Witnesses and the tabloids

A practice once shunned may be finding acceptance

April 21, 2005|By Steve Chawkins and Stuart Pfeifer | Steve Chawkins and Stuart Pfeifer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Will jurors in the Michael Jackson trial be turned off by the Neverland maid whose paid interview with a tabloid ran under the pulse-pounding headline "Kinky Sex Secrets of Michael and Lisa Marie's Bedroom?"

Will they smirk at the Neverland chef who admitted seeking $500,000 for his story about alleged sex abuse instead of the paltry $100,000 that a "media broker" thought he could get?

Inquiring minds want to know, especially now, as the Jackson child-molestation testimony, now in its eighth week, showcases a parade of witnesses who were either tabloid tattlers or tabloid wannabes.

There was a time when lawyers in big trials thought twice about presenting witnesses whose paid-for stories had run on the TV tell-all shows or in the supermarket tabloids, beside the latest tales of alien invasions and amazing cancer cures.

But in the Jackson trial in Santa Barbara County, no fewer than three witnesses sold their tales of the goings-on at Jackson's Neverland ranch, and at least four others peddled their stories unsuccessfully.

Attorneys such as Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor who is covering the trial as a news analyst, said the string of witnesses who have sold their stories to tabloids could hurt the prosecution.

"All this stuff has given a theme to the defense, and it's a theme that works to a degree," he said. "Behind all these stories lies money. Ordinary people understand money."

But some legal observers think that jurors are no longer as bothered as they once were by such transactions.

Jonathan Kirsch, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in publishing and media issues, said that jurors know that celebrities are paid when their images are used in ads, that ordinary people cash in when their stories are transformed into TV shows or movies. And in court, they are bluntly reminded that expert witnesses are paid for their testimony, Kirsch said.

In the Jackson case, prosecutors are betting that jurors will be understanding when considering the testimony of witnesses who dealt with the tabloids. Jackson's lawyers hope the jurors see the witnesses as conniving liars in league with media bottom-feeders, and reject their accounts.

One of Jackson's former maids - a key prosecution witness - acknowledged receiving $20,000 from Hard Copy for comments that ended up in "The Bedroom Maid's Painful Secret."

On the stand, she said she was upset that Hard Copy reporter Diane Dimond focused on Jackson's fondness for young boys. Those boys allegedly included her son, who also testified that Jackson, now 46, had fondled him.

"I find Michael and my son so close," she told Dimond. "Michael lying on the sleeping bag and my son getting closer to him. And I didn't like that."

"I thought it would be about me working at Neverland," the former maid testified this month about the Hard Copy piece. Dimond said she was candid with the woman about the focus of the interview.

The woman, whose name is being withheld by the Los Angeles Times to shield her son's identity, said she was troubled by Jackson's gifts to both her and the boy.

In a recent interview, Dimond, who is covering the Jackson trial for Court TV and NBC, said that her current employers do not pay for information.

Two other former Neverland employees testified that they too had sold their stories.

Ex-security guard Ralph Chacon and former maid Adrian McManus were part of a group of ex-employees who drew a $32,000 fee for an interview with the Splash tabloid news service. Splash then sold their story about the "kinky sex secrets" of Jackson's short-lived marriage to Lisa Marie Presley to the Star tabloid.

On the witness stand, Chacon and McManus said they had been seeking money to pay a lawyer for pressing the group's wrongful-termination suit against Jackson. Jackson prevailed in the litigation.

McManus said she didn't know any kinky sex secrets.

"A lot of times those tabloids make it look like I said stuff when I didn't say it," she testified.

What McManus did say in court was that she had seen Jackson cavorting in a hot tub and lounging in bed with young boys. Chacon said he had seen Jackson performing a sex act on a boy after the two stepped out of a shower.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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