WASHINGTON - Michael Jackson needed to be innocent like Richard Kimble. Instead, he's "not guilty" like O.J. Simpson.
The key to the distinction lies in what a juror said after the pop singer was acquitted Monday.
Juror Raymond Hultman told reporters he believes Mr. Jackson might have molested boys in the past, but that the prosecution did not prove its contention that he molested the specific boy at the center of this case.
It's not what you'd call a ringing endorsement.
Thus the Michael Jackson trial comes to an end, and not a second too soon. The people of Santa Maria, Calif., get their town back and the rest of us are left to look for meaning.
It's a search that is complicated by memories fonder than you'd like them to be. The cute kid with the apple cheeks and the James Brown moves, ripping it up on The Ed Sullivan Show. The teenager in the sequined suit hitting a note that makes screaming girls rush the stage. The young man, glorious in the peak of his powers, whose dancing dares you to glance away.
Once, he lived in the glare of spotlights and showed you only what he wished you to see. Which was an eternal boy, a charming eccentric, a mysterious innocent most at home in the company of children.
And we bought it.
It's difficult now to remember why.
Then the '90s came and with them accusations of child molestation so sordid you wanted to say, "Enough, stop the train and let me off. Don't come back till you, for heaven's sake, grow up and leave the children alone."
The act got old. But he persisted, still showing us what he wished us to see. That he was innocent like Richard Kimble. Truth be told, innocent like babies. A creature of such purity, one of his associates told me maybe 25 years ago, that he found even the word "funky" too coarse to say, preferring "smelly" instead.
And it's only now, as I recall the anecdote, that I remember a song Mr. Jackson and his brothers had recorded several years before: "How Funky Is Your Chicken," it was called.
I wonder why I didn't mention that contradiction to the associate? Maybe I liked hearing the tale for the same reason he enjoyed telling it: It felt good to believe, as a poet once put it, "there are men too gentle to live among wolves."
So what shall we believe now, having learned that this gentle man keeps a stash of porno magazines around the house?
I ask not from prissy indignation over sex pictures but rather because it is at such stark odds with the things he told us.
The things we once allowed ourselves to believe.
But the most damaging thing we learned about Mr. Jackson these last weeks isn't that he indulges a commonplace male vice. It is, rather, that his 36 years of international celebrity have left him with an innocence of a far less appealing kind than that he once encouraged us to see. Meaning the egocentric obliviousness of children who have yet to learn that the rules apply to them, too.
To put it another way, what kind of idiot dances atop an SUV outside the courthouse where he just entered a plea on child molestation charges?
Or persists in dallying with little boys even after a multimillion-dollar payout and universal disapproval?
Or thinks it's OK to go AWOL for court because his back was killing him?
Maybe you tolerate that cluelessness in children. One has less patience with 46-year-old men. And you wonder: Does he get it yet? Does he have a clue?
His lawyer's promise that Mr. Jackson will stop sleeping with little boys suggests that he does. A statement on his Web site equating Mr. Jackson's acquittal with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela's release from prison suggests otherwise.
So you wait to see what happens next, thinking how sad it is, how old it makes you feel, to see the little boy with the James Brown moves wind up like this, inmate in an amusement park of his own making.
Not guilty, granted. But not innocent, either. Indeed, never innocent again.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.