Conspiracy count added to charges against Jackson

Entertainer pleads not guilty in California child-molestation case

May 01, 2004|By William Overend and Steve Chawkins | William Overend and Steve Chawkins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Prosecutors increased Michael Jackson's legal jeopardy yesrerday with the unsealing of a grand jury indictment that accuses him of conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion in addition to accusations that he molested a 12-year-old boy.

With a slight nod of his head, Jackson pleaded not guilty during a brief court appearance. In contrast to his demeanor when he was arraigned in January on criminal charges filed by Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the pop star was subdued in court and outside.

The conspiracy charge stunned many of Jackson's supporters. "This was a terrible day for Michael," said Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist who has organized bus trips to the courthouse here in support of Jackson. "This takes the case in an entirely new direction."

Details of the charges were not revealed in the indictment, and the names of other alleged conspirators, who have not been charged, were whited out in the copies released to the public.

The alleged victim's mother has accused two former Jackson employees, Vincent Amen and Frank Tyson, of threatening family members to keep them from going to the police, said Joseph Tacopina, the New York attorney who represents the two men. They have also been accused of holding the boy and his family against their will at Jackson's Neverland ranch.

Tacopina said yesterday that he doesn't know whether his clients, who deny the accusations, are named in the indictment.

"I wish someone would tell me," he said.

Whoever the alleged co-conspirators turn out to be, adding the conspiracy charges can give prosecutors substantial advantages, legal experts said.

To prove the molestation charges, prosecutors will have to rely to some extent on the testimony and credibility of the boy, who has been described as a recovering leukemia patient.

Testimony from children in such cases is often problematic. In 1993, Jackson was accused of molesting another boy, but after the singer and the child's family reached a multimillion-dollar civil settlement, the boy declined to testify, and no charges were filed.

The conspiracy charges, in contrast, could be proved with witnesses other than the alleged victim, particularly if prosecutors can win the cooperation of one or more of the alleged co-conspirators.

Moreover, proving that a defendant tried to cover up his conduct is often easier than convincing a jury about the conduct itself, prosecutors and defense attorneys say.

Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Stanley I. Greenberg also suggested that if jurors can't agree on the alleged molestation, they might be able to reach a consensus on the alleged cover-up conspiracy.

Robert Landheer, a criminal defense attorney in Santa Barbara, Calif., said the conspiracy charge reflects greater aggressiveness by prosecutors.

"This is really the shot across the bow in this case," he said. "They've just declared war on Jackson."

The charge can apply pressure on possibly reluctant witnesses, including Amen and Tyson. It will also allow prosecutors to introduce a broader range of evidence at trial, Landheer said.

"It certainly allows you to bring in a lot of information about a defendant's consciousness of guilt," Landheer said. "There can be some very lethal testimony."

The original charges against Jackson included seven felony counts of lewd and lascivious behavior and two counts of providing an intoxicant to a minor.

The new indictment, in addition to the conspiracy charge, includes four counts of lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor younger than age 14, another charge of attempting to commit a lewd act with a minor and four counts of providing an intoxicant to a minor in order to seduce him.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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