Tom Sneddon dies at 73; D.A. best known for prosecuting Michael Jackson

Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon is shown outside the courthouse in 2005 after a Santa Maria jury acquitted pop star Michael Jackson on child molestation charges. Sneddon died Saturday at the age of 73.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Tom Sneddon, a retired Santa Barbara County district attorney whose best-known prosecution ended in the acquittal of pop star Michael Jackson on child molestation charges, died Saturday in a Santa Barbara hospital. He was 73.

Nov. 3, 12:08 p.m.: The headline and caption on an earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said Tom Sneddon was 71 years old. He was 73.

Sneddon died of complications from cancer, Dist. Atty. Joyce Dudley said in an email to her staff.

Dudley, who was elected in 2010 and had worked under Sneddon for 16 years, said “his expectations were always clear: Be the most prepared person in the courtroom, use all of your intellect, work hard, step right up to the line but never over it.”


But Sneddon’s most vocal critics contended that his pursuit of Jackson had become a vendetta.

In the early 1990s, Sneddon tried to build a case against Jackson after the family of a 13-year-old boy sued the singer over alleged molestations. But when the family settled with Jackson for more than $20 million, Sneddon’s case, and a parallel investigation in Los Angeles, imploded.

A 1995 Jackson song, “D.S.,” memorialized the event. With lines about a “T.A.” named Dom Sheldon, it was widely seen as a taunting put-down of Sneddon. Its most memorable lyric, repeated at various points more than 20 times, was: “Dom Sheldon is a cold man.”

For his part, Sneddon told reporters, he wasn’t a big Jackson fan. “I have not, shall we say, done him the honor of listening to it,” he said.

Earlier in his career, other attorneys in his office had given Sneddon the moniker “Mad Dog” for his tenacity. In 1976, it took him three tries to win a murder conviction against a prominent Santa Barbara businessman accused of arranging his wife’s death in what was supposed to appear as a hit-and-run accident. The first two trials ended in hung juries.

In 1988, he filed charges against Robert Huttenback, a popular UC Santa Barbara chancellor who was accused of embezzling more than $100,000 from the university for home improvements. Huttenback was convicted.


In 2003, Sneddon led a new Jackson investigation. He directed a 14-hour search of Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch near Los Olivos, and, later, held an ebullient news conference announcing a warrant for Jackson’s arrest. In a move that sitting district attorneys make only rarely, he chose to personally participate in the globally publicized trial.

“It’s important for the lawyers to be able to see that the boss can still try a case,” he once said, “so they know that you’re just not a bench jockey and that you know what you’re talking about.”

After a Santa Maria jury acquitted Jackson on all counts, Sneddon expressed disappointment over the outcome.

In interviews, jurors said the prosecution came undone at a number of points, including testimony from the alleged victim’s mother that Jackson had kidnapped her in a Rolls-Royce and was planning to spirit the family to Brazil in a hot-air balloon. Some also came to doubt the alleged victim as defense attorney Tom Mesereau hammered away at him on the witness stand, pointing out inconsistencies in his accounts of drinking wine, viewing Internet porn and committing sexual acts with Jackson.

“In the end, I don’t think there’s anything we could have done short of a videotaped confession,” Sneddon said in a post-verdict interview with The Times.

He and his allies continued to fend off accusations that the prosecution was personal.

“He prosecuted the case because he believed the kid, and so Jackson wouldn’t be able to hurt more kids. Period,” Jim Thomas, a former Santa Barbara County sheriff, said after the trial. “And it would have been the same were it Michael Smith or Michael Jackson.”


Jackson died in 2009 after his doctor gave him an overdose of a powerful anesthetic.

Thomas William Sneddon Jr. was born in Los Angeles in May 1941 and raised in Lynwood. His parents and grandparents were all bakers, and his father told him that he too would wind up in a bakery if he didn’t go to college.

Sneddon graduated in 1963 from the University of Notre Dame, where he boxed. He attended law school at UCLA, where he met his wife, Pamela Shires Sneddon.

In 1969, he joined the district attorney’s office in Santa Barbara and was first elected to the office’s top job in 1982. He retired in 2006.

An ardent athlete, Sneddon played tackle football with an adult team well into his 50s. He also was passionate about golf and softball, and coached youth teams in various sports.

In addition to his wife, Sneddon’s survivors include nine children and 14 grandchildren.
Twitter: @schawkins