as a celebrity,” Rodriguez said. “And once we got that established and we could go beyond that, we were able to deal with him just as fairly as we could with anybody else.”
What was far more difficult to ignore was the stress of their duty, he said.
“My wife says I don’t smile anymore,” Rodriguez said. “But maybe that will come back.”
Asked what they were looking forward to most now that the trial was over, most jurors said they were looking forward to getting some shut-eye.
“Sleep is a big thing,” said Stevens. “I lost a lot of sleep over this, a lot of us have.... It’s going to take a few days to get back to an everyday routine, but it’s been worth it.”
Pfeifer reported from Santa Maria, Morin from Los Angeles.