A live thriller

Live coverage of a dazed Jackson and a crestfallen Sneddon (and press corps). But what's the encore?


Heather Havrilesky
June 15, 2005 6:26AM (UTC)

Cheesy trial reenactments. Endless commentary and conjecture. Terrible late-night jokes. Rabid fans holding vigil outside the courthouse. The three-ring circus surrounding the Michael Jackson trial kicked into high gear on Monday when officials announced that a verdict had been reached on the jury's seventh day of deliberations.

Nancy Grace of Court TV interrupted her four-month-long stream of speculation to cut to her correspondent Savannah Guthrie outside the courtroom who, against a backdrop of reporters scampering around behind her, described the scene as "pandemonium."

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"People started running, I started hearing the fans screaming very loudly," she breathed.

While Grace demanded that someone in her group tell her what it all means, CNN's Ted Rowlands told us that, if convicted, Jackson could face 18 or more years in prison. Happy as always to speculate in ways that might stoke the fires of hysteria, Fox News correspondent Trace Gallagher bellowed ominously, "We have just been notified that there are some 50 or 60 police officers on the other side of the barrier, which is where the fans are, and they have just started pulling helmets out of their truck. No riot gear yet, but they are pulling helmets out."

News flash: No riot gear yet! No tear gas or billy clubs or warning shots into the air yet, but we're standing by!

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Gallagher also reasoned that such precautions were probably necessary, since things have "gotten ugly" among the fans in recent days. "There was fighting among the fans, the German fans and English fans saying, 'We love Michael Jackson more!' They fought amongst themselves!" Somehow Gallagher sounds about as knowledgeable on this matter as armchair anthropologists clumsily ascribing motives about the nutty natives on some far-flung island.

Soon, all stations were offering a live feed of Jackson leaving Neverland Ranch in a parade of black SUVs. CNN showed us a split screen: On the left side of the screen, we were shown Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau standing outside the courthouse, repeatedly looking at his watch and glancing down the street with all the subtlety of a street mime; on the right side, we were treated to overhead helicopter footage of Jackson's brigade of SUVs traveling down the freeway toward the courthouse. Couldn't someone just watch a few seconds of footage and tell Mesereau how close Jackson is to the courthouse?

Meanwhile, Fox News went with a full screen of nothing but the SUV feed, choosing to describe Mesereau instead of showing him. "He's looking at his watch, he's looking at his cuff links! He's a mess!" gasped Arthur Aidala, Fox's resident lawyer/commentator. "His heart's pounding through his chest, his client is late, the world is watching!" Wow, he's actually got a feed of Mesereau's vitals? Way to get the story, Arthur!

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It would be easy enough to disparage such coverage, if we didn't crave it. Ever since O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco cruised down the freeway as a phalanx of cop cars followed, we've been addicted to the suspense of breaking news, unfolding live before our eyes. Plus, we've all been primed by years of watching courtroom dramas, so much so that we're more addicted than ever to the suspense of the legal play-by-play. Despite the suspense, though, the gathered pundits weren't quite willing to make any predictions, gearing themselves up for a bevy of "We knew all along" punditry the second the news hit. Instead, pundits wondered out loud when the live audio feed from the courtroom would start.

On Court TV, the ever-outspoken Grace, who hasn't made her belief of Jacksons guilt any secret, speculated about whether the jurors would look directly at Jackson when they entered the courtroom. If they did look at him, the reasoning went, he would probably be acquitted. If they avoided eye contact, he was probably screwed.

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Finally, Jackson emerged from one of the SUVs, surrounded by his usual gaggle of bodyguards, plus several family members. Fans start screaming, "M.J., innocent!" and "We love you, Michael!" but Jackson looked like he was in a daze, barely raising his hand to give his fans the peace sign. "It's almost surreal to watch this!" said the Fox News anchor, and Aidala speculated on why Jackson might've been late to the courtroom. Upon leaving his house, Jackson "probably took a look around, because that could be the last time!" Aidala added, "Every sense of privacy will be taken away from him, immediately, within minutes, if there's a [guilty] verdict!" Another Fox News commentator said that he hoped that someone sat down with Jackson and discussed "the likelihood of a conviction and what that's going to mean to his life."

The next few minutes were a jumble of babbling and empty airtime.

"There has been some dysfunctional elements in this family, going back many years ..."

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"The crowd outside is quiet, waiting for the audio feed ..."

"The big one to listen for is Count 2. Count 2 is the ...

"I've just been told the jury is seated, and they aren't looking at Jackson ..."

"I've never seen a judge allow an audio feed ..."

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Then the verdict was read: not guilty, on all counts. Immediately, the crowd outside the courtroom started screaming and cheering and crying. "Praise God!" many mouthed repeatedly. A woman released a white dove each time the words "not guilty" were read. Fans cried and jumped up and down and screamed into their cellphones. One fan shook a sign that read, "Michael on behalf of Mankind, we're sorry."

District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, who's dedicated the last 10 years of his career to prosecuting Jackson, looked sorry as well, but refused to express regrets. "I'm not going to look back and apologize for anything we've done," said Sneddon. "We did a very conscientious, thorough job, as did the sheriff's department, in investigating this case."

Unrelenting, a reporter asked, "Why did you go ahead with the case when you knew the mother in particular to be such a troublesome witness?"

Sneddon became defensive, and snapped, "I don't think the media generally understands the responsibility of a prosecutor. And I'll answer it this way: The simple thing is, when a victim comes in, and the victim tells you they've been victimized, and you believe that, and you believe that the evidence supports that, you don't look at their pedigree. We look at what's right. You do the right things for the right reasons, and if it doesn't work out, that's why you have a jury system."

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The assembled commentators, of course, immediately went into know-it-all mode, casting the acquittal as an obvious outcome for the case. The jurors, meanwhile, talked about the ordeal of the four-month trial like they'd been away at summer camp.

"Fortunately, we did get to know each other, and we were able to have discussions and not screaming matches ... and we had a lot of good food!" said one juror.

"I made 19 new friends over the course of six months," said another.

But where was the reasonable doubt? They didn't pay attention to the fact that the accuser's mother was a suspected grifter, did they?

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While the jurors were fairly careful to shield their harshest judgments from the press, one Latino juror cited the accuser's mother's testimony. "And one other thing, too; I guess the mother, when she looked at me and snapped her fingers a few times and she says, 'You know how our culture is, and winks at me, I thought, 'No, that's not the way our culture is.'" The entire jury broke out into loud laughter at this.

Aha! It was just as we all suspected: Crazy Mommy saved Michael from the big house. After such an action-packed day, it was all over: Sneddon was crushed, the commentators seemed crestfallen over the lack of a conviction, and the fans were thrilled. But what about Jackson himself? Would he be celebrating soon, knee-deep in "Jesus juice" by nightfall?

Wolf Blitzer had Rev. Jesse Jackson on the phone with his usual words of support. "It was a painful process," he said, adding that Jackson had been tried and convicted in many a newsroom. "The healing process must begin."

But when, exactly, will it begin? And is there any way we can get a live feed when it does?

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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