The Michael Jackson trial: 66 days in Santa Maria

After 10 weeks of graphic testimony, lurid allegations and pyjama-clad courtroom appearances, the prosecution has finally completed its case. Andrew Gumbel sums up
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The Independent US

Everything about Michael Jackson exudes an almost unfathomable weirdness, and his trial on child molestation, kidnapping and conspiracy charges has been no exception.

For more than 10 weeks, notwithstanding momentous events elsewhere in the world, the eyes of a dedicated band of media hawks, fans, crime junkies and general news consumers of all kinds have been fixed on the squat, unlovely, whitewashed courthouse in the central Californian town of Santa Maria.

Five days a week, the plug-ugly agricultural town has played host to the hardy, if not always very large, cohort of fans with their "I love you MJ" banners and balloons; to the white-maned Tom Mesereau, Mr Jackson's razor-brained defence lawyer; to the Nation of Islam security guards and Jackson family members; to spiritual guides and Mr Jackson's personal magician. And, of course, there has been the febrile, almost spectral presence of Mr Jackson himself, in flamboyant suits and armbands, giving his trademark V salute to the fans - when, that is, he isn't begging off sick, running late or arriving in his pyjamas.

It has been a spectacle and a media circus, attracting a queasily obsessive degree of public attention. But it has also provided a window on the spectacularly dysfunctional environment at Mr Jackson's Neverland ranch and the cast of colourful characters who have either inhabited it or passed through.

Whoever you believe on the substance of the criminal charges, there is no doubting Mr Jackson's singular knack for drawing in low-lifes, charlatans, liars and money-grubbers, many of them susceptible to the temptation of selling their stories to downmarket newspapers, finding some excuse to take the Gloved One to court, or otherwise turning on him.

In the past 66 days, we have heard stories of Mr Jackson's pre-pubescent guests running wild - whether at his behest or not - drinking alcohol and leafing through pornography. We have met characters like Marc Schaffel, a former gay porn producer whom Mr Jackson hired, among other things, to conduct damage-control operations following the airing of Martin Bashir's devastating documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, two years ago. (Mr Schaffel, following the pattern of so many other former employees and associates, is now suing Mr Jackson for $3m which he says he is owed by the singer.)

We have heard from maids, major-domos, security guards and others, some of whom now profess to have been shocked - shocked -- to see Mr Jackson allegedly jumping naked into a shower with young boys or sticking his hands into their trousers, but did not think to do anything about it at the time, much less report it to the police.

What is the jury to make of such people? Either they are lying, as Mr Jackson's expensive, coolly competent team of lawyers contends, or else they decided that their job security, or the possibility of selling their inside information to the gutter press, was more important than the safety and well-being of the children. Either way, there are ample grounds for regarding them as repellent human beings.

One thing is sure: never again will a newspaper or glossy magazine be able to describe Neverland as a childhood-fantasy paradise, with its zoo, its funfair rides and its extensive video arcade. If Mr Jackson is convicted, the world will remember this lavishly elaborate property in the rolling wine country of the Santa Ynez valley as a giant honey-trap luring young boys to the end of their sexual innocence. Even if he is acquitted, and the world comes to agree with his view that his interest in boys has been deeply and maliciously misunderstood, it will still be impossible to think about Neverland without dredging up images of 10-year-olds drinking wine in the cellar beneath the video arcade, or leaving their fingerprints on the centrefold spreads of sex magazines.

Tom Sneddon, the bluff, red-faced Santa Barbara County district attorney, has come in for plentiful criticism during the trial for his disorganised presentation, his overblown announcements of what his witnesses would tell the court and the suspicion, shared by more than just the defence team, that his determination to nail Mr Jackson at all costs may have partly clouded his judgement.

It is important to realise, though, just how daunting Mr Sneddon's task is. The very dysfunctions that no doubt raised his suspicions about Mr Jackson in the first place are also the principal reason why this case is proving so hard to try. Almost nobody who has taken the witness stand on behalf of the prosecution has come across as entirely reliable - not Mr Jackson's 15-year-old accuser, Gavin Arvizo, not his family, not the lawyers and child abuse specialists they consulted after they first came forward with their allegations, and certainly not the Neverland entourage.

Part of the challenge Mr Sneddon and his team face is in the nature of child abuse cases. More or less by definition, these involve damaged people - often, as in this case, from broken families. If the abuse really occurred, then they have plentiful reason to feel shamed or embarrassed or scared and make all sorts of contradictory public statements. And if the abuse did not occur, their willingness to lie on such an explosive topic raises all sorts of other troubling psychological questions.

The Michael Jackson factor, though, adds a whole extra layer of complication - because of his wealth, his celebrity and his deliberate, almost studied pursuit of public weirdness. How many accused child abusers have personal French chefs to serve a plate of chips to them and their young guests in the dead of night?

Mr Jackson's money can, of course, be interpreted one of two ways - either as another means to corrupt the families of his alleged molestation victims, or as a liability, making him a target for unscrupulous people determined to take advantage of him.

One of the more bizarre exchanges of the trial so far took place between Gavin Arvizo and Mr Mesereau after the boy suggested Mr Jackson had not done all that much to help him recover from a rare form of childhood cancer. Mr Mesereau immediately sought to portray him as both ungrateful and dishonest. Hadn't Mr Jackson allowed his family to stay at Neverland for weeks at a time? Hadn't he sponsored a blood drive for Gavin? Hadn't he given them lavish gifts, including a computer, an expensive watch and a four-wheel-drive car? Didn't he chauffeur them around in a Rolls-Royce?

The boy replied that when he and his family drove back to Los Angeles in the Rolls-Royce they were really escaping from what they regarded as enforced captivity on the ranch.

