Neighbours go to war over Jackson's 'Avenue of Hearts'

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The Independent US

Michael Jackson's neighbours have had it. They've put up with three months of hoopla surrounding the court proceedings in Santa Maria, in the heart of central California wine country, and they've put up with the crowds of fans plying the narrow country road to the gates of Neverland.

But now the jury has retired, passions on both sides are growing as surely as the tension over the looming verdict. The results have not always been pretty.

Every day this week, the fans have erected an "Avenue of Hearts" ­ tributes and photographs and expressions of love on shaped pieces of foam board ­ along the mile or so leading up to Neverland. And every day a local truck or four-wheel-drive car has veered off the road and flattened them. Some motorists have taken to throwing things, including a raw egg that hit one fan in the chest.

It's not just the fans who are driving the locals to distraction. The usually idyllic landscape is also crawling with television trucks which shuttle the 30 miles between Santa Maria and Neverland. Things get particularly raucous around evening news time, when reporters send out their live feeds and the fans try to disrupt them by blasting old Jackson hits from boomboxes, or setting off their car alarms in unison.

On Tuesday evening, one fan outside the courthouse released 11 doves ­ one for each of the criminal counts Mr Jackson faces, and an 11th for Jackson himself.

For three months, the trial judge performed the admirable task of making the circus of a trial as un-circus-like as possible. Now, though, with the eight women and four men of the jury sequestered for six hours a day and no certainty about when they might reach a decision, the circus has moved into a new gear.

Black leaders, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, have rushed to Mr Jackson's side as if he were a great crusading cause for the civil rights movement. In a particularly over-the-top moment, the former presidential candidate compared the November 2003 police raid on Neverland ­ to search for corroborating evidence of child abuse ­ to the violent and ultimately devastating stand-off between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious cult at its compound in Waco in 1993.

Najee Ali, a black Muslim leader from Los Angeles, was stopped by police for holding up traffic after he slowed to 5mph on the highway and paraded a pro-Jackson banner from the window. His reaction was to accuse the police of racial discrimination.

As for the eccentric entertainer himself, he has been alternately described as climbing the walls with anxiety and "resting comfortably". His father, Joe, briefly lost his equilibrium on Monday when he saw that his son's motorcade was gone from its usual parking spot at Neverland. He jumped in his car, raced to the courthouse, stormed in and demanded: "Where's my son?" It turned out his son was back home, as usual. The shiny black four-wheel-drives of his motorcade had been taken to a car wash. The TV stations have expressed growing impatience with the jury ­ not least because hundreds of employees are being forced to kick their heels until they make up their minds. Many of them have fond memories of the lightning-fast 42 minutes that it took the jury in O J Simpson's murder trial to find him not guilty. But analysts say it is hardly surprising the Santa Maria panel is taking its time to digest all the testimony and work in 98 detailed pages of instructions.

Last night, after a third day of deliberations, the jury went home without reaching a verdict.

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