Rocking Jackson's world

The prosecution opens its case by focusing on a documentary about the pop star's life at Neverland.

By Dan Glaister
Published March 1, 2005 1:53PM (EST)

Michael Jackson abused a 13-year-old boy who suffered from cancer and exposed the teenager to "strange sexual behavior" during visits to his Neverland ranch. The star was then involved in a desperate attempt to salvage his career from claims that threatened to destroy him, a jury heard Monday.

On the first day of evidence, the prosecution claimed Jackson manipulated the boy, and that one of his employees told the child his mother could be killed. Opening the prosecution's case, Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon described how the 46-year-old's world was "rocked" by the broadcast in the U.K. in 2003 of Martin Bashir's documentary, "Living With Michael Jackson."

Saying how one Jackson advisor had described the documentary as "a train wreck," Sneddon said: "In February 2003, Michael Jackson's world was rocked, not in a musical sense but in a real-life sense, and it was rocked by the broadcast of the Bashir documentary." In the documentary the star is seen holding hands with the boy and saying he allows children to sleep in his bed.

But defense attorney Thomas Mesereau, in his opening statement, accused Bashir, who is expected to be called as the first prosecution witness, of exploiting Jackson. "He wanted to do a documentary on Michael Jackson. He wanted it to be scandalous, and he wanted to get rich," he said. Mesereau went on to detail what he said was the duplicitous treatment Bashir gave Jackson, gaining access to the star through flattery, and then reneging on a promise to let him see the final cut.

The singer faces charges that he sexually molested the 13-year-old boy. He also faces charges of administering alcohol to a child and of entering into a conspiracy to hold him and his family. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Sneddon portrayed the entertainer as a resourceful predator who abused his position of trust to molest a minor: "The private world of Michael Jackson was quite different to what he said in that video." The intention, he alleged, was "to desensitize the boy, to convince him that what was being done was all right in an adult world." The world portrayed by Sneddon was one in which children were regularly given alcohol by Jackson and regularly shared his bed.

"What is there about Neverland that creates a no-rules, no-manners environment?" he asked. "What is there about Neverland that can do that to somebody?" The climate at Neverland, he suggested, was conducive to the eventual sexual molestation that allegedly occurred.

Outlining the evidence from the alleged victim and his younger brother, Sneddon said that on two occasions the younger brother, then 9, discovered a partially clothed Jackson lying on his bed in his private suite in Neverland masturbating the 13-year-old boy. At the same time, alleged the lead prosecutor, Jackson had his hand inside his underpants and was masturbating himself.

On another occasion, Sneddon said, both brothers were in Jackson's private quarters when the star entered the room naked and with an erection. When the younger brother said he was "grossed out," Jackson allegedly said: "It's OK, it's natural, why don't you do the same thing." The two also allegedly saw Jackson simulating sex with a female mannequin the singer kept by his bed.

But Mesereau attacked the credibility of the accusers, reserving most of his scorn for the boys' mother. She had, he suggested, tried to extort money from celebrities on many occasions.

Sneddon, who tried unsuccessfully to bring a child molestation case against Jackson in 1993, revealed that prosecutors had found stashes of sexually explicit material in his private bedroom and around the Jacuzzi in the private bathroom. They also found alcohol. He said an assistant would tell the court that on one occasion she had been told to bring a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka and four glasses to Jackson's quarters. When she entered, said Sneddon, Jackson was alone with three children. The next morning when she went to tidy the room, the two bottles were empty. Sneddon also said Jackson had showed the boy adult material on the Internet from the first time he stayed at Neverland in 2000, when the boy was 10 years old. He is now 15.

A gaggle of fans were waiting to greet Jackson and to claim seats in the public gallery of the small courthouse in this town three hours north of Los Angeles. Whether the star's support is waning, whether public interest in the case is falling or whether the wet weather had dictated that people stay at home, the turnout -- and the media clamor over the event -- was smaller than expected.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Rodney Melville read the entire multiple-count indictment to the jury. Although the details had been widely leaked, this was the first time the document had been officially presented. It included a list of counts including administering alcohol to a minor, false imprisonment and child molestation. As the judge read the indictment, Jackson looked straight ahead, occasionally talking with his attorney.

The indictment revealed that, among other counts, Jackson's advisors had procured passports and Brazilian visas for the alleged victim and his family.

The judge gave both defense and prosecution two hours each to make their opening statements. The prosecution's case consistently came back to the Bashir film. Sneddon quoted Jackson's words from the program and suggested the alleged abuse occurred when Jackson and his advisors decided to use the testimony of a 13-year-old cancer survivor to rebut the claims and salvage his career. "It was a landslide that threatened to destroy everything in its path," Sneddon quoted one Jackson advisor as saying.

Dan Glaister

MORE FROM Dan Glaister

Related Topics ------------------------------------------