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Jan. 30, 2005. 11:02 AM - Toronto Star

The End of Innocence

Michael Jackson is headed to court. His trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection tomorrow in Santa Maria, Calif., will not be simply an evaluation of the charges against him. It will also be an indictment of his Peter Pan-like existence — from his Disney-style Neverland Ranch and toy fetish to his preference for the companionship of young boys.
     But being stuck in adolescence is not grounds for conviction, warns Tom Lyon, a University of Southern California law professor and expert in child molestation cases.
     "He could be a serial pedophile for all we know. But the fact that he's kind to children or that he likes to play children's games doesn't suggest that he's going to molest kids," said Lyon. "That's more a reflection that stereotypically, men are uninterested in kids."
     Free on $3 million (U.S.) bail, the 46-year-old singer has pleaded not guilty to 10 charges, including child molestation, giving a minor alcohol in order to seduce him and conspiracy to kidnap, detain and extort the family of his alleged victim, a 13-year-old cancer patient who met Jackson through a Make-A-Wish-type appeal.
     According to reports of leaked documents, the prosecution claims Jackson is a predator who plied children with liquor, gave them nicknames such as "Doo Doo Head" and "Blowhole" and encouraged them to masturbate. Expect his defense lawyers to portray their client as a benefactor of children fallen prey to extortionists.
     They will have a tough time if the judge allows evidence of similar allegations involving another 13-year-old boy who settled out of court with Jackson in 1993. It remains to be seen if any of Jackson's celebrity friends, like Elizabeth Taylor and Chris Tucker, show up to lend their support; or whether family members, including father Joe, whom he's accused of abusing him, and sister LaToya, from whom he was once estranged, will be by his side as they were during last year's arraignment.
One thing is certain: even without cameras in the courtroom, the trial, which is expected to last six months, is going to be scrutinized and reported in its every detail. It's a celebrity scandal of unseen proportions, and to help you wade through the case ahead, we introduce you to Santa Maria — the picturesque city being overrun by the media, the lawyers and their arguments, the judge and the potential witnesses. But we begin with the man at the center of it all.
     Not guilty, your honor
     The fifth son of a Gary, Ind., steelworker and his devout Jehovah's Witness wife, Michael Joe Jackson is the most successful of his singing siblings, largely due to 1982's Thriller, the biggest-selling album of all time with global sales of more than 51 million copies.
     In the last decade, however, the King of Pop's cat-and-mouse games with the public, lukewarm recordings, childlike obsessions, implausible plastic surgeries and controversial relationships with young boys have transformed him from music icon to punch line.
     But he's still relevant, says Vibe magazine writer Cheo Hodari Coker.
     "Justin Timberlake and Usher cannot do what they do without Michael Jackson," said Coker. "When you hear the pureness of Justin Timberlake's falsetto, his delivery ... everything that he's doing is completely influenced by Michael Jackson. When you see Usher's latest video 'Caught Up' —the hat, the clothing, moves that are very modular, but smooth — that's "Smooth Criminal.' There may be less crotch grabs, that's pure Michael."
     And the twice-divorced father of two sons and a daughter still sells — a recent hits compilation Number Ones entered Billboards Top Internet Albums Sales chart at No. 1 last January and Thriller sold 228,710 copies in 2004.
     However, the allegations have given even his most diehard fans pause.
     "As many people love Michael Jackson, you say 'Would you allow your kids to spend the night at Mike's house?' I think those that say yes are probably lying," said Coker.
Wine country
     "Mike's house" is a 1,100-hectare ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, just east of the city of Santa Maria, population 80,528.
     If you've seen the movie Sideways, then you're already familiar with the area, located in California's central coast and known for its magnificent wineries and strawberry fields. Vandenberg Air Force Base is the largest employer, providing jobs to more than 5,000 people. The advent of the trial means all of the city's 1,100 hotel rooms have been booked.
     "I've heard comments about us benefiting from the misfortune of others," said Chamber of Commerce president Robert Hatch, who has fielded calls and emails from reporters in Germany and Japan. "But we didn't cause this to happen, and we just want to make sure everyone who comes here is comfortable, and perhaps they'll remember us when the trial ends."

