Leaks and smears mark start of Jackson abuse trial

As hundreds of journalists and sightseers descend on the little California town of Santa Maria for the start of the Michael Jackson trial tomorrow, the judge is losing his battle to prevent confidential case information leaking out.

As hundreds of journalists and sightseers descend on the little California town of Santa Maria for the start of the Michael Jackson trial tomorrow, the judge is losing his battle to prevent confidential case information leaking out.

Despite his sweeping gag orders, Superior Judge Rodney Melville is appalled that so many private and sealed documents relating to the trial have been made public.

Santa Barbara County sheriff's officers have started to investigate the leaks while at the same time denying they are responsible for them. An unusual posting on the sheriff's website states: "We consider the release of these materials to be a violation of the law. Some media commentators have alleged that we are responsible for these leaks. We are not. These accusations are irresponsible, unfounded and untrue."

The statement is, in part, a response to reports quoting from transcripts of grand jury testimony given in the case. Jackson's accuser described the alleged offences in graphic detail, including an incident when the pop star allegedly molested him on a bed.

Grand jury transcripts are normally made public in California 10 days after a defendant receives them. The judge, however, ordered the Jackson transcripts to be sealed, along with most other documents in the case.

At a preliminary hearing on Friday, Judge Melville gave permission for the prosecution to show the jurors erotic material - books, magazines and DVDs - seized at Neverland Ranch and Martin Bashir's ITV documentary Living With Michael Jackson, in which Jackson held hands with his young accuser and admitted that he often shared his bedroom with children.

The judge warned lawyers on both sides: "The world is watching justice in the United States here ... I expect and know that you will all carry the burden of showing the world what a fine system we have."

Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to four charges of child molestation, four charges of administering an intoxicating agent, one charge of attempted child molestation and one count of conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. The selection of a jury, which begins tomorrow, is expected to take about a month and the trial could last another six months.

The leaks, based on confidential police and government reports, grand jury testimony and sealed court records, give a clear picture of how the prosecution will present its case. It apparently intends to portray the pop star as a textbook paedophile, who plied children with wine and liquor. It also intends to cast him as a bizarre schemer who held the family of his alleged victim under virtual house arrest in order to tape a video of the boy proclaiming the pop star's innocence.

The heart of the prosecution case rests largely on accounts provided to investigators by Jackson's alleged victim, who was 12 at the time of the alleged molestation and is now 15; his brother, who is a year younger; and their older sister and their mother.

The Santa Barbara County prosecutor, Gordon Auchincloss, contended at a preliminary hearing that Jackson treated the boy and his family to lavish gifts and introduced them to "a world of self-indulgence" to win them over. Along the way, he alleged, Jackson invited the boy into his bed and molested him.

According to documents, the children's mother is a critical witness to the alleged conspiracy to imprison her family at Jackson's ranch after the February 2003 broadcast of Living With Michael Jackson. It was during that programme that Jackson defended sharing a bed with boys.

Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau, intends to portray the children's mother as a money-hungry and untrustworthy woman who set out to obtain as much as she could from Jackson. "It was a shakedown," he told an earlier hearing.

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