It's the celebrity trial to top them all - the fading King of Pop defending charges that he molested a young and seriously ill boy. Can justice be done when media attention threatens to turn the case into a circus? Paul Harris reports from Santa Maria, California
Sunday January 30, 2005
The court house in Santa Maria looks like a fortress. Three lines of steel fencing, reinforced by sandbags, now guard its entrance. Twitchy security guards watch for suspicious characters as they supervise the erection of the metal walls.
This is not some new anti-terrorist measure, nor preparations for the prosecution of a violent criminal gang. It is all for the King of Pop. The trial of singer-turned-icon of weirdness Michael Jackson begins tomorrow in this California town. It will be the biggest celebrity trial America has ever seen as Jackson stands accused of molesting a cancer-stricken boy.
The drama of a celebrity trial is now a familiar ritual to fame-savvy Americans, and one that many fear is beginning to damage the justice system itself. The past year has seen sports star Kobe Bryant, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, actor Robert Blake and record producer Phil Spector in the courtrooms. Each has grabbed headlines, created instant fame for witnesses and jurors who have spun off on to the chatshow circuit. Now the Jackson case threatens to top them all. 'This is going to be the media equivalent of carpet bombing,' said Dr Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert at the University of Syracuse.
This can only increase concern that celebrity trials are eroding the system, warping the law amid the hype, leaked documents and book deals. 'There is going to be nothing normal about this trial,' Thompson said. 'The Jackson case is not really about the law.'
A steady stream of satellite TV vans has been pulling into Santa Maria all week, the vanguard of a media army that has descended on this otherwise dreary stretch of urban sprawl surrounded by fruit fields and vineyards. Every hotel room is booked. Local offices have shut up shop and rented out their space to TV firms: ABC News has had its own 1,500 square foot office since 17 January. Opposite the courthouse camera stands are hired out to TV stations by the local council in a bid to cover its costs for hosting the trial. More than 30 police officers will patrol outside the courthouse and 35 inside. Local citizens are also preparing for an invasion of up to 1,000 Jackson fans who want to support their embattled idol.
Court-sealed pre-trial testimony has already leaked out to the press via gossip website the Smoking Gun and ABC News. Once the trial has begun it will eat up newsprint like a ravenous monster for an expected six months. And this will be trial by media: E!, an entertainment TV channel seen in more than 50 countries, has agreed with Sky to recreate daily scenes with actors using the court transcripts. There will be five half-hour programmes every day.
It is not hard to see why there is such interest. Like a note-perfect pop song, the trial hits every chord in America's collective psyche. Jackson is the classic fallen star: the fresh-faced boy with the voice of an angel has become a middle-aged man whose sagging career is mired in eccentricity. The case also pits a star of unbelievable wealth against a teenager whose life was almost cut short by illness. It has accusations laden with sexual misdeeds that will see the American public made party to the most intimate details of one of the most reclusive people in the world.
Race is an issue, too. Jackson is the black star who conquered the world but now faces a jury from an over whelmingly white part of America. His father has already played the race card. 'Countries all over the world are proud of Michael. It's here we have the most trouble... it is racism,' Joe Jackson told a TV interviewer last week. Yet Michael now looks more white than black and is no longer held in high regard by many black Americans.
The trial could be one of the most dirty mudslinging matches in legal history, with the truth drowned by a wave of accusation and counter-accusation. The first skirmish comes tomorrow when 12 jurors must be selected from a pool of 4,000. It will be a fascinating process. Santa Maria is a conservative area, still tied to its ranching roots and with a large population of military veterans. Only 2 per cent of residents are black, but Jackson's lawyers will desperately want at least one black juror.
Other issues will be vital, too. In batches of 150, the jurors will be grilled on attitudes to plastic surgery, fame, divorce and eccentric behaviour.
The behaviour of juries in child abuse scandals is notoriously difficult to predict. One of the few firm scientific findings is that female jurors tend to put more weight on a child's testimony. 'Women believe children more than men do,' said Professor John Myers, an expert on child abuse cases at the McGeorge School of Law.
Once the jury is chosen, the real mudslinging will start. For the prosecution the task is straightforward: leaked testimony from last year shows the prosecution believes Jackson is a textbook predatory paedophile. They believe he abused his accuser at his Neverland ranch after befriending him and his family some years earlier when the boy was suffering from cancer. They say he plied the youngster, and his brother and sister, with alcohol; that he surfed pornographic websites with them while instructing them to tell other people that they just watched The Simpsons; that he invented nicknames for the children, such as Doo Doo Head and Blowfish, and fed them wine, which he called 'Jesus Juice', hidden in soft drink cans.
Physical evidence will include DNA samples taken from Jackson's bedroom. More than 100 search warrants have been exercised on everything from phone records to bank statements.
Pre-trial testimony from the accuser has described in graphic detail the abuse Jackson allegedly carried out. Crucial to the case will be a pair of Hanes underpants that the boy said Jackson took away after he was abused. Listed among articles found in Jackson's daughter's bedroom and bagged by police is a pair of Hanes male briefs matching the boy's size. Detectives raiding Neverland also reportedly took away pornographic magazines and other erotica, some apparently relating to boys.
Most damaging of all is possible testimony from the boy at the centre of an abandoned 1993 child abuse case against Jackson. That case collapsed when the child refused to testify and settled a civil case with Jackson for reportedly more than $20 million. He is likely to testify this time around.
At first glance it looks grim for the singer, especially since it is highly likely he will testify himself. Notoriously fragile in temperament, Jackson is unlikely to make a good witness. 'In these cases when the defendant does take the stand he is usually his own worst enemy,' said Myers.
Yet the case against Jackson is far from clear cut. His top-class lawyers are likely to paint the family of the accuser as money-grabbing opportunists. Leaked testimony hints at several avenues of attack. Prominent will be a case launched against superstore JC Penney by the accused's mother in 1998. She sued the business for $3m after accusing a security guard of attacking her children and sexually assaulting her. Leaked psychiatric reports from the case showed one expert believed the childrens' replies had been rehearsed and that the mother was delusional. The expert, Dr John Hochman, also noted there was no medical or police evidence to back up her claims.
The mother has also been a poor witness on the stand in pre-trial hearings. During an appearance last year she frequently said she could not understand questions, prayed in the dock and scolded members of Jackson's family for talking in court.
The prosecution is likely to make much of testimony she gave to social workers in 2003 saying Jackson was 'like a father' to her children. In the same set of interviews her three children all praised Jackson and angrily denied he was an abuser. The social workers closed the case.
Jackson's lawyers are likely to attack the accuser himself. Reports have said that Neverland staff will testify that the boy was an unruly child who broke into Jackson's wine cellar and was caught masturbating in the singer's bedroom. They will point to differing accounts by the boy and his younger brother of some of the incidents at the heart of the trial.
It is impossible to predict the verdict. The only certainty is that the trial will be sordid, it will be vicious and no one will take any prisoners. And that will be just fine for the waiting media. For the next six months the Jackson trial could be the Greatest Show on Earth. 'Even if the lawyers, judge and jurors try desperately to do it by the book, they just won't be able to,' said Thompson. 'They all know they are involved in one great big screen test.'
Yet the vital question remains: either a boy has been sexually abused by the world's most famous man or a sad middle-aged pop star has been maligned with the most terrible of false charges. On Santa Maria's main street some residents are already sick of the attention. Labourer Bob Jones shrugged when asked about the case. 'Is he guilty or not? That is between him and the man upstairs.' In a trial like this, it is unlikely that the question will ever be answered, whatever this jury's verdict.