Fans and sightseers flock to Jackson trial

Small Californian town braced for huge influx of visitors when child molestation case gets under way
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Every available hotel room has been booked for months, the television networks have staked out their spots and the barricades are ready to go up around the courthouse.

Every available hotel room has been booked for months, the television networks have staked out their spots and the barricades are ready to go up around the courthouse.

The atmosphere is tense as the little town of Santa Maria prepares for an unprecedented invasion of thousands of journalists and sightseers when the trial of Michael Jackson begins on 31 January, amid tight security. Jackson's brother Jerome has claimed that "many people are travelling from around the globe to support him."

Officials are taking the warning to heart. They do not want a repeat of the scenes at Jackson's arraignment a year ago when hundreds of fans cheered him and surged on to the street as he danced on the roof of a van.

"We weren't happy at all about that and hope Mr Jackson doesn't try anything like it again," said Santa Maria police spokesman Lt Chris Vaughn. He said that this time the Jackson family and their followers, who previously organised rented buses into a "convoy of love", will be urged to arrive with fewer vehicles and take "a more direct route" to the courthouse.

Fans will this time be kept behind barricades across the street from the courthouse instead of being allowed to mill around on the grounds. Cameras are barred from the 60-seat courtroom, but BSkyB and America's E! Entertainment network have found a way around the ban, by showing daily re-enactments of the trial.

Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy and conspiring to commit child abduction. He also faces charges of administering an intoxicating agent - liquor he allegedly served in soda cans to boy visitors to his Neverland ranch - and extortion.

The high-profile trial is expected to contain some sensational and disturbing evidence about Jackson's alleged sexual proclivities, although Judge Rodney Melville still has to rule on whether prosecutors can raise previous, unproved accusations against the pop star. Prosecutors want to present evidence showing that Jackson has sexually abused boys in the past. In 1993 he was investigated by two grand juries for allegedly molesting a teenager, but the case fell apart after a multimillion-pound settlement with the boy's family. Under a 1996 California law judges may allow such "propensity" evidence in trials of alleged sex crimes.

Although specific details of the molestation charges have been kept secret by the judge, much of the prosecution's case has leaked out through confidential law enforcement and government reports and court records. According to those who have seen the documents, Jackson is portrayed as a predator who plied children with wine and spirits and gave them nicknames such as "Doo Doo Head" and "Blowhole".

The prosecution case reportedly rests largely on accounts provided to investigators by the teenage boy and his younger brother, older sister and mother.

The trial, which is being held in Santa Maria because the town, like Jackson's ranch, is in northern Santa Barbara county, will last for at least six months. Jury selection alone may take a month, say lawyers on both sides: 4,000 jurors have been summoned, adding to the chaos. They will report to the courthouse in batches of 150 to be questioned on their attitudes towards racial prejudice, divorce, plastic surgery and celebrity. Many will be excused because they cannot afford to forgo work. Others will ask to be exempted because of personal experience of sexual abuse.

The final jury is expected to be mainly white - fewer than 2 per cent of people in northern Santa Barbara county are black - and predominantly conservative.