THE JACKSON VERDICTS
LOS ANGELES TIMES, June 14, 2005
© 2005 The Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.
By Steve Chawkins, Stuart Pfeifer and Megan Garvey, Times Staff Writers
SANTA MARIA, Calif.
Michael Jackson, one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, was acquitted Monday on all counts in his child-molestation and conspiracy trial, a sweeping repudiation of the prosecution case that alleged Jackson had sexually abused a then-13-year old cancer patient.
Jackson, 46, who in the public eye grew from a beloved child singer to a groundbreaking artist to an increasingly reclusive and eccentric man, began dabbing his eyes with a tissue when the seventh of 10 not-guilty verdicts was read.
Although at least one juror, Raymond C. Hultman, 62, said he thought Jackson probably had molested children — “somebody somewhere along the line” — the panel unanimously said the case in front of them included too much doubt to justify a conviction.
During a post-verdicts news conference, attended by all 12 jurors, many expressed a strong distaste for the mother of the accuser. They said they were offended when she snapped her fingers at them, doubted the values she had taught her children, and, especially, disapproved of her decision to allow her son to share Jackson’s bed.
Asked how they reached their decisions in a case that featured 140 witnesses — including defense testimony from celebrities Macaulay Culkin, Chris Tucker and Jay Leno — many jurors described a prosecution case they found thin on evidence.
“I think in a case like this, you’re hoping that maybe you can find a smoking gun or something you can grab onto,” Hultman said.
“We all had to remind ourselves that we had a closetful of evidence that made us come back to the same thing: that it was not enough,” said Pauline Coccoz, a 45-year-old Santa Maria woman who worked in a supermarket.
After about 32 hours of deliberations over seven days, the jurors notified Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville shortly after 12:30 p.m. that they had reached verdicts in the 14-week trial.
Jackson had rushed the 35 miles from his Neverland ranch to the Santa Maria courthouse in a convoy of dark SUVs filled with his family members and aides. News helicopters hovered, broadcasting live feeds of the procession. At the courthouse, fans rushed to gather, holding signs and pressing against a chain-link fence keeping them back. Jackson emerged from his vehicle to screams of adulation and support, making his way through the metal detectors, his face nearly expressionless.
Inside the courtroom, the scene was tense. The 120 available seats were filled with members of the media, public and Jackson’s family. As jurors solemnly filed in, none looked Jackson’s way. Seated behind him in the front row were his sisters, LaToya and Rebbie, and his brother, Randy. In the second row were his parents, Joe and Katherine, and his brother, Tito. His brother, Jermaine, and pop star sister, Janet, were in the courthouse, but not in the courtroom.
As everyone waited for the reading of the verdicts, two jurors asked for tissues. Jackson’s fans wept and prayed. Melville was handed a sealed manila envelope containing all forms, silently looking them over for several minutes.
As the clerk began reading the not-guilty verdicts, defense attorney Susan Yu sobbed quietly. Admonished by Melville against emotional outbursts, the courtroom remained nearly silent, except for the clerk’s voice and an audible intake of breath as each not-guilty verdict was read.
There was little reaction from Jackson or his family. Outside, hundreds of fans whooped and cheered.
Jackson walked out of court a free man, looking weak and strained. He moved stiffly the short distance from the courthouse doors to a waiting SUV, with his father’s hand resting on his back in support. Sheltered from the blistering sun by an oversized umbrella, Jackson raised his hand to his fans and then placed it over his heart. As he got into the back seat, Jackson blew a kiss to the crowd.
Lead defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., returning briefly to the courtroom to retrieve some belongings, said only: “Justice was done.”
Jackson had faced more than 18 years in prison if convicted.
After the verdicts were all read, Melville thanked the jurors for their service. Then he turned to Jackson and said: “Your bail is exonerated and you are released.”
The jurors as a group stressed that they had carefully examined the evidence and testimony, referring frequently to the 98 pages of jury instructions as they made their decisions. The strain of the media attention and lengthy service wore on some. Jury foreman Paul Rodriguez, 63, said he had grown “acquainted with Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol.”
The case against Jackson hinged on irreconcilable portrayals of his character and behavior: Prosecutors described a cunning sexual predator who targeted young boys from troubled backgrounds; the defense depicted a childlike innocent who was an easy mark for a family of liars and con artists.
The criminal trial was the culmination of more than a decade of bad blood between Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon and Jackson. Jackson has repeatedly said that Sneddon has a vendetta against him.
The animosity dates back to a 1993 molestation case that ended when the accuser refused to testify against Jackson and accepted a confidential financial settlement reported to be more than $20 million.
Sneddon spoke briefly to reporters after the acquittals, accompanied by his assistants, Ronald Zonen and Gordon Auchincloss.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” Sneddon said, “but in 37 years, I’ve never quarreled with a jury’s verdict and I’m not going to start now.”
While he declined to get into the specifics of the trial, Sneddon insisted that prosecutors had a solid case. Asked whether he put the wrong family on the stand, he said: “We don’t select our victims.”
Asked if he would stop pursuing Jackson, Sneddon said: “No comment.”
Jackson did not make a public statement, but his father came to the Neverland gate shortly before 6 p.m.
“We’d like to thank our fans for all the support,” he said, telling the crowd his son already was in bed. “He is trying to rest. He’s trying to get strong.”
In court, with no direct physical evidence of abuse, prosecutors argued that Jackson had honed his seduction and molestation of teen and preteen boys into a well-defined pattern, paying a maid’s son as well as the 1993 accuser big settlements.
