Celebrity justice

Another "trial of the century" begins as Michael Jackson faces charges of lewd acts with a 13-year-old boy and conspiracy involving abduction, imprisonment and extortion.

Published January 31, 2005 1:21PM (EST)

Drive inland from the Pacific Ocean along Highway 46, leaving behind the spectacular coastline beloved of Kerouac and Steinbeck, and you soon enter the flat agricultural no man's land that dominates so much of southern California. A straight, two-lane road, Highway 46 peters out just east of the 99 freeway. It is a desolate place. Other than the oil fields strewn with brightly colored derricks nodding as far as the eye can see, there is nothing to remark upon, nothing to break the flat line of the horizon.

But a mile or so before the roadside settlement of Wasco, a cluster of large, sandy-colored buildings pops up out of the landscape. There, the eye can pick out blue towers placed at regular intervals around the group of buildings, like water towers or sentries. And then, visible across the muddy furrows, a chain-link fence. Around the fence, nests of spotlights peer down from gangly metal stalks.

This is Wasco State Prison. Little more than 100 miles from Neverland, it might as well be in another universe. For this is where the defendant in the case of the People of the State of California vs. Michael Joe Jackson will be sent should he be found guilty by a jury of his peers and sentenced by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville in a trial that starts Monday.

"Well, you know, innocent until proven guilty." Lt. Brian Parriott is keen to get going. "I guess if he is found guilty, then we would start to think about what we might need to do, but we haven't even thought about it." Sitting in his office, a photograph of two grisly-looking knives laid out on the desk before him, Parriott runs through the procedure the man-child from Neverland might expect. "Individuals who have been sentenced are sent here to determine their medical and psychological condition. Typically, they'll spend between 90 days and six months here while they are assessed." Most of the 6,100 prisoners at Wasco move on, but some stay. "A high-profile defendant would be determined in the normal way. We had the Max Factor heir here for a short time. They wouldn't be treated any differently."

Two hours away in Santa Maria, the nondescript agricultural town that will host the trial, Charlie Hedricks has little faith in the penal system's ability to deal with celebrity. "My own personal opinion is that ... he deserves to hang. A man his age ..." Hedricks sits in Santa Maria Town Center waiting for his wife, a newly boxed Makita drill on the table before him. In a town dominated by the listless sprawl of suburban America, the town center, appropriately enough, is a shopping mall. "If you put him in a general prison population," says the retired Air Force worker, "holy mackerel, they'll wear him out in a night. But they'll probably put him in some sort of Martha Stewart summer camp surrounding and see that he gets his makeup and his clean shirts delivered."

Hedricks is one of the seemingly few people in Santa Maria with an opinion on the biggest thing ever to hit this heavily Latino town of 80,000. At the courthouse, just around the corner from the mall, workmen prepare the barricades for the coming onslaught. The trial of the century, as it has inevitably been named, is set to attract more than 1,000 journalists. But the Jackson faithful and the idly curious seem a little more reticent. While several hundred Jackson fans made the trip to cheer on their hero for his first court appearance a year ago, the signs are that they will stay at home this time. "We would anticipate larger crowds than we've seen recently," says Sgt. Jerel Haley of the Santa Maria Police Department. "But it doesn't appear that there's a concerted attempt [by Jackson's fan club] to bring people up from Los Angeles." Accordingly, the police plan to devote 20 to 30 officers to the trial.

"People here are generally tired of it," says Ryan Miller, editor of the weekly Santa Maria Sun. "Around the courthouse, they love it because they get a lot of business. But most of the people look at it as something boring, and it makes them angry. My wife works around the courthouse and people just can't park for weeks at a time."

The indications are that the good people of Santa Maria will have to endure a lack of parking for more than a few weeks. Monday Jackson, flanked by his burly lawyer and white-suited family (Jackson's Web site has urged his supporters to dress in white as a testimony to his innocence) are expected to attend. Yet even after so many months, this is a phony war, not the real thing. (Even the television coverage will be phony: The judge has banned cameras in court, leaving television channels to resort to reenactments of the day's events.)

The first week -- and in all probability beyond -- will be given over to jury selection. The 750 or so who have been summoned will be whittled down to 20, a jury of 12 and eight alternates who will be called upon should anyone drop out. Once they have been selected the trial will start. Most observers expect it to last for five months, a prospect to make even the most enthusiastic of celebrity junkies bored and angry.

But given the defendant's track record and the wealth of material and innuendo to have emerged in the run-up to the case, boredom is unlikely. The 46-year-old King of Pop has pleaded not guilty to four counts of engaging in lewd acts with a 13-year-old boy and four counts of administering alcohol to him. He has also been charged with, and pleaded not guilty to, a conspiracy charge involving abduction, imprisonment and extortion.

