Amid leaks and spin, media circus arrives for Jackson jury selection

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The Independent US

He is an eccentric enigma who is either a harmless Peter Pan who treats children with charity, or a cunning paedophile who lures victims and their parents with lavish gifts.

He is an eccentric enigma who is either a harmless Peter Pan who treats children with charity, or a cunning paedophile who lures victims and their parents with lavish gifts.

Twelve men and women will be chosen to determine the truth of the accusations swirling around Michael Jackson when jury selection for his child molestation trial starts today. The process is expected to take a month. Extra police and sheriff's officers have been drafted in and barricades have gone up outside the courthouse as the little town of Santa Maria braces itself. Thousands of sightseers and journalists have arrived; every room has been booked for months.

The courtroom seats only 60 and the sessions will not be televised, but cable news, television gossip shows and tabloid newspapers and magazines are planning heavy coverage and betting Mr Jackson's fame will attract the audiences and readers who were caught up by the O J Simpson trial in 1995. BSkyB and America's E! Entertainment network are joining up to present daily recreations of the trial based on transcripts.

Superior Court judge Rodney Melville has tried unsuccessfully to keep documents sealed and details secret. Despite his sweeping gag orders, enough has leaked to give a coherent picture of the prosecution and defence cases. The trial will contain disturbing evidence about Mr Jackson's alleged sexual proclivities.

Mr Jackson, 46, condemned the leaks yesterday as disgusting and false. "A large amount of ugly, malicious information has been released into the media about me," the singer said in a court-approved video statement that was released on his website. At a preliminary hearing on Friday, Judge Melville gave permission for the prosecution to show the jurors "erotic material" seized at Mr Jackson's Neverland ranch and to screen for them Martin Bashir's ITV documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, in which Mr Jackson held hands with his young accuser and admitted he often shared his bedroom with children.

And the judge warned the lawyers: "The world is watching justice in the United States here. I expect and know that you will all carry the burden of showing the world what a fine system we have. That does not include name-calling or personal attacks. I will not abide that."

Sources say the "erotic materials" seized from the ranch include photographs, videos, magazines, DVDs and a book entitled The Boy: A Photographic Essay which, say child erotica experts, is considered to be "a homoerotic classic". The latest information to leak out on the eve of the trial is that two men, now in their twenties who claim they were sexually molested by Mr Jackson, could appear.

Prosecutors want them to testify about their relationships with the entertainer, who paid one of them £1.5m in 1990 and gave the other a £15m settlement in 1994 to buy his silence and derail a criminal investigation into alleged child molestation. Mr Jackson's lawyer, Tom Mes-ereau, said the singer "regrets making these payments" at the suggestion of business advisers. "He should have fought these charges to the bitter end and vindicated himself," he said.

Judge Melville has said he will wait until the jury is selected before ruling on whether the men will be allowed to testify. Under a 1996 California law, judges often allow such "propensity" evidence in trials of alleged sex crimes. But the main witness against Mr Jackson, who has three children, will be the 15-year-old boy who claims the pop star molested him in his bedroom at Neverland when he was 12. His testimony will be supported by his younger brother, older sister and their mother.

Bashir's documentary was broadcast in February 2003 and in November that year, police swooped on Neverland, the 2,600-acre retreat where Mr Jackson has built a zoo, ferris wheel, roller-coaster and video arcade, for the purpose, according to the prosecutor, Gordon Achincloss, "of enticing and attracting children". An arrest warrant was issued and Mr Jackson was arrested and released on £1.5m bail. In April, he pleaded not guilty to 10 charges of child molestation, plying the child with alcohol - which he reportedly called "Jesus juice" - and plotting with his aides to coerce the boy and his family into taping a video proclaiming Mr Jackson's innocence. If convicted of all the charges, the singer could face more than 20 years in prison.

AT THE CENTRE OF THE STORM

The DA: His second try

Tom Sneddon, 63, has been the district attorney of Santa Barbara County for 22 years. He first charged Michael Jackson with child molestation in 1993 but the case fell apart after Mr Jackson paid his accuser a £15m settlement.

Mr Sneddon, who has a reputation for being sharp-tongued and tenacious, has been accused by Mr Jackson and his lawyers of a vendetta against the pop singer, which he strongly denies.

In Mr Jackson's 1995 HIStory album, he disguises Mr Sneddon's name and sings, "Dom Sheldon is a cold man". Mr Sneddon renewed his investigation after Martin Bashir's ITV documentary Living With Michael Jackson and the entertainer was arrested in November 2003. Mr Jackson has challenged Mr Sneddon to handle the prosecution personally and face him in court; Mr Sneddon has not responded.

The judge: Firm approach

The man who has been hearing pre-trial motions for the past year is the 67-year-old Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville.

The former US Navy submarine officer has a reputation as being stern but fair. From the outset, the judge let it be known he was in control and he has dismayed news organisations by banning cameras from court, imposing gag orders on lawyers and ordering documents to be sealed. A stickler for punctuality, he has kept the case on a tight schedule and has constantly refused requests for "sidebar" consultations at the bench between the judge and the lawyers. When Mr Jackson was 20 minutes late for arraignment last January, Judge Melville made it clear he would not tolerate tardiness. At other appearances Mr Jackson has arrived several minutes early.He lives with wife Vicki on a horse ranch and they have two daughters.

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