THE JACKSON VERDICTS | THE KEY TO THE CASE
LOS ANGELES TIMES, June 14, 2005
© 2005 The Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.
By Henry Weinstein and Maura Dolan, Times Staff Writers
SANTA MARIA, Calif.
Eight months ago, defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. made a strategic move that may have provided the key to Michael Jackson’s court victory: He hired a new private investigator and told him to focus relentlessly on the accuser’s mother.
Scott Ross had worked on the Robert Blake defense, digging up unsavory items about the actor’s murdered wife. The information allowed defense lawyers to argue that someone other than Blake, who was charged with killing her, had a motive. Moreover, the details gave jurors a reason to dislike the dead woman.
Mesereau wanted a repeat performance, and he gave his investigator a simple, blunt instruction, Ross recalled Monday: “I want you to do to [the mother of the alleged victim] what you did to Bonny Lee Bakley.”
Monday, as the Jackson jurors talked about their deliberations, they made clear how well Mesereau’s strategy had succeeded.
“What mother in her right mind would … just freely volunteer your child to sleep with someone, and not so much just Michael Jackson but anyone, for that matter? That is something mothers are naturally concerned with,” juror Pauline Coccoz of Santa Maria, a 45-year-old mother of three, said at a post-verdict news conference.
Juror Eleanor Cook, a 79-year-old grandmother, spoke of her distaste for the mother’s demeanor. The juror “disliked it intensely when she snapped her fingers at us,” she said. “I thought, ‘Don’t snap your fingers at me, lady.’ ”
Juror Susan Rentschler, 52, of Lompoc, said she was “very uncomfortable” with the way the mother kept staring at jurors as she testified.
Mesereau’s strategy triumphed. But ironically, it was a decision by prosecutors that made it possible.
Rather than file a narrow case against Jackson that would have turned on only the testimony of Jackson’s youthful accuser, Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon gambled that a broader indictment would have a greater chance of success. The indictment included a conspiracy charge centering on accusations that Jackson’s aides had conspired to kidnap the mother and keep her at Neverland, the star’s ranch.
“The prosecutor went for every strategic advantage. He thought he could broaden the case with the conspiracy charge,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “By doing that, he made the mother the focus of the case, and it backfired on him.”
Analysts on Monday called Sneddon’s decision a fundamental miscalculation.
Because Sneddon put the mother on the stand, Mesereau was able to give the jury the allegations that Ross and other investigators had dug up: that the mother had committed welfare fraud, that she had lied in a previous civil suit against J.C. Penney Co., that she had left Neverland to get her legs waxed at precisely the time she later claimed she was being held at the ranch against her will.
“The mother was the weakest link in the case. She was walking, talking reasonable doubt,” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who closely followed the case against Jackson.
In a news conference after the verdict, Sneddon declined to comment on the conspiracy charge or discuss the way his case was structured. “I’m not going to look back and apologize for anything that we’ve done,” he said. “You don’t look at the pedigree of your witnesses.”
Sneddon mentioned only “the celebrity factor” — Jackson’s fame, saying “it seems to us [it] … played a key part here.
“But maybe we’re just looking for explanations in the wrong places,” he said.
Several analysts suggested he was.
Although Jackson’s celebrity — and his money — clearly helped, the prosecution’s conspiracy charge was a critical weak link in the case, they said.
“If your case is about an adult male molesting a male child, you put on that case,” said Michael Brennan, a clinical law professor at USC and former criminal defense lawyer who followed the case.
“The conspiracy case was not necessary, and what it did was force the prosecution to put on the mother, who in turn was a disaster,” he said.
Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who attended many sessions of the trial, said the defense made the most of the mother’s checkered past.
“The mother had such a history of false claims,” she said. “The mother should not have been called as a witness. She undermined the entire state case.”
Mesereau and his team attacked the credibility of the accuser and his mother. They hammered home a portrayal of the accusers as a money-hungry family who were counting on a settlement from Jackson. At least one juror said that image stuck with her during deliberations.
In what trial experts described as an unusually aggressive defense tactic, Jackson’s side also presented evidence about the mother outside court. An attorney hired by Jackson, Carl A. “Tony” Capozzola of Redondo Beach, sent a thick dossier to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s office calling for the mother to be prosecuted on charges of bilking the welfare system. The mother had concealed a $150,000 court settlement, Capozzola alleged.
When the mother took the stand, the presence of that dossier caused her to say in court that she would invoke her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination if asked any questions about welfare fraud.
The defense allegations against the mother may have fit a preconception among some jurors, said Ted Cassman, a criminal defense attorney in Northern California. Many people “believe that celebrities are easy targets, so there is almost a presumption that a celebrity is someone who could be targeted,” Cassman said.
Nevertheless, lawyers who followed the case closely said the prosecution’s gamble might still have paid off if other aspects of the case had held up.
Instead, several witnesses the prosecution had counted on wound up helping Jackson.
For example, Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife, turned out to be “the best character witness” for the defendant, Levenson said.
And the prosecution got at most a mixed effect from its effort to tell jurors about past allegations that Jackson had molested young boys. Under a California law, prosecutors were able to present testimony about the past allegations even though they had not gone to trial.
But one alleged victim who won a multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson a decade ago did not testify. Other young men, including actor Macaulay Culkin, said Jackson never molested them.
Prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses who said they had seen Jackson inappropriately touching Culkin. When Culkin took the stand and denied that anything sexual had taken place, he undermined the prosecution’s credibility, legal analysts said.
Culkin’s testimony was also central to one of the main tasks at which the defense succeeded, said Cassman: making the jury accept Jackson “was a bizarre person, and he did things like sleeping in bed with a young kid.”
Defense attorneys did that by not shying away from Jackson’s sleeping with boys. Instead, they presented testimony from boys who shared his bed and swore no molestation had occurred.
“I think it was a brilliant maneuver,” Cassman said. The defense convinced jurors that it “is possible to sleep with boys and have nothing sexual happen.”
In the end, said USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth, “not only was the credibility of the main accuser and his family tested at every turn, so was the credibility of almost every prosecution witness.”
Nearly all had either sued Jackson or sold their stories to tabloids, she said.
The jury could have believed at least some of what Jackson’s accuser had to say. But when “you put it in context with the nutty family and delinquent brother and all the problems of a lot of the prosecution witnesses, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ was just too high a hurdle.”
Times staff writer Jean Guccione contributed to this report.