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No Thriller, Jackson Prosecution Rests

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Times Staff Writers

When pop star Michael Jackson was charged with child molestation in 2003, prosecutors said his trial would finally topple a world-class entertainer who had used his fame and money to elude similar allegations in the past.

But when Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon rested his case Wednesday, its effect was muted by a string of dubious witnesses caught in inconsistencies and lies.

The key witness, the 15-year-old accuser, struggled through tough cross-examination, contradicting himself and admitting to lies -- common enough among molestation victims, according to child-abuse experts, but lies nonetheless.

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“I don’t think the prosecution made its case,” said Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Trent Copeland, noting that the accuser was uncertain about such fundamental details as how many times he was molested.

“If you can’t believe how it happened, when it happened, how many times it happened, you begin to wonder whether it happened,” Copeland said.

The molestation testimony, which took only hours, was eclipsed by evidence about Jackson’s alleged conspiracy to hold the boy and his family captive at the Neverland ranch. That testimony dragged on for weeks -- and, in the end, still was murky.

The central witness to the alleged conspiracy was the accuser’s mother, whose testimony raised more questions than it answered. Admitting to lies in a lawsuit against J.C. Penney Co., she opened the door to defense arguments that she was an opportunist out for a chunk of Jackson’s fortune.

For their part, prosecutors scored points by showing surveillance videos indicating that the mother and her three children really were being followed by Jackson associates, as she had alleged.

Even more significant, they were allowed by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville to introduce testimony on past allegations of molestation against Jackson.

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Under a 10-year-old California law, the eight women and four men on the jury may conclude from those accounts that the entertainer is a pedophile, and therefore likely to have molested the teen in the current case.

But most of those decade-old accusations came from ex-employees who had peddled their stories to the tabloids, had been involved in a lawsuit against Jackson or generally were made to seem by the defense as if they had an ax to grind.

“The jury can see what they want to see,” said former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, who now teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles “If they want to see Michael Jackson as a serial child molester, they’ve got the evidence. If they want to see him as hounded by ex-employees, bizarre mothers and people with dollar signs in their eyes, they’ll see that.”

Jackson, 46, is charged with four counts of child molestation as well as one count of conspiring to hold the then-13-year-old boy and his family captive at his opulent Neverland ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley. He also faces four felony charges of giving the boy wine in order to seduce him and one count of attempted molestation. If convicted of all 10 counts, the singer could face more than 20 years in prison.

The prosecution’s scenario was at once fascinating and repellent, a story about one of the most successful celebrities in the world allegedly preying on a star-struck young cancer survivor from a broken home.

According to prosecutors, the molestation began after Jackson and his aides conspired to get his accuser’s family to appear in a gushing video to rebut a damaging British TV documentary.

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In the 2003 documentary, Jackson set off a global uproar by admitting that he enjoyed nonsexual sleepovers with young boys. His accuser appeared in the documentary, holding hands with the singer and resting his head on his shoulder.

The defense contends that Jackson was actually the person victimized. According to his attorneys, the singer was generous to a fault, unwittingly offering help to a con artist who had her young son accuse him of molestation so she could cash in on an eventual lawsuit. The Times is withholding the mother’s name, along with the names of other relatives who testified, to protect the identities of the alleged molestation victims.

Jackson attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. has ridiculed the prosecution’s timeline, in particular the allegation that the molestation began after the TV documentary prompted Santa Barbara County prosecutors and Los Angeles social workers to investigate whether abuse had already occurred.

Jurors will probably hear the defense case starting today. Jackson’s lawyers filed a motion late Wednesday asking that all charges be thrown out for lack of evidence.

Many legal analysts said they would not be surprised if Melville threw out the conspiracy charge, contending there was little evidence linking Jackson to the alleged plot.

Prosecutors have suffered several self-inflicted wounds, analysts said. Several of their 85 witnesses backfired.

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Jackson’s ex-wife, Deborah Rowe, was to testify that Jackson aides carefully rehearsed her appearance on the rebuttal video that praised her ex-husband. This would have echoed the mother of Jackson’s accuser, who said she was coached for a similar appearance while being held at Neverland.

Instead, Rowe told the jury that her affectionate statements on the video were spontaneous and unrehearsed. Further, she said Jackson’s associates often acted without his knowledge and against his best interests -- a potentially damaging blow to the conspiracy charge.

The accuser’s mother was at times weepy, at times combative during her five days on the stand.

She told of Jackson’s aides coercing her into staying at Neverland by saying killers had targeted her and her children. She spoke of Jackson’s plan to have the family vanish in Brazil, and her efforts to leave clues for anyone who might try to find them.

