Focus: 'If this wasn't Michael Jackson and he didn't have a top lawyer, he'd be in the cells by now'

As the biggest celebrity ever to go on trial waits for the verdict that could condemn him to prison, Andrew Gumbel, who has followed the case from the start, reports from Santa Maria, California, on how a compelling case was blighted by distortion
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The Independent US

Having been the trial that seemed as if it would never start, it turned into the trial that, at times, seemed as if it would never end. And yet Michael Jackson's criminal trial on child molestation charges is now in the hands of the jury. Within days, we will know whether the weirdest man in showbusiness will merely limp home with his reputation and his finances in tatters, or whether he is destined to spend the next several years behind bars as a convicted sex offender.

Having been the trial that seemed as if it would never start, it turned into the trial that, at times, seemed as if it would never end. And yet Michael Jackson's criminal trial on child molestation charges is now in the hands of the jury. Within days, we will know whether the weirdest man in showbusiness will merely limp home with his reputation and his finances in tatters, or whether he is destined to spend the next several years behind bars as a convicted sex offender.

It has been more than three months since the trial got under way in the squat courthouse in Santa Maria in central California, more than two years since the alleged events now under such withering scrutiny, and a dizzying 12 years since accusations of sexual abuse triggered the first major investigation by the Santa Barbara County sheriff's department into the dark side of Jackson's Neverland ranch.

If the wheels of justice have moved slowly, it has been almost entirely due to Jackson's celebrity. He and his lawyers say his prominence has made him a target of chancers and con artists and grifters of all stripes who have invented the child sex charges as a way of laying claim to his millions. His prosecutors would argue, by contrast, that the incessant media scrutiny and the wiliness of Jackson's legal advisers have forced them to tread very carefully. If Jackson were not so famous, and able to afford the best legal representation, chances are that the elegant appeals to high principle would have long since been thrown out and the prosecution, rightly or wrongly, could have relied on the undeniably tawdry elements to score an easy victory.

While Tom Sneddon and his colleagues made a compelling circumstantial case that Jackson conducts questionable relationships with pre-pubescent boys and invites them to sleep with him in a bedroom filled with pornographic magazines, they have been hampered by the highly problematic inconsistencies, distortions and acknowledged lies under oath of their star witnesses - the recovered cancer patient Gavin Arvizo, who alleged being mastur-bated by Jackson against his will at least twice, and the wider Arvizo family.

In his final summing up on Friday, Jackson's lead lawyer, Tom Mesereau, ripped through the Arvizos one by one and concluded: "The witnesses are preposterous, the perjury is everywhere ... The only thing they [the prosecution] have left is throwing dirt everywhere to see if any of it sticks." That might have been an overstatement, but there is no doubt that the prosecution has been forced to explain away and apologise for at least some members of the Arvizo family, especially Gavin's mother, Janet, whose four days of testimony in March gave a less than sterling impression of her mental stability. The dodginess of the Arvizos might have mattered less if the prosecution had a smoking gun - some kind of incontrovertible physical evidence such as a DNA sample, say, or a diary entry about a sexual encounter - but it does not. It can't even pin down the dates of the alleged molestation.

In his own summing up, deputy district attorney Ron Zonen outlined what was in effect an elegant theory of Jackson's guilt - his pattern of behaviour around pubescent boys for more than a decade, his permissive indulgence of their every whim, his alleged fondness for feeding his guests alcohol and his alleged use of pornography to soften them up.

But of course in criminal trials, with their burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt, theory is not necessarily going to be enough. From the moment the first Arvizo, Gavin's elder sister Devellin, took the stand three months ago and revealed herself, like her relatives, to be a shifty and less than sympathetic witness, journalists and legal pundits have been predicting acquittal for Jackson. As Mr Mesereau argued in his closing statement, it might take only one element of doubt about the veracity of the Arvizos to throw the entire case into question.

