Get ready, it's going to be a thriller

Next week, Michael Jackson will become the most famous person ever to appear in a criminal court. His trial has it all; sensational accusations, a global audience of billions and a superstar in the dock. Matthew Heller sets the scene for the frenzy to come
Click to follow
The Independent US

Since Michael Jackson was arrested in November 2003 for molesting a 13-year-old boy, opposing lawyers have traded insults in court and filed scores of legal documents, a key witness called Jackson "the devil", and swarms of reporters, fans and gawpers have disturbed the rural peace of Santa Maria, California.

Since Michael Jackson was arrested in November 2003 for molesting a 13-year-old boy, opposing lawyers have traded insults in court and filed scores of legal documents, a key witness called Jackson "the devil", and swarms of reporters, fans and gawpers have disturbed the rural peace of Santa Maria, California.

But now, after 14 months of frenzied build-up, the real drama is about to start. On 31 January, the first 150 prospective jurors will report to the Santa Maria courthouse. From a total jury pool of 4,000, one dozen will be selected to answer a brutal question: is "the king of pop" a paedophile?

Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to a total of 10 felony charges - one of conspiracy, four of committing lewd acts on a child under the age of 14, one of attempting to commit a lewd act, and four of administering alcohol to commit child molestation.

This latest "trial of the century" may be more sensational than that of OJ Simpson in Los Angeles in 1994. While Simpson was accused of a double murder, he was a relatively minor star - an American football legend turned character actor - compared to Jackson, perhaps the most famous celebrity ever to be charged as a felon. At the time of Simpson's trial, cable television and the internet had yet to turn celebrity crime into a round-the-clock obsession.

Before Simpson even faced his jury, much of the evidence had been disclosed to the public. The trial was televised, making celebrities of everyone from Judge Lance Ito to Detective Mark Fuhrman. But Jackson's case has the media-hostile Judge Rodney Melville, who has barred cameras from the courtroom, sealed the lips of anyone involved with gag orders, and allowed public copies of court filings to be heavily censored. One impenetrable prosecution motion had 30 of its 46 pages blacked out.

But lately, documents detailing the prosecution's case have leaked out like a southern California flood. The Smoking Gun website has featured search-warrant affidavits, soberly concluding that "if the harrowing and deeply disturbing allegations in these documents are true, Jackson is a textbook paedophile". ABC News aired graphic excerpts from secret grand jury testimony, including that of the alleged victim.

"This case will be won in the courtroom and not through leaks in the media," Thomas Mesereau, Jackson's lead lawyer, fumed after Melville temporarily ungagged him. "When he has his day in court, Michael Jackson will be acquitted and vindicated."

Visitors to Neverland, Jackson's ranch home, had to run a gauntlet of security to get into the host's two-level bedroom. Guarding the outside of the bedroom door was a sensor system similar to those retailers use to catch shoplifters. A code typed into a keypad would open the door. On the inside of the door were no fewer than seven locks. But the courtroom proceedings will strip away the privacy of Michael Jackson, taking the jury - and the public - inside that same bedroom. If he is convicted of all charges, his next bedroom will be a prison cell that he could be sentenced to occupy for more than 18 years.

Small-town vs Hollywood

The courthouse is in the centre of a sleepy town of 80,000 that, until the Jackson case, was best known for broccoli and barbecues. Local businesses will reap an off-season windfall from a horde of almost 1,000 media representatives, and hotel rooms are at a premium. When Jackson was arraigned a year ago, one resident rented space outside his bungalow near the courthouse to food vendors. He made about $150.

Neverland is only a short drive from the courthouse, but it's safe to say that the jury will not contain anyone who could be called Jackson's peer. In fact, few, if any, of the jurors will have much in common with him.

The jury will be chosen from northern Santa Barbara County, which, in spite of an influx of suburbanites, is still predominantly small-town, agricultural and conservative. Jackson's annual income is estimated at between $18m (about £10m) and $20m: the per-capita income of the residents of Santa Maria, the area's largest town, is $13,780. And Jackson has mostly kept to himself at Neverland, secluded in a high-security castle with his Hollywood entourage.

The intense head of the prosecution team, District Attorney Tom Sneddon, personifies the small-town values of the community. He's a devout Catholic and father of nine, whose wife writes magazine articles for Christian Parenting Today. He decided early on that the trial would be held in Santa Maria, rather than 60 miles to the south in the more liberal, cosmopolitan city of Santa Barbara.

Mesereau, who practises law from the ritzy Century City district of Los Angeles, doesn't have any hometown advantages. Nor can he really play the race card, which the defence did so effectively in the Simpson trial. Jackson's complexion now belies his African-American ethnicity. And even if he still identifies himself as black, that might not make any difference with the jury: only 1.9 per cent of Santa Maria's population is African-American.

It might not be much of an omen, but in 2002, a Santa Maria jury ruled against Jackson in a civil trial, ordering him to pay $5.3m in damages to Marcel Avram, his former concert promoter.

Predator vs grifter

"We have an incredibly powerful man who is a paedophile," a prosecutor said of Jackson in the grand jury hearing. "A 44-year-old man who molested [a] 13-year-old [boy]. A man of unimaginable wealth and power whose sexual desire for a teenage boy is his downfall."

The boy was sick with a rare cancer when he said his final wish was to meet Jackson. A West Hollywood comedy-club owner, Jamie Masada, contacted Jackson, who often fulfilled children's "make a wish" requests. He called the boy in hospital. After the boy's discharge, Jackson invited him to Neverland in August 2000. When Martin Bashir famously interviewed Jackson at the ranch in September 2002, Jackson had the boy at his side as he described their sleeping arrangements in his bedroom. "Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson asked a startled Bashir. "That's the most loving thing to do, is share your bed with someone."

