Jackson molestation trial to begin today

Prosecutors expected to reveal details of case in opening statements

February 28, 2005|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Prosecutors handling the child molestation charges against Michael Jackson will finally reveal the details of their case before a jury today, culminating investigations into the pop singer that began more than a decade ago.

With the selection of jurors and alternates completed surprisingly quickly, opening statements will begin today in Santa Maria, 170 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The trial is expected to last for months and to detail Jackson's sex life and his interaction with at least one of the children he has entertained during sleep- overs at Neverland Ranch, his compound in Santa Barbara County.

Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy on his ranch in 2003. He is also accused of plying the boy with alcohol and conspiring to keep the boy and his family from leaving the ranch. Jackson has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

His attorneys are expected to attack the credibility of the alleged victim and his mother. In an unrelated incident, she asserted that a department store falsely accused her son, then 7, of shoplifting, and that she was sexually assaulted during a scuffle with security guards. The family sued and secured a settlement of at least $100,000.

Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville ruled last week that some information from that case would be allowed into evidence during Jackson's trial.

Already, jury selection has raised eyebrows. The relatively quick impaneling of 12 jurors and eight alternates - expected to take weeks, but completed in three days - was viewed by experts as a sign the judge was living up to his no-nonsense reputation. But others wondered whether the judge had moved too quickly, and raised questions about the backgrounds of several jurors and alternates.

For example, some of the jurors and two alternates said they had visited Jackson's ranch. One said his mother-in-law was fired from a housekeeping job there and is now on Jackson's witness list. One juror, a 79-year-old great-grandmother who said she liked watching her grandchildren mimic Jackson's signature "moonwalk," said a close relative was convicted of a sex crime. A 42-year-old female juror said a niece had alleged that she had been molested by her father, and the juror's sister said she was raped as a child.

The jury consists of eight women and four men, ranging in age from 20 to 79; one is of Asian heritage, three are Latinos, seven are white, and the 12th member's race is not known. There are no blacks among the jurors or alternates.

Only about 50 of 700 prospective jurors were questioned before the court settled upon a jury. With that large a pool, "it's not necessary to end up with anyone on the jury with an affiliation" to Jackson or his ranch, said Philip K. Anthony, a psychologist and chief executive of DecisionQuest, a trial and jury consulting firm based in Los Angeles that worked with prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Experts say child molestation cases boil down to a few factors: the physical evidence; whether the victim makes consistent statements; whether adults or parents appear to have an agenda; and whether the defendant had access and opportunity.

"They are tough cases to prosecute, and they are easy to screw up," said Doug Godfrey, a professor at Chicago Kent College of Law who was a sex crimes prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., and later a defense lawyer.

Jackson's list of potential witnesses includes many well-known figures, including Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Kobe Bryant, Larry King, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Deepak Chopra and Jay Leno.

Perhaps the trial's most dramatic moment will be the testimony by the alleged victim, now 15. "The bottom line is that you got to put the kid on the stand, and the jury has to believe the kid. It's going to be a telling and excruciating moment," Godfrey said.

Today "will be a big lurid day," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It will be the first time the charges are spelled out in court."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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