High alert
     When Jackson and his lawyers turn up in Santa Maria tomorrow, along with hundreds of reporters, about 1,000 fans and the first batch of prospective jurors, there will be 30 police officers — a third of the Santa Maria Police Department — on hand to keep order.
     "The city is working with some of the media to rent some of its parking and office space near the courthouse," said city spokesperson Mark van de Kamp, who estimates police overtime costs at $40,000 per month.
     "We are expecting to recoup about 90 per cent of those costs from contracts we're negotiating right now."
     Inside the courthouse, sheriff deputies will be on patrol. The ground-floor courtroom has 120 available seats: 60 for the public, allocated through a lottery system, and 60 for the media. The county is charging a group of 100 media outlets $7,500 (U.S.) per day to offset the costs of extra staffing, barricades and a portable toilet.

12 Peers
     "I think a lot of them are going to lie through their teeth to try to get on this jury panel," said L. A. jury consultant Marshall Hennington of the 4,000 people who have been summoned to Santa Barbara County Superior Court. And since only 1.9 per cent of people in the county are African-American, the final dozen will be more reflective of Jackson's current hue than his racial heritage.
     "I think the defense made a crucial mistake by not asking for a change of venue," said Hennington. "He would be better off if he had a jury panel in which there were more minorities because they would raise the burden of proof on the state."
     Vibe's Coker concurs.
     "I think that black people, regardless of whether or not he's innocent, feel the need to defend him because of the fact that he's a high profile African-American entertainer that's being attacked with such vehemence," said the writer, drawing parallels with O.J. Simpson who was perceived as having distanced himself from the African-American community until he found himself on trial for murder.
     "That's what was going on with the O.J. Simpson trial; the way (authorities) were going after him, it was like black America was being attacked. So there was a need to protect him," said Coker, adding jokingly, "even though by his own admission, O.J. hadn't been black since 1975."
     Southwestern Law School professor Robert Pugsley doesn't believe the race card is in play.
     "I think it's really a question of whether or not the public's perception of Mr. Jackson's weird lifestyle has any relevance to the charges against him. He seems to be well-liked by his neighbors, he's done a lot of charity work for kids ... I think he has as much opportunity as anybody of his international fame and celebrity would to get a fair trial in that area."

He says/He says

'Michael Jackson has to take the stand.'
LA. jury consultant Marshall Hennington

According to The Smoking Gun web site and ABC News, the accuser, now 15, told investigators that the entertainer gave him wine in a soda can, showed him porn and fondled him over a four-week period in 2003.
     But the boy, seen holding hands with the singer and talking about sharing a bed with him in Briton Martin Bashir's 2003 documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, also told child welfare authorities that Jackson was a father figure who did nothing wrong.
     "It's pretty clear that they can't get a conviction unless they get some convincing testimony from the child," said law professor Lyon.
     "Jurors will look for things like whether the child tears up on the stand ... and those are not very reliable indicators (of veracity). The best thing is to listen to the amount of detail that he can provide and the extent to which what he says is corroborated."
     While the defense may treat the boy and his siblings gingerly on the witness stand, expect them to tear into their mother, who has been characterized as an opportunist with a history of making false accusations.
     "If these jurors can separate the mother from the children and say, 'Yes, the mother may have been a poor caretaker and been out for her own personal gains, but still he should be held accountable for what he did,' then Michael Jackson is going to be in for the fight of his life," said jury consultant Hennington.

     Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, 63, is the face of the prosecution.
The father of nine, known early in his career as "Mad Dog," was disappointed when his 1993 molestation case against Jackson fell apart after the alleged victim stopped co-operating and inked a $20-million (U.S.) civil settlement with the pop star.
     Two years later, Jackson released the song "D.S." about "a cold man" Dom Sheldon who tried to take him down; it was thought to be a reference to his nemesis. So, it was an exuberant Sneddon, in his sixth and final four-year term as D.A., who announced new allegations against Jackson in November 2003.
     "I think that initial press conference was inappropriate," said Loyola Law School professor and former prosecutor Laurie Levenson. "He got the law wrong; he made light of charges that there's nothing funny about; he certainly made it sound personal. During the investigation he went out to the search locations, he spoke directly to witnesses ... that's the sort of extra zealousness that makes people think he's not completely objective."
     Johnny who?
     After quitting actor Robert Blake's murder case over "irreconcilable differences," Harvard grad Thomas Mesereau Jr., 54, replaced Mark Geragos (of Scott Peterson fame) as Jackson's lead attorney.
     "He's a terrific lawyer, with a pretty amazing track record," said Levenson, who estimates Jackson's minimum legal bill at $1 million (U.S.).
     "He's a real detail man, always very prepared, passionate about the law and knows how to conduct himself in the courtroom. I think his strengths are that he probably knows this prosecution's case better than they do.
     "And he's done a lot of work with underprivileged people and in the black community. He's not as flashy as a Mark Geragos or Johnny Cochrane (who successfully represented Simpson), and he doesn't have as much prior publicity, but I do think he's enjoying this limelight a bit."
     He's da boss
     Judge Rodney Melville, 63, "likes to run a tight ship," said Levenson of the jurist who has banned cameras at the trial and slapped a gag order on participants.
     "He's not a big fan of the media," she noted. "And he can be really short and caustic to some of the lawyers. I think he wants this case to go away desperately; he has said pretty much he wants his life back."
     But he's fully aware of the responsibility he has been given. "The world is watching justice in the United States here — the world. Not Santa Maria, not Santa Barbara County, not California — the world," he said during pre-trial rulings Friday. Melville has yet to decide whether he'll allow the prosecution to present their evidence of "at least seven" other alleged sexual abuse victims from Jackson's past. That could include testimony from the 1993 complainant, now in his 20s.
     "If the prosecution is not able to get him on the stand to bolster their case, that's where it becomes a weaker case than it originally appeared to be and may explain why after the (April 2004 grand jury) indictment, Sneddon conducted more raids on Neverland and requested a DNA swab from Jackson," said law professor Pugsley.
     "It certainly appears no expense is being spared and the D.A. is casting an extremely wide net to try to get Jackson this time around."
     I swear to tell the truth ...
     Martin Bashir, now employed by ABC's 20/20, may be called to testify about his observations during the making of his two-hour documentary. There has also been talk about former child star Macaulay Culkin, who often slept over at Neverland, taking the stand for either the prosecution or the defense. But, none of the 100-plus witnesses slated to appear are likely to be more riveting than the pop star himself.
     " Michael Jackson has to take the stand," said trial consultant Hennington, "but he's going to have to have significant witness preparation work to make sure he comes across as credible, likeable and believable.
     "That's what did him in (at a 2003 civil trial he lost to a German concert promoter over cancelled shows). He always showed up to court late, he made the jurors wait, he'd take long lunch breaks.
     "One time he didn't even show up again after lunch; another time he called in after the jurors were seated and said he couldn't make it because he had a doctor's appointment. Those things really angered the jurors."
     But Judge Melville has already figured in the Jackson factor: the trial is scheduled to sit from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day — without a lunch break.
     "That's a great move," said the Chamber of Commerce's Hatch. "He knows if Mr. Jackson goes for lunch and stops out there with the fans ... he might not be back on time, or at all. He's just not used to people telling him what to do."
     This could get ugly
     If he's convicted of what he's been charged with, probation "will not be an option," said Levenson. "He's not going to get a bracelet and stay at home; he's facing three to 20 years."
     And Jackson could dodge the prurient allegations and still do time. "The big problem is that Sneddon added that conspiracy charge," said Pugsley. The prosecution claims that Jackson colluded with aides to hide and intimidate the boy and his family after the fallout from the Bashir documentary.
     "You can prove conspiracy with relative ease," said Pugsley. "And that still carries heavy prison time."
     Even if Jackson goes free, the legal troubles are still not over. His former wife, Debbie Rowe, is reportedly set to auction her 2.13-carat wedding ring on eBay to raise money for a custody battle over their two children Prince Michael, 7, and Paris, 6.
     This is his future.
     Dismal. Disgraced. Diminished.

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