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Michael Jackson Trial Begins

First Day of Jury Selection

Jeralyn Merritt
Criminal Defense Attorney
Monday, January 31, 2005; 3:00 PM

Criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt was online Monday, Jan. 31, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the proceedings on the first day of the Michael Jackson child molestation trial.

Read the story:Jackson '05: The Courtroom Thriller (Post, Jan. 30)

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A transcript follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Jeralyn Merritt: Hi, everyone, Jeralyn Merritt here. Today begins what just might be the most sensationalized criminal trial since O.J. Simpson. There are a lot of questions about the proceedings, particularly since so much has been sealed from public view. I'll try to answer your questions and shed some light on what to expect. So, ask away!


Washington, D.C.: Does Jackson have to be there everyday of jury selection?

Jeralyn Merritt: I believe the Judge has ruled Michael Jackson has to be present every day during jury selection. Defendants are obligated by the terms of their bond to appear for all scheduled court appearances unless the Court excuses them.


Arlington, Va.: I did an informal survey of my friends. The M.J. trial seems like a repeat of the O.J. trial. Almost all of my non-white friends think M.J. is being framed by a white family while almost all of my white friends think he's guilty. Do you think the defense will try to portray Michael as yet another successful black man being taken down by white society?

Jeralyn Merritt: I do not think the "race card" will end up being a significant issue. The jury is from a fairly conservative area that is not heavily populated by minorities. The defense may believe that a race-based defense will not play will with this jury.

Also, the defense has publicly stated that they believe the family, particularly the mother of the accuser, is out for money. Too many alternative motives can spoil an otherwise good defense.


London, U.K.: How can the defense ensure that the jurors will have a balanced view? Surly with Michael, everyone already has a preconceived opinion.

Jeralyn Merritt: You have to have faith in our jury system. The jurors will be carefully questioned in a group by the judge and lawyers. They will continually be warned not to consider anything except testimony and evidence they hear and see in the courtroom. I believe jurors take these obligations seriously.

However, there is always the chance of a stealth juror getting on the jury, one that already has made up his or her mind and wants to serve so badly he/she is willing to lie to get on the jury. Hopefully, the juror questionnaires and oral questioning will weed these people out.


Seattle, Wash.: Do you think that there is anyway that Jackson can get a fair trial?

Jeralyn Merritt: I think whether Michael Jackson gets a fair trial will depend on the type of evidence the Judge allows in. Some of the expert testimony such as that by abuse trauma experts can be very prejudicial and is not science-based. The prosecution also wants to introduce a battered-woman's expert to support the accuser's mother's credibility. If too much of this non-science based "expert testimony" comes in, I would be concerned about Jackson receiving a fair trial.

Of course, the jurors also have to be scrupulously honest about their opinions for Jackson to get a fair trial.


Washington, D.C.: Is the trial in the courtroom being recorded, either on videotape or audio tape?

Jeralyn Merritt: The Judge has banned cameras for the courtroom. I don't know about audio recordings, however, the sound is being transmitted to an overflow courtroom for reporters and daily transcripts should be available.


Annandale, Va.: Will the boy's mother be testifying? Will the boy be called to the stand?

Jeralyn Merritt: The boy's mother is scheduled to testify, as is the boy. Both will testify in open court. A motion is pending as to whether the Court will allow an expert on Battered Women's Syndrome to testify before the jury. I believe this pertains to the mother, and that the prosecution wants to use this witness to bolster her testimony.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi -- What was the point and value of Jackson's statement released yesterday? It seems like he just can't help himself from engaging the media.

Jeralyn Merritt: There has been an egregious leak of secret, grand jury testimony in the case -- all of the statements of the witnesses who were not subjected to cross-examination. The testimony was published on a Web site and disclosed on a prime-time television show. The Judge allowed Michael Jackson to make a statement to assert his innocence in an attempt to level the playing field. Of course, that's a very difficult thing to do at this juncture.

The judge will also allow a few interviews with Jackson to be aired before testimony begins in the trial.


Washington, D.C.: Given the potential length of the trial (six months, I heard on the radio) and attendant media insanity, I could see venire members doing everything they could to get out of serving. I know I would.

Jeralyn Merritt: Many people will ask to be relieved of serving. That is the point of the proceedings the next three days during which 750 people will appear. They will be asked about whether they feel they can serve for so long and those that are not excused will be provided a questionnaire to fill out.

Another concern is people who will say anything to get on the jury -- those stealth jurors who see a big fat book deal and TV appearances after the trial is over.

On the whole, I trust the jury system and believe the judge and lawyers will ferret out those who are not being truthful either to avoid serving or ensure they are selected.


Bethesda, Md.: I heard the prosecution was upset because of the video statement Jackson put up on his Web site yesterday. They claimed it was unfair for him to do that without their side also making a statement. Is this true?

Jeralyn Merritt: I certainly don't think so. The prosecution's theory and their star witness' testimony is on the internet. What more should they be allowed to say? Michael Jackson is presumed innocent and the unfortunate leaks have prejudiced him in the eyes of the public. Re-asserting his innocence in his own voice now is fair. I don't see that the prosecution has any grounds to respond.


Fairfax, Va.: Can you please state the charges against Michael Jackson in the child molestation case please?