That said, the prosecution has a few strong cards in its hands, none more so than the police video of Gavin Arvizo's first disclosure of the alleged abuse. The tape of Gavin squirming uncomfortably in his chair and speaking in a barely audible voice of hands slipping down his trousers and bringing him to unwanted sexual arousal moved one juror to tears the first time it was played in court. And Mr Zonen took care to play it one more time before the jury retired to consider its verdict.

If the jury finds Gavin's disclosure credible, it might just be able to overlook the multiple problems with the Arvizos and chalk them up to the trauma of a family that lived under the shadow of domestic violence for years and clearly showed poor judgement, one way or the other, in its dealings with Jackson and his entourage. One can only speculate what impression they have gleaned of Michael Jackson himself. He did not testify, appearing only in video format via out-takes and other material from Martin Bashir's documentary Living with Michael Jackson, whose airing in March 2003 was viewed as a public relations disaster for the Jackson camp because of its emphasis on the star's habit of sharing his bed with his young male companions.

They certainly know he is a little odd - after turning up in his pyjama bottoms early on in the trial, he made frequent trips to hospital, the most recent last Thursday for a little energy boost following a day in which he looked distinctly pasty.

They will also have found it hard not to notice how much Jackson loves being the centre of attention. Most mornings, the jurors have been greeted outside the courthouse by an assortment of fans from around the world protesting his innocence. In the climactic few days, the crowd took to chanting "Go, Michael, go!" at the defence team and "Liars! Liars!" at the prosecution. On Friday the spectacle was compounded by the arrival of a local contingent of peace activists protesting against the war in Iraq - they have been showing up weekly to take advantage of the media presence. Some of the intermingling banners were hard to distinguish. Was "Stop the Madness" a reference to Jackson's ordeal? Was the sign that read "The so-called evidence in this case stinks" something to do with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

In many ways, the Michael Jackson trial has been admirably uncircus-like. Judge Rodney Melville issued some stern warnings to the defendant near the beginning of the case and moved proceedings on at a healthy clip. These three months have sometimes seemed very long, but they pale in comparison with the 15 months of testimony in the O J Simpson murder trial a decade ago.

For some fans, the trial has been something close to a religious experience. Jessica Di Gregorio, a student from Rhode Island on the other side of the country, said she was risking everything to be there to support her idol. "I'm going to fail. I'm going to get fired from my job at JC Penney. But I don't care," she said. "Michael is more important."

MOMENTS OF HIGH DRAMA AT THE SANTA MARIA COURTHOUSE

3 March

After the opening exchanges, Janet Arvizo, the alleged victim's mother, is branded a "money-grabbing crack con-artist" by Jackson's defence team. They also label Gavin Arvizo and his brother as "out-of-control youngsters" who roamed Neverland stealing wine and getting drunk.

11 March, part I

Jackson turns up at court in his pyjamas and slippers after being taken to hospital with "serious back problems". Staff at the Santa Ynez hospital confirm that the singer made an appearance but say: "We don't know why he was here." The judge had earlier ordered Jackson's arrest after he had failed to arrive at court on time.

11 March, part II

In the most graphic evidence given so far, 15-year-old Arvizo claims Jackson made him masturbate: "He grabbed my hand to get me to do it, but I didn't want to." He alleges that he and his brother got into Jackson's bed after consuming alcohol. Jackson then "put his hands in my pants and started rubbing me".

31 March

Prosecution witness Andrea Bell, an air stewardess, confirms serving two bottles of red wine to Jackson in Diet Pepsi cans. Bell said it was her own idea as Jackson is a "very private drinker" and a "nervous flier". Arvizo claims Jackson told him to drink the "Jesus wine" to help him relax.

27 April

Jackson's ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, mother of Paris and Prince Michael, portrays Jackson as a great father, but a man "surrounded by opportunistic vultures". The testimony comes as a shock, as the prosecution expected Rowe to testify against him.

11 May

Macaulay Culkin defends Jackson, saying the allegation of molestation is "absolutely ridiculous". The Home Alone star admits his father caught him in bed with Jackson even though he never saw it as an "issue". He said Jackson was "childlike" but he never saw him doing "anything improper with anybody".

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