Jackson defence tries to undermine fondling claim

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The Independent US

The defence in the Michael Jackson case faced its toughest challenge in more than a month of courtroom testimony, as it sought to undermine the credibility of a witness who broke down in tears as he described being molested by the singer more than 15 years ago.

The defence in the Michael Jackson case faced its toughest challenge in more than a month of courtroom testimony, as it sought to undermine the credibility of a witness who broke down in tears as he described being molested by the singer more than 15 years ago.

Jason Francia, the son of a housemaid who worked for Mr Jackson in the 1980s and early 1990s, claimed on Monday that the singer played tickling games with him when he was as young as seven and, on three occasions, ended up putting his hand into his underpants and fondling his genitals.

Mr Francia's case led to an out-of-court settlement believed to have amounted to $2m, and his allegations are not part of the criminal charges now being levelled against Mr Jackson. His testimony and that of other alleged abuse victims and their families was allowed by the judge only last week, constituting a major breakthrough for the prosecution which has otherwise struggled to conserve the credibility of the family at the centre of the current case.

Mr Jackson's lead lawyer, Tom Mesereau, tried to walk a fine line yesterday - putting Mr Francia on the spot while doing his best not to alienate the jury by looking like a bully.

Rather than accuse 24-year-old Mr Francia of being a liar, he tried to characterise the investigators who first interviewed him as over-aggressive and intent on extracting an account of sexual abuse from him, whether or not it actually occurred. Mr Mesereau read from a transcript in which one investigator said out straight "Michael Jackson's a molester", and another added: "And he makes great music - great guy - bullshit!"

"It was only after you were pushed real hard by the sheriffs that you began to say anything like that," Mr Mesereau asserted, drawing an objection from the prosecution which was sustained by Judge Rodney Melville. Mr Francia replied that he could not remember the exact details of interviews with investigators and prosecutors which took place in 1993, 1994 and 2004.

He described his testimony in open court as "nerve-racking" and had to pause a couple of times to wipe the tears from his face. As the cross-examination began, he acknowledged that he was slow to talk about the abuse to the police but explained his reticence as a symptom of fear - fear of being ridiculed by his schoolmates, in particular. "I blocked it out. I didn't blank it out. I didn't want to ever talk about this stuff again," he said.

Mr Mesereau's problem with Mr Francia's story is that he does not have a record of lying under oath, or behaving badly at school, or any of the other problems plaguing the family of Gavin Arviso, the recovering cancer patient who says Mr Jackson plied him with alcohol and sexually abused him at his Neverland ranch two years ago.

Mr Francia was very specific in his testimony, describing the way Mr Jackson allegedly swore him to secrecy each time he fondled him and stuffed a $100 bill down his underpants as a form of hush money. Mr Mesereau sought to turn the money issue against him, extracting an acknowledgement from Mr Francia that his mother had been paid $20,000 to appear on the television show Hard Copy. Mr Mesereau also alleged that the mother had talked to The National Enquirer. Mr Francia said he had no knowledge of that negotiation. His mother is expected to testify later this week.

Mr Jackson denies molesting a 13-year-old boy, plying him with alcohol in order to abuse him and conspiring to commit false imprisonment, child abduction and extortion.

The trial continues.

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