The interview was broadcast in February 2003. According to police, Jackson * * became so alarmed that he conspired with five business associates to imprison the boy and his family at Neverland. Over the next few weeks, he allegedly molested the boy in his bedroom. The boy told investigators that, on one occasion, Jackson offered to show him how to masturbate. "He told Michael, 'No,' but Michael said, 'I'll do it for you,' and 'I'll show you,'" a search-warrant affidavit says. "Michael then grabbed him in his private area."

To convict Jackson of child molestation, prosecutors must show he touched the boy with the intent to arouse his own sexual interest or the boy's. The accuser, whose cancer reportedly is in remission, is obviously the key prosecution witness.

But members of his family will also testify. His younger brother said in police interviews and grand jury testimony that he saw Jackson fondle the boy as the boy was either asleep or drunkenly passed out on the entertainer's bed. Other prosecution evidence will come directly from the Neverland bedroom, including a collection of pornographic magazines that police found in a November 2003 search. The accuser's brother had helpfully pinpointed the exact location of a porn-containing black suitcase.

The defence faces the tricky task of not being too tough on an alleged victim who is a cancer survivor. But they will try to portray his mother as a grifter who has programmed her kids to make tawdry accusations to further her money-making schemes. One of those alleged schemes netted a $137,500 settlement from a department store that the mother sued in 2001, claiming that security guards assaulted her and her sons. The mother may be a bit of a loose cannon; during a pre-trial hearing, she said Mesereau's questions were triggering flashbacks.

Once the jury is selected, Judge Melville will make perhaps his most important decision. Prosecutors have asked him to let them present evidence that Jackson is a serial predator. After a lengthy investigation, Sneddon did not charge him in 1993 with abusing another teenage boy at Neverland, and the boy's civil suit was settled for $20m. But California law allows evidence of prior sexual offences as long as it is not more prejudicial than probative.

"The only thing probative about the proposed [evidence] is that it will demonstrate to the jury that the District Attorney maintains the same fact-checking standards as Hard Copy and The National Enquirer," the defence scoffs in a court document, making references to a tabloid television show and a newspaper.

Entertainer vs defendant

The trial will be Michael Jackson's biggest stage. His every move and gesture is sure to be dissected by the media horde for its worldwide audience. While Judge Melville has barred cameras from the courtroom, BSkyB and America's E! Entertainment Television channel have enterprisingly teamed up to provide dramatic re-enactments of testimony.

In prior legal outings, Jackson hasn't shown much mastery of decorum. His wacky behaviour during the trial in the Avram case included wiggling his fingers above his head like devil horns while on the witness stand and complaining about a courtroom photographer who shot a close-up of his ever-changing nose. There was also the dangling of his nine-month-old son out of a Berlin hotel window. After his arraignment in January 2004 on the molestation charges, he jumped on the roof of his SUV, performed a dance move and waved to screaming fans.

Mesereau has surely counselled his client to avoid any further roof-jumping or baby-dangling incidents. But how will Jackson handle the role of criminal defendant and the acute discomfort of having the most private details of his life made public? Most intriguingly, will he testify in his own defence?

"He's a little odd, to put it mildly," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola University School of Law and a former US prosecutor. "He's also unpredictable. But, having said that, the man is an amazing entertainer who draws fans from all over the world."

Mesereau has won acquittals for clients accused of sex crimes after having them take the stand. But a cross-examination of Jackson by Sneddon could be one of the most bizarre courtroom confrontations in legal history. The prosecutor appears to have a visceral dislike for Jackson - "Mr Sneddon wants glory and doesn't like Michael Jackson," Mesereau recently said in court. Jackson, of course, wrote a song called "DS" for his 1995 HIStory album that apparently expresses his caustic view of Sneddon. "Dom Sheldon is a cold man," goes the refrain, over and over.


Gavin Arvizo: The accuser

Now 15, Arvizo rested his head on Jackson's shoulder and talked glowingly about the singer on ITV's Living With Michael Jackson, broadcast in February 2003. He told a very different story to the grand jury, accusing Jackson of plying him with alcohol, and telling him that boys have to masturbate or they go crazy.

Thomas Mesereau Jr.: Jackson's counsel

The silver-maned lead defence counsel, 54, has a long history of representing African-American clients, including the boxer Mike Tyson. He's won numerous awards for his work on behalf of poor, minority clients, among them a homeless black man who was acquitted of murder in Alabama. He is currently defending actor Robert Blake in his murder trial.His co-counsel include Brian Oxman, a longtime Jackson family adviser.

Martin Bashir: Material witness

Prosecutors say the journalist's conversations with Jackson about "sleeping arrangements with children... are clearly material" to their case. Bashir has asked not to take the stand, invoking a law that protects reporters from having to testify about things they see while working on a story. The judge will rule on the matter on Friday.

Rodney Melville: The judge

The short-statured Superior Court judge runs a tight ship. He reprimanded Jackson for being late for his arraignment hearing, and kept such a tight lid on pre-trial publicity that one media lawyer accused him of "an obsession with secrecy". He has served as a judge since 1987, having earlier worked as a private lawyer and a prosecutor.

'Jane Doe'

The mother of Jackson's accuser has remarried and given birth to her fourth child since the investigation began. In her grand jury testimony, she was asked about defence claims that she was out to extort money from Jackson. "She stated that she didn't want to take 'the devil's money'," a court report says.

Tom Sneddon: District Attorney

The District Attorney, 63, is serving his sixth and final four-year term. He rarely tries cases himself these days, but convicting Jackson would be the ultimate coup before he retires in 2006. He has earned the nickname "Mad Dog" for his pugnaciousness in court. "The game plan in a trial was to push his buttons and see if you could get him going," says a defence lawyer.