California law allowed prosecutors to present evidence of alleged past abuse by Jackson, including an incident involving Culkin, star of the popular “Home Alone” films. Culkin and two of the other alleged victims, however, took the stand and denied Jackson molested them.
Prosecutors said the accuser in this case, who was being treated for cancer when he met Jackson in 2000, shared characteristics with a number of past alleged victims. He looked like them. He came from a broken home. His mother grew to trust Jackson after he had befriended her family, showering them with attention and gifts.
The reality, prosecutors said, was that Jackson was sharing his bed with the boy, showing him pornography, giving him alcohol, telling him that boys who don’t masturbate grow up to rape women or have sex with animals.
On four occasions, prosecutors charged, Jackson sexually molested the boy. The boy testified that Jackson slid his hand into the boy’s pajama bottoms and masturbated him to orgasm, grounds for the most serious charge he faced. He was also charged with attempted molestation, plying the boy with alcohol and conspiring to hold the boy’s family captive. His brother said he witnessed two of the alleged molestations.
By contrast, Jackson’s attorneys depicted the accusers as a family of liars trying to pull off “the biggest con of their careers.” They successfully shifted jurors’ attention away from Jackson and onto the accuser’s mother, who prosecutors admitted had committed welfare fraud and, according to one defense witness, had fabricated evidence to win a settlement in an unrelated case. The defense argued that the mother coached her son to fabricate molestation allegations so the family could sue Jackson.
In the past, Mesereau said, Jackson had been the victim of bad advice, settling other cases of false accusations. Failing to fight those allegations had made Jackson vulnerable to extortion, he said, adding, “Greed begets greed.”
As part of their attack on the credibility of the alleged victim and his family, the Jackson team called on Leno and Tucker, apparently hoping that the star power of the popular comics would enhance their credibility on the witness stand. Each testified about growing suspicious of the family’s motivations after repeated interactions with the boy.
Mesereau insisted the prosecution’s timeline was nonsensical, placing the alleged molestations weeks after a damaging British documentary about Jackson that aired in February 2003.
Why, Mesereau asked, would Jackson have molested his accuser right after the broadcast?
Jackson’s involvement with the teenager began with a telephone call to the boy’s room at a Los Angeles hospital in 2000. His body ravaged by cancer, the boy had a 16-pound tumor removed from his abdomen and lost a kidney, his gallbladder and part of his spleen.
The boy, who had told a family friend he wanted to meet the pop star, was delighted to accept an offer to visit him at Neverland a few weeks later. The two shared long, late-night phone calls and exchanged gushing notes.
But for a year the visits to Neverland ceased, resuming only when Jackson invited the family back to the ranch for the taping of the British video. The break was never fully explained during the trial; jurors complained they felt they had been kept in the dark about important aspects of the case.
The British documentary cast a rare and extensive look at Jackson’s private world, an endeavor Jackson apparently hoped would portray him in a flattering light and help regenerate a flagging career.
Instead, his own words put him in criminal jeopardy.
Jackson told British TV interviewer Martin Bashir, to whom Princess Diana had confessed an adulterous affair, that he enjoyed chaste sleepovers with children. Questioned repeatedly on the point by Bashir, Jackson cast the interludes as a “beautiful thing,” innocent pajama parties complete with milk and cookies, and called people who would object to them “ignorant.”
Tabloids and talk-radio hosts called on authorities to investigate Jackson for child molestation.
After the Bashir documentary, some of the outcry focused on the recovering cancer patient, who was seen in the documentary holding Jackson’s hand and resting his head on the singer’s shoulder.
The accuser’s mother contacted a lawyer, initially trying to get the boy’s photograph removed from international publication. The mother said she had no idea at that point that her son had been molested.
The first lawyer referred her to the same attorney who represented the accuser in the 1993 confidential financial settlement. The lawyer, Larry Feldman, passed the family to a therapist who suspected abuse and alerted authorities.
On Nov. 18, 2003, police raided Neverland and the new allegations exploded into public view.
Two days after the raid, Jackson was arrested on suspicion of child molestation and released on $3-million bail.
While the jury did not hear directly from Jackson, his voice and perspective came across in videotapes screened in court. In the Bashir documentary and also in outtakes of those interviews shot by Jackson’s own videographer, jurors heard Jackson explain behavior that might seem odd for a grown man, including the sleepovers.
He described a lonely childhood, full of fear of a physically and emotionally abusive father, lost to work and the demands of fame.
His friendships with children, he said, are his way to regain what he lost.
At one point Jackson explained that he had never been “betrayed or deceived” by a child.
“It’s adults,” he said, “who have let me down.”
Staff writers contributing to the Jackson coverage were Hector Becerra, Andrew Blankstein, Geoff Boucher, Steve Chawkins, Amanda Covarrubias, Maura Dolan, Charles Duhigg, Richard Fausset, Michael Finnegan, Megan Garvey, Matea Gold, Gregory W. Griggs, Martha Groves, Jean Guccione, Robert Hilburn, K. Connie Kang, Daryl Kelley, Narayani Lasala, Nita Lelyveld, Jill Leovy, Rong-Gong Lin II, Caitlin Liu, Eric Malnic, Dave McKibben, Monte Morin, Stuart Pfeifer, Rachana Rathi, Valerie Reitman, Catherine Saillant, Nicholas Shields, Veronica Torrejon and Henry Weinstein.