That she “escaped” from Neverland the first of three times in a Rolls-Royce driven by a Jackson employee was one of many apparent inconsistencies that defense attorneys pounced on. During one of the “escapes,” she conceded, she took a chauffeur-driven trip at Jackson’s expense to get a leg-waxing.

By the end of her testimony, prosecutors did manage to show that Jackson aides took some extraordinary measures to control the woman. At times they followed her, recorded some of her calls and even tried to sit in when Los Angeles social workers interviewed the family.

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Still, her demeanor may have raised serious doubts for jurors.

“There’s no question that she came off as paranoid and possibly even delusional,” said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor who is following the trial as a TV analyst.

Even so, the prosecution scored some significant points. Jurors saw the 2003 British TV documentary and Jackson’s admission about the sleepovers.

And they learned that Jackson paid settlements to two boys who had accused him of molestation in the 1990s, although the amounts of the settlements (one was for more than $20 million, the other for more than $2 million) were not disclosed.

When the current accuser testified, jurors saw a teenager so at ease with prosecutors that he addressed Sneddon by his first name. But under grilling by Mesereau, he lapsed into a mumbling monotone, especially when asked about inconsistencies in his various accounts of the alleged molestations.

The teen acknowledged some confusion about when the alleged incidents occurred. He also admitted he told a school administrator that Jackson did not molest him, explaining that schoolmates would have taunted him if word got out.

The only witness to any alleged molestations was the accuser’s younger brother, a high school freshman who spoke haltingly and was uncomfortable on the stand.

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The boy described twice seeing Jackson masturbating in bed while fondling his brother, who he said appeared to be asleep. Under cross-examination, he denied giving different details to a psychologist, who told a grand jury that the boy said he saw Jackson rubbing up against his brother’s buttocks.

“I never said that,” he insisted in court. “I know what I said.”

Credibility also was an issue for many of the witnesses who testified about alleged molestations in Jackson’s past.

They described watching the singer showering with young boys and sleeping with them in his Neverland bedroom. They said they saw him kissing and groping children, including actor Macaulay Culkin.

The most graphic testimony came from former Jackson security guard Ralph Chacon, who said he saw the pop star perform oral sex on a teenage boy outside a shower at Neverland in 1993. But on cross-examination, Chacon acknowledged suing Jackson for wrongful termination and, in a countersuit from the star, being slapped with a $1.4-million legal judgment that forced him into bankruptcy.

Perhaps most damaging to Jackson was the testimony from the 24-year-old son of a former Jackson maid. The young man, a former youth pastor, stifled tears and asked for a court recess while explaining to the jury that Jackson fondled him three times when he was between 7 and 10 years old.

After each incident, the young man testified, Jackson gave him a $100 bill.

“It was kind of a ‘Don’t-tell-your-mom about the money,’ ” he said.

Mesereau, so successful at scoring points in cross-examining other witnesses, had little to say to the maid’s son, the only alleged victim to testify directly about past abuse.

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There were other powerful moments for the prosecution.

The mother of a 13-year-old boy who sued Jackson for alleged molestation in 1993 admitted that she turned a blind eye toward the relationship between the superstar and her son.

Even when Jackson spent 30 consecutive nights in the boy’s bedroom, she said, she failed to act.

Instead, she said, she accepted gifts of expensive jewelry and lavish trips.

Asked when she last saw her son, she choked up, barely able to answer.

It’s been 11 years, she said.

Now 25, her son did not testify.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dashed expectations

A number of prosecution witnesses in the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial did not testify as prosecutors had predicted. Among them:

Cynthia Bell: A flight attendant for a charter jet service, Bell was expected to say she saw Jackson share wine from a Diet Coke can with the young boy who became his accuser. But she testified she never saw such an incident and added that she poured wine into soda cans for other patrons too.

Rudy Provencio: A record producer and Jackson insider, Provencio was expected to deliver details about Jackson’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy involving his accuser’s family. But on the witness stand, he said Jackson associate Marc Schaffel “directed everything” and that Jackson himself was not aware of what was happening with the family he allegedly was holding captive.

Deborah Rowe: Jackson’s ex-wife, Rowe was expected to say she was coerced into making a scripted, saccharine statement about the star for a TV special. That would have backed up testimony from the accuser’s mother. Instead, Rowe testified there was no script and that all of her loving comments about Jackson were from the heart.

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Chris Carter: Jackson’s former security chief, Carter was expected to say he saw Jackson and the boy drink wine together. He also was to testify that Jackson was an active, involved manager of his ranch, bolstering the prosecution’s allegation that no conspiracy could have occurred without the singer’s approval. But during the trial, Carter was jailed in Las Vegas on armed robbery charges. He never made it to the witness stand.

Source: Times staff reports

Los Angeles Times

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