Reaching for the stars

As the prosecution nears the end of its case, a string of celebrities is lined up to speak in Michael Jackson's defense.

Published May 3, 2005 2:25PM (EDT)

For 43 days a procession of the bizarre, the freakish, the gullible and the trustworthy has trooped into a small courthouse in a small Californian town. But they haven't seen the half of it. As the prosecution sums up its case in the Michael Jackson trial, the hullabaloo is about to get a new lease on life, with the defense promising to serve up a smorgasbord of celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Diana Ross, and from Macaulay Culkin to Stevie Wonder.

Outside the courthouse camera crews and fans jostle for position; at the rear of the court buildings retirees bowl, seemingly unaware that the "trial of the century" is unfolding just 100 meters away.

Each day the jury has heard allegations that the defendant was a classic predatory pedophile, grooming, abusing and abandoning his victims. At least that was the prosecution's plan when the court case started on Feb. 28. But several of its 80-plus witnesses have been turned by a skillful defense into aiding the 46-year-old singer, while others have needed little help to compromise the prosecution's case.

Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and the mother of his two eldest children, epitomized those failings: She praised his parenting skills and attacked those around him as "vultures." Called by the prosecution as its star closing witness, she became the defense's most prized asset.

The prosecution hit problems almost as soon as it began. Choosing to put the accuser and his siblings on the stand at the beginning of the case left it cruelly exposed to attack from Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau. The accuser, his elder sister and his younger brother dissembled, mumbled, confused events and contradicted themselves. The accuser was calmer and clearer than his siblings, but under cross-examination the boy became argumentative, and was easily goaded by Mesereau.

The prosecution's case was also stymied by its decision to charge Jackson with conspiracy, including kidnapping, extortion and false imprisonment. The allegation is that in the days after the broadcast of the Martin Bashir documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," in which the singer defended his practice of sleeping with children and was shown holding hands with the then 13-year-old boy, Jackson's team embarked on a strategy of damage limitation. That included, it is alleged, compelling the boy's family to record an interview praising Jackson as a father figure. It was during this period, more than a year after Bashir had filmed the pair holding hands, that the alleged molestation took place.

But although the prosecution has shown that a conspiracy of sorts did take place, the motive remains unclear and, most important, the link to Jackson has not been established. A cast of alleged Jackson associates were involved in persuading the family to record the interview and were around the singer's Neverland ranch at the time. But their relationship to Jackson, and the extent of his knowledge and direction of the conspiracy, remain unclear.

The decision by the prosecution to proceed with the conspiracy charge against Jackson alone has almost proved its downfall. The suggestion from the defense is that the conspiracy charge is part of the personal vendetta pursued by the district attorney, Tom Sneddon, against Jackson ever since the singer settled out of court against a different child accuser in 1994 in a case also prosecuted by Sneddon.

The conspiracy charge also led to a rambling and eccentric appearance on the witness stand by the accuser's mother. While the truth of her testimony has yet to be determined, her manner before the jury surprised most observers. "It was a bizarre charge, and now it's a bizarre charge supported by a bizarre witness," said Laurie Leveson, a professor at the Loyola law school in Los Angeles who has attended court on several occasions.

The prosecution was more successful with its introduction of "prior acts." Californian law sometimes allows for evidence of previous allegations to be introduced in trials involving sex offenses, even if those allegations never came to trial. This has produced some of the trial's most contentious moments: a succession of former Neverland employees has taken the stand to describe inappropriate behavior by Jackson with young boys, from giving them alcohol to sharing a shower or bed with them. Two have described instances of seeing Jackson fondling or masturbating the children; one alleged victim described how Jackson masturbated him when he was 11.

While the defense has sought to assail the integrity of all witnesses -- several took part in an unsuccessful attempt to sue the singer for unfair dismissal -- it has not succeeded in dispelling the impression that Sneddon promised to convey in his opening statement on the first day of the trial: that Jackson exposed children to "strange sexual behavior," that there was "a no-rules, no-manners environment" at Neverland and that Jackson's strategy was "to desensitize the boy, to convince him that what was being done was all right in an adult world."

The prosecution has also been successful in its attempt to portray Neverland under Jackson as a place where children were encouraged to act beyond their years. It has also shown that Jackson has made a habit of befriending preadolescent boys from homes where the father is absent. Furthermore, children, including the current accuser, were often around alcohol with Jackson and possibly consumed it with his encouragement. Children habitually stayed up into the early hours of the morning with Jackson, and their schoolwork was abandoned.

Beyond the evidence there have been the mawkish sideshows: Jackson turning up to court in his pajamas; Jackson attending court with an emergency room doctor in attendance; Jackson and his unlikely retinue, including his personal magician. There have also been glimpses inside Jackson's cosseted world: the seemingly random excesses of Neverland; the sinister dolls and mannequins throughout his home; the mess in his bedroom worthy of the most rebellious teenager.

And the court has been subjected to repeated showings of the various videotaped accounts of the 46-year-old's relationship with the 13-year-old: the Bashir documentary, complete with baby dangling and hand-holding; the rebuttal video, with its off-screen cast of Jackson minders; the video recorded by Jackson showing him walking through the grounds of his ranch with the then 11-year-old emaciated cancer sufferer.

It has been a sorry spectacle and there could still be months to come. Jackson's attorney has promised to call "a lot of witnesses," although the judge may not permit him to introduce the celebrity list he presented at the start of the case. He is expected to focus on the credibility of the family making the accusations, suggesting that the mother invented the abuse claims and coached her children.

But the biggest promise Mesereau made in his opening statement was the one that began "Michael Jackson will tell you ..." Mesereau has a record of putting defendants on the witness stand in child molestation cases, and this case is not expected to be an exception.

By Dan Glaister

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