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Dec. 29, 2004 - Los Angeles Times

4,000 to Get Call for Jackson Jury

Notices could go out this week for possible jurors in the star's molestation trial. They can expect rigorous screening by attorneys on both sides.

Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Court officials here plan to summon up to 4,000 prospective jurors for Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial, with notices going out as early as this week in a case likely to draw global attention not only to the pop superstar but also 12 of his neighbors.
     With jury selection set to begin Jan. 31, panelists will report to the courthouse in shifts of about 150 each.
     When they do, attorneys will be on the lookout for a lot more than whether anyone has heard about Jackson's child-molestation charges on the news.
Under the direction of Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville, prospective jurors will be probed for telltale attitudes on a spectrum of issues, including racial prejudice, divorce and plastic surgery.
     Many of them will be excused simply because they can't afford to stay off the job for the five months the trial may take. Others will ask to be exempted because of sexual abuse they or people close to them suffered as children.
According to legal experts, the panelists will almost certainly be asked whether celebrities in trouble get the justice they deserve or the justice they can buy. They'll be asked whether they can fairly weigh the claims for and against a wealthy neighbor who is perhaps the most famous celebrity ever to be charged as a criminal —a puzzle wrapped in an enigma inside a snow-white suit and a surgical mask.
     " There's an interesting aspect of this case that goes to the fact that Michael Jackson is a very eccentric person," said Jo-Elian Dimitrius, a trial consultant who assisted the O.J. Simpson defense team. "Do people believe that eccentricity suggests a criminal mind, or just that Jackson is a very creative, artistic guy and his eccentricity shouldn't be held against him?"
     Judging from the results of two previous civil trials involving Jackson, juries from the conservative Santa Maria area may not be swayed one way or another by Jackson's behavior.
     In 1997, local jurors ruled in his favor after five former employees at his Neverland ranch contended they were unlawfully forced out after cooperating with authorities investigating alleged child molestation by Jackson in 1993. That case fell apart after Jackson gave a multimillion-dollar settlement to his accuser's family.
     But in 2002, a Santa Maria jury hit him with a $5.3-million judgment in a contract dispute with concert promoter Marcel Avram. During a break in the four-month trial, Jackson was videotaped dangling his baby son over a balcony in Germany, an incident that prompted the judge to question jurors, one by one, about whether they could still render a fair verdict.
     While erratic behavior has been one of Jackson's trademarks, jurors today may be less forgiving, said Los Angeles trial consultant Marshall Hennington.
     Before Christmas, Jackson played host to about 200 youngsters from inner-city Los Angeles for a day of fun at Neverland. The star has often opened his ranch to children's groups, but the timing of the most recent event may turn off potential jurors, Hennington said.
     " It's risky behavior," he said. "To some people it would show Michael Jackson just being Michael Jackson, bringing peace, joy and love to innocent children. But it also seems like a desperate attempt to influence the potential jury panel."
     If he were advising the defense, Hennington said, he would have attorneys seek a change of venue on the grounds that fewer than 2% of the people in northern Santa Barbara County are African American.
     Last January, a Harris poll showed a marked racial divide on the Jackson case. Among whites, 59% believed Jackson was probably guilty. The outcome was almost the same among Latinos. But among African Americans, it was reversed, with 52% thinking that Jackson was probably not guilty.
     Even so, Hennington, who is African American, was skeptical that the black community would necessarily rally to Jackson's defense.
     " You can only play the race card so far," he said, contending that Jackson's attorneys will have a tough time persuading jurors that every one of the 170 witnesses who may be called by prosecutors "has an ulterior motive for testifying against Michael Jackson."
     Sources close to the case said that Jackson's attorneys will not seek a change of venue.
     The racial makeup of the jury may not be as important to either side as the extent to which prospective jurors believe the previous, unproved allegations of sexual abuse against Jackson, some experts said.
     A hearing next month will determine whether the accusations from 1993 will be allowed in this case. But Tom Lyon, a USC law professor who has specialized in child-molestation cases, said the judge will "almost certainly' admit such evidence under the terms of a state law dating to the mid-1990s.
     " The prior allegations are sure to have an effect on the jury," Lyon said. "They may be convinced that one or two children may be coached, but it's a lot harder for the defense to argue that the prior allegations are similarly false."
     Generally, prosecutors favor women and defense attorneys favor men as jurors in cases involving the sexual abuse of children, Lyon said.
     Both sides will watch for men who have suffered in messy divorces, as they could be particularly sympathetic to defense arguments about false accusations, he said.
As in some cases involving sexual abuse, many prospective jurors will ask to be removed, Lyon predicted. He said research indicates that 20% of women and 10% of men had sexual contact with an adult when they were children.
     Jurors might also be quizzed on their attitudes toward plastic surgery because of Jackson's well-known facial transformations.
     " The defense would want to go into it," Dimitrius said. "It's a little bit of the racial component sneaking in the back door; I've heard any number of people comment that Jackson looks more white than black."
     Dimitrius said both sides also will watch for "stealth jurors," panelists who see jury duty as a chance to advance themselves, whether by writing a tell-all book, rescuing their endangered idol, or striking a blow for abused children.
     " With the art and science of what we do coming out more and more, people realize what they have to say and do to get on a jury," Dimitrius said.
     The Jackson case is to be heard in Santa Maria because his ranch, the site of the alleged offenses, is in the northern part of Santa Barbara County.
     Some local attorneys see a north-county jury as tending toward the prosecution.
     " The north county is a much more conservative community," said Santa Barbara attorney Steve Balash. "You've got a lot of retired military from Vandenberg Air Force Base, you've got people who work in the prison system, you've got blue-collar folks, and you've got ranchers."
     " Santa Maria is a cowboy town," said Balash, who often wears cowboy boots when trying cases there.
Just who that will benefit is an open question.
     " It's not clear to me that a more conservative jury will necessarily be more pro-prosecution when the allegations are sexual abuse," said Lyon, the USC law professor. "For many people, this kind of charge is hard to believe. They simply can't imagine it."
     But skepticism can cut both ways. Louis "Skip" Miller, the attorney opposing Jackson in his 2002 contract dispute, described the jurors who heard his case as "intelligent, attentive, honest, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people."
     Before the trial, though, he had a consultant research the jury pool to determine whether Jackson's celebrity status would doom any case against him.
     It didn't.

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