Jeralyn Merritt: Michael Jackson is charged in an Indictment that was returned in April, 2004. There is one count charging a conspiracy with five other persons, four counts of committing lewd acts upon a child, one count of an attempt to commit a lewd act and four counts of administering an intoxicant in the commission of a felony.


Washington, D.C.: What evidence will be entered in the case? Things from his room? Fingerprints?

Jeralyn Merritt: So much has been sealed that we can't be sure. However, we know the Judge has allowed items seized from his ranch that are "sexually explicit" in nature. The prosecution will not be allowed to refer to these as "pornography" because that is a legal term and there has been no finding they are pornography. The defense has countered that these items are available over-the-counter and not relevant to the charges.

There may be some DNA, some fingerprints, some items provided by the accuser.

There will also be testimony from the accuser's younger brother and mother.


Oakton, Va.: Good afternoon,

Based on what you know about the evidence at this time -- if Michael Jackson were to go on trial today, what do you think the verdict would be?

Jeralyn Merritt: Not guilty. All defendants are presumed to be innocent until and unless a jury returns a verdict of guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. He should be viewed not guilty by all throughout the trial. The law requires it.


Washington, D.C.: There were reports that the prosecution was trying to get the now-adult accuser from 1993 to testify. Is that going to happen?

Jeralyn Merritt: The Judge has deferred ruling on whether he will allow the 1993 accuser to testify. So, no one knows at this point. His testimony could be very prejudicial to Jackson. On the other hand, Jackson has always maintained that he did not molest the 1993 accuser, but settled the case to avoid having to deal with it. Hindsight is 20/20. Today, he may regret that settlement.


Texas: Why, exactly, have so many things been sealed? In order not to taint the potential jury pool?

Will things from the trial also be sealed?

Jeralyn Merritt: Things have been sealed to protect Michael Jackson's right to a fair trial and the privacy interests of the accuser and other witnesses, particularly the accuser's mother.

The sealed information could be very prejudicial to Jackson, particularly if it is later ruled inadmissible. Once it's out there, you can't take it back. It's like trying to unring a bell.


Arlington, Va.: Why do trials and jury selection in California take so long? When I go to jury duty here in Arlington the clerk always jokes about the California lawyer in the Marv Albert case here who told the judge he thought the jury could be selected in a couple of weeks and that the trial would last a few months, but the judge told him the jury would be selected in less than an hour and the trial would last several days.

Jeralyn Merritt: I agree, six months to try this case is excessive. One reason is that the Judge will end court each day at 2:30 p.m.


Arlington, Va.: Any theory on who leaked the grand jury testimony? Some have speculated that the defense wanted to get it out there in public so that the worst would be in the public eye and they could begin trying to deconstruct it. Is it being investigated? I'm glad the judge has refused to let the trial be broadcast. I think there's a better chance of a fair trial for everyone involved. The mother has said she doesn't want any money and will not be trying to get any. Doesn't that undercut the greedy family defense? Any word on the boy's health? Is it possible he could be too ill to testify or could die before he gets on the stand?

Jeralyn Merritt: I do not have any idea who leaked the grand jury testimony. I hope there is an investigation. I doubt it was the defense because the information released hurts them, rather than helps them.


New Bern, N.C.: What do you view as the chief obstacle Jackson has in the way of evidence that he has to overcome? And in general, what might be your approach to addressing it?

Thank you

Jeralyn Merritt: I think the biggest obstacle will be the introduction of testimony from the 1993 accuser, should the Judge allow it. You worry that the jury will think, "Where's there's smoke, there's fire."


Washington, D.C.: How much of an impact will the TV specials that Michael Jackson did have on the case?

Jeralyn Merritt: The documentary from February, 2003 is expected to be played for the jury, although perhaps not in its entirety. The defense has said that because of the way it is edited, it is not a fair portrayal of Jackson but rather, a sensationalized one. It will have an impact, and probably an adverse one, although the accuser is also on the tape and there is no indication from him that anything untoward happened with Jackson.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think Michael Jackson will testify in his own defense or does all the "pre-trial" hooplah (his video on his Web site) eliminate the need for that? Thanks!

Jeralyn Merritt: I believe the defense will not make a decision as to whether Michael will testify until after the prosecution has finished presenting its evidence. If the defense believes it has sufficiently rebutted the evidence and impeached the witnesses, it is unlikely they would put Michael on. The prosecution would love to cross examine Michael Jackson, I'm sure, but he has no obligation to testify. If he does not testify, the jury will be instructed not to consider that in its deliberations.

While jurors like to hear from a defendant, they know that they can't use his silence against him.


Washington, D.C.: How did ABC get hold of that 1,900 word indictment and then broadcast it on TV? Isn't that prejudicial?

Jeralyn Merritt: No one knows who leaked the grand jury testimony. Yes, it is very prejudicial.


Washington, D.C.: If other accusers have come forward recently, can they be used as witnesses for this trial? If he is as depraved as it is portrayed, it would seem unlikely that there aren't more victims.

Jeralyn Merritt: I don't think the Judge would allow newly discovered accusers to testify. The DA put out a call for them to come forward after Jackson was charged, and reportedly, got no credible responses.


Jeralyn Merritt: Thanks to all of you for your participation. You asked some excellent questions and I hope I provided some illumination. The Post will continue to follow the case, so stay tuned.


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