"Oh, when you escaped from Neverland, you went back a few days later, didn't you?" Mr Mesereau retorted, barely concealing his sarcasm. "And then you escaped from Neverland a second time. There were three escapes in all, right?"

Gavin's mother, Janet Arvizo, was an even more problematic witness. In a full week of testimony, she rambled, contradicted herself, refused to be drawn at all on whether she had defrauded the state welfare system, and at times sounded downright paranoid as she talked about her fears that Mr Jackson would abduct her family in a hot-air balloon or have her parents assassinated.

"Don't judge me," she begged the jurors as she insisted she had lied and acted her way through the so-called "rebuttal video" - the paean of praise to Mr Jackson put out in the wake of the Bashir documentary. It seems highly unlikely the jury was doing anything but judging her. Clearly, the prosecution took no pleasure in the fact that someone this unreliable was one of its chief witnesses.

But the prosecution was also responsible for some very specific, identifiable mistakes and omissions. The centrepiece of their case was the testimony of Gavin and his younger brother Star, describing the alleged acts of molestation themselves. However, neither the boys nor anybody else could put a precise date on these events or provide any other corroborating details.

The psychologist brought in to assess the credibility of their accusations turned out to be linked to one of the most disastrous child sex abuse prosecutions conducted in the United States - a case involving a Los Angeles pre-school in which hysteria and professional irresponsibility caused the complaints of one mentally disturbed mother to balloon into a manifestly preposterous, and unsustainable, charge of mass Satanic rituals and other perversions. The prosecution ended up asking him almost no questions at all.

The biggest mistake of all came last week with the appearance of Mr Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe on the stand. Mr Sneddon and his colleagues promised she would corroborate the charge that the rebuttal video was scripted and that Neverland was effectively run as a mini-republic of fear and coercion. Once sworn in, however, Ms Rowe said the precise opposite - that she had spoken her mind freely, that Mr Jackson was a wonderful man and a great father, and that the real fault for any problems lay with the "vultures" around him.

Ms Rowe did not conceal the fact that her principal concern is the welfare of the two children she shares with Mr Jackson, Prince Michael and Paris, and several commentators suggested the tenor of her testimony may have been determined by that consideration. But the prosecution clearly made a major blunder by failing to pin her down in advance.

In the past few days, with the prosecution phase of the trial supposedly drawing to a close, Mr Sneddon has sought to play a game of catch-up. On Tuesday he called a detective to the stand who said that when he interviewed Ms Rowe she described her ex-husband as a "sociopath" who regarded the children as "possessions".

Once again, the jury is confronted with some distinctly slippery contradictions. Who should they believe, and in which version? The confusion is almost certainly good for the defence, which can argue it has established reasonable doubt, at the very least, about the charges their client faces. On the other hand, Mr Jackson faces a very large array of accusers, some of them stretching as far back as 15 years, who allege that his interest in his young Neverland guests is very far from innocent. Could all of them be lying?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson made a point recently that might well resonate with the jurors at this point in the trial. "If half of what the prosecution witnesses say about Michael Jackson is true, he deserves to go to jail," he wrote. "But so do some of those witnesses. Once the whole lot is behind bars, the rest of us ought to work on taming the monster of celebrity before it devours us all."

Also starring: the cast list for the defence

The case for the prosecution has been made. Now for the celebrity defence. In the next few months, a succession of singers, film stars and cultural icons are likely to be called to Santa Maria's claustrophobic courthouse to testify to the good character of Michael Jackson.

Jackson's lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, right, has promised to call "a lot of witnesses". Some will be among the most recognisable faces in the world.

Macaulay Culkin is expected to be one of the first witnesses to take the stand. Other names mentioned include Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Liza Minnelli. If star power could decide the case, it would be declared a no-contest. (The most well-known witness for the prosecution was Martin Bashir.)

The appearance of Culkin, assuming it takes place, will be one of the most pivotal moments in this remarkable and, at times, lurid, spectacle. In early April, one of Jackson's former maids, whose son received a $2.4m (£1.2m) settlement after alleging that he was groped by the singer, stated that Culkin, as a child, had shared a bed with Jackson at Neverland ranch. A chef, Phillip Lemarque, has alleged that he saw Jackson "more than just fondle" the film star.

Culkin has repeatedly denied any such behaviour took place. Jackson's defence team, which has so far managed to undermine the prosecution, will hope to consolidate the advantage with the film star's early testimony. The likes of Minnelli and Taylor, if called upon, will testify to the innocent nature of their friend's love of children.

But the star witness for the defence may be the singer himself. Mr Mesereau has a track record of placing his clients on the stand to speak for themselves. Given Jackson's erratic behaviour during the first phase of the trial, adopting a similar tactic in this case might be perilous. But Mr Mesereau is increasingly in favour of a direct address to the court.

"Tom feels Michael would make a very good witness," said Dana Cole, a legal associate and friend. "He feels it's important for the client to look at the jury and say, 'I did not commit this crime'. Obviously, he doesn't need to make that decision now. But he does want an acquittal, and to get that he may put Michael on the stand."

The defence team is also contemplating the use of out-takes from the Living With Michael Jackson documentary, which was made by Bashir.

Jackson's personal videographer, Hamid Moslehi, has testified that he had a camera running at the same time that Bashir was making the documentary. Mr Moslehi suggested that the Bashir video was edited to portray Jackson in a bad light and said footage not used in the broadcast could clarify what the singer had said about his relationships with children.

During the prosecution, Judge Rodney Melville has refused to allow the out-takes to be screened in court. If Mr Mesereau can persuade him to allow the clips to be shown in the case for the defence, it will be another small victory in a trial that may yet swing Michael Jackson's way.