How a TV show triggered the Jackson case

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The Independent US

Perhaps the most foolish thing Michael Jackson ever did was to open up his life to Martin Bashir, the British documentary-maker, and then lull himself into believing that the man behind the camera was his friend.

Mr Bashir's film Living With Michael Jackson, which was shown in February 2003, was in many ways the catalyst that triggered his arrest and trial on child molestation charges, and came agonisingly close to condemning the one-time King of Pop to years behind bars.

Had it not been for Martin Bashir, Mr Jackson might never have admitted to the world his predilection for sharing his bed with young boys. Had it not been for Mr Bashir, there might never have been film of him holding hands with Gavin Arvizo, a recovering cancer patient, and with it speculation about the precise nature of their relationship.

Perhaps Gavin would have come forward anyway to allege that Mr Jackson molested him on at least two occasions when he was 13. Or perhaps, as the prosecution contended, the allegations only came about because of the confusion and panic created in the wake of the Bashir broadcast.

Either way, the documentary provided context and tangible evidence to support the claims and made it that much easier for the Santa Barbara sheriff's department to arrest Mr Jackson in November 2003 and send a team to raid his Neverland ranch in search of evidence.

Mr Jackson will no doubt reflect a little painfully on the way Mr Bashir was unctuous to the point of outright deception in his efforts to win the confidence of his celebrity subject. "Your relationship to your children is spectacular," he said at one point in the out-takes played to the jury from Living With Michael Jackson. "It almost makes me weep." Thus was the superstar's guard lowered - with disastrous consequences for his reputation, his career and his finances.

Over the course of the three months of trial hearings, the sheriff's department and the prosecutors of the Santa Barbara County district attorney's office caused ever greater embarrassment to cascade around his shoulders: the fact that he has an extensive collection of pornography, featuring both men and women; the fact that his bedroom is frequently in a state of appalling disarray, up to and including faeces from his pet chimpanzee smeared on the walls; and the fact that he seems almost incapable of bringing a friend or employee into his inner circle who doesn't somehow turn against him, take advantage of him, or use his celebrity and eccentricity as an opportunity for financial gain.

The prosecution successfully persuaded the trial judge to admit testimony from prior accusers - boys who described being sexually molested, along with their mothers and assorted witnesses - posing not only a massive headache for Mr Jackson's defence team but also deepening suspicions, regardless of the trial verdict, that the King of Pop is not to be trusted around boys of a certain age.

Perhaps most damagingly, the prosecution also won permission to show the jury videotape of the moment when Gavin Arvizo, Mr Jackson's young accuser, first made his abuse allegations to sheriff's deputies. The tape was unnervingly plausible, seemingly devoid of artifice or scripted performance, and that in turn made it much harder for the jury to see it as anything but an expression of the truth.

On the other hand, child abuse is notoriously hard to prove in court because it often involves a cast of characters who are already psychological if not also social misfits, whose words are extremely hard to take at face value and whose accounts are often peppered with lies and distortions motivated by guilt, fear or shame.

So it was in this case. The Arvizo family, living in an impoverished part of east Los Angeles, had suffered violence and abuse for years at the hands of Gavin's father. The mother, Janet, had been forced to live from hand to mouth after leaving her husband and would eventually be accused of both welfare fraud and an attempt to rip off a department store chain. When Gavin contracted a rare form of lymphoma and was given only a slim chance of survival, it was both the lowest of low points in the family's history but also some kind of avenue for escape.

Because of Gavin's condition, the Arvizos were able to arouse the sympathy of numerous entertainment industry celebrities, especially comedians and television stars who liked to shower their largesse on good causes and regularly congregated for fundraisers at Hollywood comedy clubs and music venues.

Thus it was that Gavin Arvizo fulfilled his dream of meeting Michael Jackson - a meeting that led to numerous invitations to Neverland along with his mother, sister Devellin and younger brother Star.

As became abundantly clear on the witness stand, these were deeply damaged people and, in the eyes of most legal observers and the journalists clustered in Santa Maria, desperately unconvincing witnesses.

In almost a week on the witness stand, Janet Arvizo came across as borderline delusional - not only failing to offer much in the way of substantiation for her belief that Mr Jackson and his entourage attempted to kidnap her, but pushing her line to the point of asserting that she and her family came close to being abducted in a hot-air balloon.

If trusting Mr Bashir was Mr Jackson's most foolish move, his smartest was to ensure that he had the best possible counsel in the courtroom. Brought in relatively late in the game, Tom Mesereau put on a virtuoso performance as he grilled the Arvizos one by one and brought out every inconsistency, absurdity and admission of lying under oath going back for years.

Right from the earliest days of the trial, it became clear Mr Jackson stood an excellent chance of acquittal. The only witness to the alleged molestation, Star Arvizo, was vague on details and generally shifty in his presentation on the stand. The prosecution could not pin down the dates when the alleged molestation took place - the timeline being one of many elements that appeared to shift over the course of the investigation.

Even Gavin himself was problematic - ascribing to Mr Jackson words he had previously ascribed to his grandmother, and appearing to avoid a number of questions rather than answering them confidently and plausibly.

It remains to be seen how much the intense media scrutiny made a difference in the presentation of witnesses, and the way those witnesses were interpreted by the members of the jury. Judge Rodney Melville kept an admirably tight lid on proceedings throughout - permitting just three 10-minute breaks in each six-hour session, without lunch, and coming down with immediate force on any hint of grandstanding or insubordinate behaviour by the lawyers, or by Mr Jackson himself.

The outcome to the trial has to be seen as a triumph for Mr Mesereau more than for Mr Jackson, who may not be losing his liberty but is surely a broken man.