Seven counts against Jackson in Calif. child molesting case

Charges formally filed in case involving boy

strong defense promised

December 19, 2003|By William Overend and Monte Morin | William Overend and Monte Morin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Prosecutors formally charged recording superstar Michael Jackson with nine felony counts of child molestation yesterday, claiming that he twice administered an "intoxicating agent" to a young cancer patient in hopes of seducing the boy at his Neverland Ranch.

Traditionally, the filing of charges in criminal cases takes place with little fanfare. However, in an early demonstration of the worldwide interest in the Jackson case, yesterday's filing drew more than 100 reporters from around the globe and was orchestrated with the help of a Hollywood public relations firm.

The event began with photographers and TV cameramen following a bailiff and a court clerk as they marched the three-page charging document to the criminal court clerk's office. Cameras zoomed in as a court official rubber-stamped the papers.

Five minutes later, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon emerged to answer questions about the charges and how the case was being handled.

The molestation charges, if proved, could carry sentences of up to eight years each, but lawyers said there is a cap on the maximum prison term for such crimes that could not exceed a period of slightly more than 20 years.

The self-proclaimed King of Pop remains free on $3 million bail. Through his lawyer, he denied the charges yesterday and claimed that the district attorney had an "ax to grind."

Jackson, 45, faces seven counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent - believed to be wine - "to enable and assist himself to commit ... child molestation."

Five of the counts of lewd and lascivious conduct are alleged to have occurred between Feb. 7 and March 10, beginning one day after Jackson appeared in a British television documentary holding the victim's hand and claiming that they had slept together in Jackson's bedroom, although not in the same bed.

The other two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct and the counts of administering intoxicating agents allegedly occurred between Feb. 20 and March 10, according to the documents.

The charges filed by Sneddon come one month after authorities arrested Jackson and conducted an extensive search of his vast amusement park compound. That delay in filing and disclosures that the victim denied any abuse to Los Angeles County child welfare investigators have prompted Jackson's defenders and some legal experts to say the prosecution's case is falling apart.

Sneddon denied yesterday that there were problems with the case and specifically addressed the child welfare interview, which occurred in February. "It was an interview, not an investigation," he said. "We're not concerned about it at all in any aspect of our case."

"First, children do not always reveal everything the first go-around," Sneddon added. "Second, it's Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a big place, and they have a lot of problems there. And problems in that department."

Sneddon also told reporters that he and defense lawyer Mark Geragos had reached an agreement to allow Jackson to fly to England for one week to fulfill, unspecified contractual obligations that would have caused him significant financial harm if forced to stay in the United States. His passport will be returned to him temporarily.

Jackson did not attend the filing in the modest brick two-story courthouse in this city of 85,000 people, but his attorney denounced the allegations.

"Michael Jackson is going to fight these charges with every fiber of his soul," Geragos said in front of the downtown Los Angeles skyscraper he has an office in. "Michael Jackson is ensconced and ready to fight. He has not running. He's not hiding. He is as irate as I am."

Geragos claimed that Santa Barbara County investigators were out to get Jackson and suggested that the victim's family was looking to profit.

"What we have is a shakedown, an intersection of someone looking for money with someone in the investigation with an axe to grind," Geragos said. "There is no truth to the charges. ... This is all about money. The family wanting money after the documentary."

The charges refer to the victim only as John Doe, but sources and statements by the prosecution indicate that the victim is the same boy who appeared in the British documentary. The 14-year-old boy was 12 at the time of the alleged crimes.

Legal experts discussed yesterday whether the prosecution's case would suffer as a result of the child welfare investigation.

UCLA criminal law professor Peter Arenella said if the alleged victim in Thursday's indictment is the same person who denied wrongdoing, the case will likely turn on Jackson's credibility versus the boy's.

"The 68 million-dollar question is whether the search of Neverland generated any incriminating video evidence or physical evidence to support the accuser's accusations," Arenella said.

Sources close to the investigation have said that the 13-year-old brother of the boy Michael Jackson is accused of molesting witnessed at least one of the alleged incidents. Such a witness could bolster the case.

This is also not the first time Jackson has faced such allegations. A 1993 investigation by Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county prosecutors uncovered three alleged victims. The best-known, a teen-age boy, settled a civil suit with Jackson for more than $15 million, then decided he did not want to testify and prosecutors chose not to file charges against the pop star.

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