The charges stem from what can at best be described as an ill-advised decision by Jackson to allow British journalist Martin Bashir to film a documentary. (Bashir, now working for the American TV channel that broadcast his documentary in the United States, is covering the trial and will appear as a witness.) Living With Michael Jackson showed Jackson and the boy holding hands and the singer saying that "the most loving thing to do is share your bed with someone." The film caused an uproar, but its broadcast in February 2003 also led, the prosecution is expected to allege, to the first instances of Jackson sexually molesting the boy. The conspiracy and kidnapping charges are also a direct result of the broadcast of the documentary. The prosecution is expected to claim that Jackson and members of his entourage conspired to keep the boy and his family captive at the singer's Neverland ranch and elsewhere until they filmed a riposte to Bashir's documentary, praising Jackson.

Since then, the freak show has rarely departed from view. Jackson danced on the roof of his SUV at his arraignment a year ago; he made a statement when he was charged in April telling the people of Santa Maria in his child's voice how much he loved them; he is reportedly running out of money, not helped by having $3 million tied up in bail; his recording career has all but officially ended; his lawyers have endured a series of setbacks; the judge has decided to allow pedophilia experts to testify before the jury and to let the jury see the documentary; he has had a run-in with Eminem; and he has seen details of the grand jury testimony leaked to the press. About the only thing that has gone right for him is Exeter City, a team he has gone to watch twice with his friend Uri Geller, drawing with Manchester United. And even then they lost the replay.

Jackson's lawyers say he intends to attend every day of the trial, raising the prospect that while he may attempt to behave in a respectful manner, the child/entertainer within him will not be able to resist the temptation to showboat. "I think his lawyer has temporary control over him," says former journalist and lawyer Harvey Levin, who is now creator and executive producer of the TV show Celebrity Justice. "But when he has to go to court day after day for five months, it may start to wear. You can't change the man. You can't expect that Michael Jackson will behave like an accountant."

Similarly, the prosecution has its own potential liability: district attorney Tom Sneddon, the lead prosecutor. Sneddon was the man who prosecuted Jackson in 1993 for similar charges of sexual abuse. On that occasion Jackson settled out of court with the alleged victim's family for a reported $20 million. After that confrontation, Jackson even went so far as to record a song attacking Sneddon. "Sneddon clearly has made this personal," says Levin. "When he announced the charges and joked about it, that was a near-fatal mistake. If the jury believes that it's about getting Michael Jackson, Sneddon is sunk."

In the end, says Levin, it comes down to two rather old-fashioned legal principles: how is the prosecution going to present the case, and how believable will the family be. "All the defense has to do is create reasonable doubt," he says. "That's all it's about."

Gloria Allred, an attorney who briefly represented the child in the 1993 case and has called for Jackson's children to be removed from his care following the incident in which the singer dangled his son over a hotel balcony railing, agrees that the credibility of the family is crucial. "The defense has adopted a strategy of attacking the alleged victim's mother in the case. If other testimony [from the 1993 case] is admitted, that certainly could bolster the credibility of the child."

The weeks leading up to the trial have seen the seldom dormant rumor mill surrounding the case crank up a gear: Michael gave the boy tequila and wine (aka "Jesus juice"), usually secreted in a soft-drink can; police found the boy's underwear in Michael's bathroom; Michael was "squinching" his eyes when he had his hands inside the boy's trousers; Michael spends a lot of time in the bathroom; Michael keeps pornographic magazines in a Samsonite briefcase at the end of his bed; Michael keeps a bottle of Jack Daniels in his bathroom; Michael liked to lick the boy's head; Michael gave the boy and his brother the nicknames Doo Doo Head and Blowhole; Michael has a distinguishing "splotch" on his penis. So many leaks, allegedly from grand jury testimony submitted by the accused and his brother, in a case that is being run by a judge so enamored of gagging orders that free-speech advocates in the United States have mobilized against what they see as an attack on their First Amendment rights. The judge has even allowed Jackson to record a statement for broadcast about the leaks. Apparently, the possibility that the Jackson team might be behind the leaks -- the not-unknown defense tactic of getting its worst news out before going to court -- has not occurred to Judge Melville.

A lot is at play in Santa Maria, not just the reputation of a teenage boy and his family or the career of a famous entertainer. Like the last trial of the century held in California, the murder trial of professional footballer turned actor O.J. Simpson, the trial of Michael Jackson draws together and pushes out into the open a grab bag of the most compelling currents of our time: race, sex, celebrity. It seems that things cannot get much worse for Michael Jackson. But then he hasn't been to Wasco.

By Dan Glaister

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