Thousands of fans greet Jackson for start of trial

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AFTER MANY preludes, the circus has finally begun. Thousands of fans, many of whom had camped out all night, screamed encouragement and pressed against barricades as Michael Jackson arrived at the courthouse in Santa Maria, California, yesterday, for the beginning of what is being called the "trial of the century".

Accompanied by family members, lawyers and bodyguards, one of whom held an umbrella over Mr Jackson's head, the singer smiled and waved towards the sea of placards brandished by his fans. In the hours before his arrival, the fans had held an impromptu party to keep spirits up, singing, dancing and chanting support for their idol. Then, dressed in white, Mr Jackson waited his turn to pass through the metal detectors at the doors of the courthouse and held his arms out to be scanned by a security guard.

The case is being heard in Santa Maria (population 85,000) because Mr Jackson's Neverland Ranch, the scene of the alleged offences, is in northern Santa Barbara County. Mr Jackson faces 10 charges of child molestation, plying children with alcohol and conspiring to commit the crimes of abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. The first task of the court will be the selection of 12 jurors from up to 750 candidates. That is expected to take a month.

Businesses in the town are expecting a financial bonanza. All hotel rooms have been booked for months. Many residents have rented their houses to news organisations and bars and restaurants have laid in extra supplies of food and drink. Rooftops surrounding the courthouse are being rented to television networks for pounds 1,200 a day; parking spaces are pounds 250.

Although more than 1,000 journalists are in the town, few will have seats in the courtroom. A pool of six reporters was allowed in yesterday and others listened to the proceedings in an overflow room. The courthouse was jammed, with the first batch of 150 jurors who will be given seven- page questionnaires to fill in before being questioned by lawyers for both sides and by the Santa Barbara County Judge, Rodney Melville.

The prospective jurors are being checked for attitudes on issues that include racial prejudice, divorce, plastic surgery and child abuse. Many are expected to be excused because they cannot afford to stay away from work for the six months that the trial is likely to take. Others will ask to be exempted because of sexual abuse they or people close to them suffered as children.

Legal experts say they will also be asked whether celebrities in trouble get the justice they deserve or the justice they can buy. They will be judged on whether they can fairly weigh the claims for and against a wealthy neighbour.

Lawyers will be watching for "stealth jurors", those who see jury duty as a chance to advance themselves, either by writing a tell-all book, rescuing their endangered idol or striking a blow for abused children. Although Neverland Ranch is in the hills above Santa Maria, the self-proclaimed King Of Pop is rarely seen in the town and has little in common with the 12 residents who will sit in judgment of him.

The charges against Mr Jackson stem from accusations made by a 15-year- old cancer patient who was 13 at the time of the alleged offences. He was seen holding hands with Jackson in the controversial BBC documentary Living With Michael Jackson, which will be shown to the jurors when the trial begins. The interviewer, Martin Bashir, will also be called as a prosecution witness.

On Sunday, Mr Jackson released a videotaped statement saying leaks to the media about testimony in the case contained information that was "disgusting and false" and he predicted victory at trial. "I love my community and I have great faith in our justice system," he said. "Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court. I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told."