Michael Jackson pleads not guilty to child abuse charges

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The Independent US

Michael Jackson today pleaded not guilty to child abuse charges and was admonished by the judge for arriving late to his arraignment amid a swarm of fans and international media outside the court in California.

"Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot here," Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville told the singer. "... I want to advise you that I will not put up with that. It's an insult to the court."

Minutes earlier, fans cheered and chanted as Jackson arrived pop-star style in a caravan of vehicles in the smalll town of Santa Maria. Wearing a dark suit, glittery shoes and big sunglasses, he shook hands with fans and waved as he slowly made his way into the courthouse.

The arraignment was his first court appearance since being charged last month. It drew a horde of media and fans to the usually quiet Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, where the pop star is alleged to have committed the crimes at his Neverland Ranch.

Fans drove in from Los Angeles and Las Vegas in a "Caravan of Love," using cars and chartered buses. Jackson later invited them back to the ranch.

"There's strength in numbers," said supporter Amber McCrary, 26, who boarded a bus in suburban Los Angeles with her two little children.

Melanie Dowland, a 28-year-old Jackson fan, said she travelled from London for the arraignment.

"I campaign for everything I believe in," Ms Dowland said. "And I believe in Michael. He stands for so much - all the goodness in the world and innocence."

Jackson, who has maintained he is innocent, was charged last month with seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent, reportedly wine. He was freed on $3 million bail.

The alleged victim was a cancer patient Jackson had befriended and who had overnight stays at Neverland Ranch. The boy appeared in the same TV documentary in which Jackson defended letting children sleep in his bed as "sweet" and non-sexual.

Among Jackson's strongest supporters have been his family members, who have publicly denounced the charges and supported the pop star. His father, Joe Jackson, arrived at the courthouse for the hearing at about the same time Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon entered the courtroom. Jackson's mother and brothers arrived shortly afterward with his attorney, Mark Geragos.

With news crews from around the globe arrayed among more than 18 trucks, mini TV studios and satellite dishes, the scene outside the courthouse was reminiscent of the murder trial of American football star O.J. Simpson which became a blueprint for the celebrity trial.

Although small compared to Simpson's "dream team," Jackson's defence team was expanded yesterday with the addition of New York attorney Benjamin Brafman, a principal of the firm that won acquittal for rap star Sean "P. Diddy" Combs on bribery and weapons charges in 2001.

Mr Geragos announced that Mr Brafman would act as "co-lead counsel" and appeared with him at Friday's arraignment.

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