Jackson pleads not guilty in child molestation case

Singer's tardy appearance draws reprimand from Santa Barbara judge

January 17, 2004|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHIGAGO TRIBUNE

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - First came the cuff-linked hand waving out the tinted window. Then the umbrella. Then Michael Jackson himself, elegantly attired for an ignoble occasion: his arraignment yesterday on felony child molestation charges, to which he pleaded not guilty.

And, soon, there was a scolding - by the judge, who admonished Jackson for being 21 minutes late for his first court appearance. "Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot here," said Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville.

"I want to advise you that I will not put up with that; it's an insult to the court," he added.

But earlier, scores of men, women and children, who had promised police they would stay on the curb, broke ranks and enveloped Jackson's black SUV as it pulled up to the courthouse.

There was no red carpet, just a temporary chain-link fence cordoning off 1,500 fans and media for Jackson's entrance into Melville's Santa Barbara County courtroom.

Dozens of Nation of Islam members, in suits and sunglasses, stood at attention. Fans held a 40-foot banner stating "Michael Jackson Is Innocent." Invitations circulated for a post-arraignment party at Jackson's Neverland Ranch. Three television helicopters filmed from above.

Mary Davison, 46, kept her straight-A, perfect-attendance 9-year-old daughter out of school for this moment.

"We've never seen anything like this," said the homemaker, who has lived her entire life in the wine country community of Santa Maria, population 82,000. "I believe he's innocent."

In court, Jackson pleaded not guilty to seven counts of molesting a boy under 14 and two counts of giving the boy alcohol (reportedly wine) - charges that could put him in prison for decades if convicted. Jackson was surrounded by relatives, including his parents, brother Jermaine and sister Janet.

Two hours later, Jackson left the courthouse, walking slowly as he acknowledged a chaotic assembly of fans and photographers behind fencing.

Only a few people seemed to support Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon's prosecution of Jackson, and one man's sign stating "Go get `im Tom!!" was almost ripped out of his hands by two women.

Another Jackson critic, Sofia Hollum, 37, said she faced mild heckling as she held two signs, "Good job Sneddon" and "A voice for the victim."

The arraignment marked Jackson's first court appearance since the Dec. 18 charges.

After Jackson left the courthouse, he climbed on his SUV's roof, did a little dance, and saluted the crowd, in the direction of a man who was defending the pop singer by shouting "Beat it, beat it" through a bullhorn. It was a dual reference to the charges and a Jackson song. Meanwhile, Jackson's music played on a fan's speaker.

Once his convoy slowly pushed through a trailing throng, thousands of fans went to Jackson's Neverland Ranch about 40 miles southeast of Santa Maria and waited an hour in traffic for the rare open house.

Parents with strollers, fans and gawkers took a Friday afternoon walk through a lush valley dotted with champion oak trees. They sauntered along a mile-long course that featured ponds, an amusement park and a zoo with elephants, giraffes and exotic birds. Staff offered free ice-cream sandwiches, fried chicken, hot dogs and cookies.

Tribune national correspondent Vincent J. Schodolski contributed to this report. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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