Courtroom thriller as fans flock to the Michael Jackson show

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The fans were out in force, sporting fedoras and face-paint, holding up hurriedly scrawled "Michael, we love you" posters for the serried ranks of television cameras.

So were the T-shirt sellers, the hotdog hawks, the newspaper vendors, and a handful of Jesus freaks urging the assembled crowd to convert before it was too late.

Music was blaring from a back of a van, drowned out occasionally by gaggles of fans bursting into spontaneous renditions of "Beat It" and other Jackson oldies.

Seemingly every uniformed officer in Santa Barbara County was on duty outside the courthouse, alongside a contingent of zoot-suited security guards from the Nation of Islam. Metal barriers blocked the entrance to the court building, while three helicopters patrolled the skies above.

In short, the Michael Jackson show had come to town.

Yesterday's arraignment hearing in the nondescript central Californian farming town of Santa Maria was little more than a formality to open criminal proceedings against the singer.

In fact, the main item of business was over in a matter of seconds, as the judge informed the defendant that he faced seven counts of child molestation and a further two of administering an intoxicating substance to a minor, and Mr Jackson - in a reedy, barely audible voice -- mumbled the words "not guilty" when asked how he was pleading.

But the showbiz circus was another matter. Hundreds of die-hard supporters had come from around the world to be there for their idol, many of them shivering in the freezing cold outside Mr Jackson's Neverland ranch for a candle-lit vigil overnight before travelling to the Santa Maria courthouse to sleep on the pavement and wait for the results of a lottery to see who would be admitted to the public gallery to watch the arraignment.

There was Olga from Uzbekistan, Miriam from Bergen in Norway, and sizeable contingents from Britain, France, Germany and all over the United States. Most of them were very young - way too young to remember Mr Jackson in his heyday in the early 1980s - but all were unwavering in their near-religious fervour.

Asked what attracted them, a group of young women threw out a slew of answers: "His eyes! His heart! His artistry! His whole persona!"

Sarah Johnson of the tiny Californian town of Atascadero even found him sexy. "It's his innocence," she said. "I look at him and I think, 'God, I can't have you, you're such a teenager!' He smells really good too. I like cologne on my man." Ms Johnson, who was barely into her 20s herself, described how she had travelled around the world to catch glimpses - and have as much contact as possible - with the 45-year-old singer.

"He touched my hand in Berlin," she said. "His hands are huge - oh my God! When he's looking at you it's not just looking, he's peering into your soul. When he blew a kiss at me, I almost passed out."

Such adulation goes a long way to explain why Mr Jackson's legal travails have captured the imagination of the media - who else attracts such a following these days?

Inside the courtroom, however, the atmosphere was very different, with Tom Sneddon, the rubicund Santa Barbara District Attorney, and the birdlike, white-haired judge, Rodney Melville, making it clear that they would tolerate no celebrity idiosyncrasies.

"Mr Jackson," the judge said sternly at the outset in what he called a polite warning. "You have started out on the wrong foot. You were late. I want to advise you I will not put with that."

The singer, who arrived wearing a blue blazer and eccentric red-and-white cravat-style necktie 15 minutes past the appointed hour of 8.30am, was forced to apologise and promise not to be late again.

Mr Jackson's hotshot lawyer, Mark Geragos, was similarly slapped down when he tried to introduce a new colleague on to the defence bench without prior warning. Within minutes, the usually combative Mr Geragos was deferring to the court's pleasure in his every pronouncement.

The public gallery was filled with Jackson family members including Michael's parents, his brothers Jermaine, Tito and Randy, and his sister Janet. Local officials, journalists and about 50 fans were also present.

Casey Underwood, a student from Orange County in southern California, whispered: "It's going to mean so much to him that we're here."

Kristie Dixon, from South Carolina, explained that she was cutting her first day of college classes to be at the arraignment. As Mr Jackson walked into the room, she began hyperventilating and muttering "Oh my God!" repeatedly. Most of the fans were holding hands, and some were in tears. "His hair looks so good!" one said. Later, when a hearing date was set for 13 February, a murmur rose up that this was the birthday of one of Mr Jackson's sons.

On leaving the courthouse, Mr Jackson jumped on the roof of his car and gave a little dance, shielded by an umbrella held by an aide, before being driven away.

It's going to be a long haul, with a trial - if it happens - unlikely before the summer. The great circus, however, is already in full swing.