US asks: is Jackson now self-destructing before our eyes?

Singer's bizarre court appearance in pyjamas leaves observers wondering whether the strain is getting to him
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The Independent US

Michael Jackson has done some stupid things in his life - dangling his five-month-old son from a hotel balcony, for a start, or telling Martin Bashir how he loves to tuck little boys into his bed at night - but the antics of last Thursday morning might well have been the stupidest thing yet.

Michael Jackson has done some stupid things in his life - dangling his five-month-old son from a hotel balcony, for a start, or telling Martin Bashir how he loves to tuck little boys into his bed at night - but the antics of last Thursday morning might well have been the stupidest thing yet.

It wasn't just that he turned up to court more than an hour late, risking his $3m bail and with it his freedom pending an outcome to his child molestation case. It wasn't just that he had tried to check himself into hospital for the second time in three weeks, on the distinctly lightweight pretext that his back was hurting.

No, the really stupid thing was to turn up at the Santa Maria courthouse dressed in pyjama bottoms and slippers, with his hair dishevelled, as though he had just got out of bed. Think about it from the jury's point of view. Here it was, trying to decide whether to believe Jackson's teenage accuser when he said that Jackson had lured him to bed and stuck his hand down the boy's underpants. And what did the defendant do? He showed up as if he were dressed for the part.

Up to that moment, the trial had been going relatively well for Jackson. His lawyer, Tom Mesereau, had exuded both calm and confidence as he quietly pulled apart the testimony of one member after another of the accuser's family. Most trial observers were betting heavily on the singer's acquittal - if only because the family had a track record of switching stories and lying under oath, introducing at least an element of doubt into their accusations against him.

Now, though, all that is thrown into doubt, and the world is reminded once more of the wacky side of Jackson, a man who racks up tens of thousands of dollars in monthly painkiller bills, who can't stop getting his face cut up by plastic surgeons.

Trials, it must be said, have a habit of bringing out Michael Jackson's weirdest, most self-destructive antics. Two years ago, before the latest child molestation allegations had surfaced, he responded to being sued by a disgruntled concert promoter with a series of extraordinary appearances and one glaring no-show at the Santa Maria court, culminating in humiliating defeat and a $5.3m compensation order.

For the first few days, he refused to take off a face mask he said he needed to protect himself from germs. Then he removed it to reveal the hideous after-effects of yet another bout of cosmetic surgery. A couple of weeks later, he turned up on crutches saying he had been bitten by a spider. In his testimony, Jackson was so vague as to be downright incoherent. One exasperated cross-examining lawyer asked him if he suffered from memory loss problems, to which he responded: "Not that I can recall."

In the child molestation case, Jackson has been more restrained, but there is evidence of a similar pattern of a man seemingly incapable of submitting fully to the authority of a court, a man remaining obstinately within the fragile, man-child fantasy world of his own making.

On the day of his arraignment in January 2004, Jackson turned up late for court, earning his first rebuke from Judge Rodney Melville, and then celebrated the end of the short hearing by jumping on the roof of one of his entourage's cars and dancing for his fans. He and his lawyers parted ways shortly afterwards.

Since the trial proper got under way at the end of January, Jackson has made two impromptu dashes to hospital. The first was to a clinic in Santa Maria, where he was diagnosed with "flu-like symptoms", which successfully brought jury selection to a halt for almost a week. And the second was last Thursday's visit to a hospital in Santa Ynez, which had to be abandoned when the judge threatened to throw him in prison for insubordination.

All this prompts the question of just how stable Jackson's mental state is. Some of the eccentricity is almost certainly an act, a ploy to keep the flame of his celebrity burning even though he no longer makes hit records. The dishevelled look on Thursday was almost certainly staged, not accidental. After all, his make-up was perfectly applied as usual.

Some of the eccentricity, though, may well be brought on by the genuine stresses of the trial and the mounting evidence of financial disarray. On Friday, the prosecution alleged that Jackson was on "the precipice of bankruptcy" with more than $300m in debts, something his lawyers deny. Prosecutors want to review Jackson's financial records, saying they believe serious money troubles drove the entertainer to force his accuser's family to help him rebut a damaging television documentary. Jackson is also being sued by his former associate Marc Schaffel, a man named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the child molestation case, who claims breach of contract and other violations amounting to $3m.

Mr Schaffel, whose past intriguingly includes a period as a producer of gay porn films, has described Jackson as an inveterate spender who has no idea how to live within his means. He has also said that Jackson is addicted to painkillers and is prone to making panic telephone calls to his friends and associates at all hours.

With Jackson's accuser expected to return to the stand tomorrow, there could well be more late-night calls ahead.

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