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Mar 7, 2005. - Newsweek

Playing the Class Card



There are no black jurors, but the Jackson trial may hinge on something other than race. And we don't mean the evidence.

Playing the Class CardWe all know that the American justice system entitles the accused to a jury of his peers. But, as Beverly Hills jury consultant Marshall Hennington says, "What does a group of Michael Jackson's peers look like?" Not much like the one seated last week in Santa Maria, Calif.—and that may be good news or bad news. For either side. The accuser is Hispanic, and a white district attorney will prosecute Jackson before a jury with no blacks. But Hennington (who happens to be black) says that's not the real point. "This is not a case of race," he says, "as much as it is a case involving child molestation—and the issue of class."
     The jury that will decide whether Jackson molested a 13-year-old boy after plying him with alcohol consists of seven Anglos, three Latinos, one Asian and one person whose ethnicity was unclear as of late last week. (Santa Barbara County is only 2 percent African-American.) Perhaps more important, they're mostly middle-class folks, and they may see Jackson as a remote, impossibly wealthy celebrity who considers himself above the law. Jackson bought his way out of a previous child-abuse allegation, paying a multimillion-dollar settlement to a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy in 1993. (Judge Rodney Melville has yet to decide whether evidence from that civil suit will be admitted in this criminal case.) And, as happened in the Martha Stewart trial, jurors may be put off by a parade of celebrity character witnesses. (This could also backfire in another way: a 62-year-old juror, confronted with a list of potential witnesses, thought Deepak Chopra was a rapper.)
     On the other hand, jurors may see the accuser and his family as lowlife con artists. Jackson's lawyers are calling the accuser's 36-year-old mother "a professional plaintiff," and they've brought up a 1999 civil suit in which the family got a $150,000 settlement from JC Penney and Tower Records after mall security guards allegedly roughed them up. (The guards claimed the family shoplifted, though no one was prosecuted.) "What if the boy lied in the past to help his mother obtain money through the legal process?" one Jackson attorney has asked in court. (In grand-jury testimony from the current case-leaked to thesmokinggun.com— the mother denies ever coaching her children to lie.) And certainly jurors will be asking themselves what kind of a mother would let her kid have a sleep over at Michael Jackson's house.
     Even the family's heart-rending string of disasters could ultimately work against them with jurors who hold such secure and respectable jobs as engineer and government supervisor. "It's hard to put yourself in the shoes of people who are having a medical crisis, a financial crisis and an emotional crisis," says Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. "We don't particularly identify with those people." During the nasty 2001 divorce, the father admitted beating the mother and children. That has no relevance to Jackson's guilt or innocence, but it may not sit well with jurors. As USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth puts it, "This is not the wholesome all-American family."
     But even if the defense can dehumanize Jackson's accusers, its bigger challenge will be to humanize Jackson, with his surgically sculpted mask of a face, his Neverland Ranch, his Peter Pan lifestyle—and the tens of millions of dollars it takes to sustain it all. The actual evidence could make these questions of class a moot point, but don't bet on it.

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