LOS ANGELES -- It is hard to hold both images in the mind: the child prodigy, little Michael Jackson, spinning like a top in 1970, singing the No. 1 hit "ABC" when he was 12 years old.
And the Michael Jackson of today, the physically transformed, faded King of Pop, who will enter the cramped, nondescript courtroom in a California farm town Monday morning to face charges of child molestation.
Jackson greeting several hundred children invited to his Neverland Valley Ranch on Dec. 17.
(Mark J. Terrill -- AP)
The multimillionaire international icon, whose 1982 "Thriller" remains among the best-selling albums of all time, will be on hand as lawyers begin selecting a jury that could put the 46-year-old father of three in state prison for more than two decades.
After his arrest, a 10-count indictment and months of pretrial wrangling, the Jackson trial will start Monday with jury selection, which is expected to take several weeks. Once opening arguments begin, the trial could last four to five months, according to the attorneys. The world press -- as many as 1,000 credentialed journalists -- are descending on Santa Maria in western Santa Barbara County, the jurisdiction closest to Jackson's ranch.
Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled that no cameras will be allowed in the courtroom, so unlike the O.J. Simpson trial, the public will have to rely solely on reporters and commentators detailing the day's events -- though the cable channel E! Entertainment announced it would employ actors to reenact testimony from court transcripts each day.
If the jurors find the charges true, Jackson will be branded an especially devious pedophile, a predator enabled by his celebrity and wealth who lured a young boy to his fantasy palace called Neverland, "designed to entice and attract children," prosecutors say. Jackson is charged with giving wine and liquor to a 13-year-old recovering cancer patient and sexually molesting him on four occasions at the 2,700-acre ranch and in a Miami hotel.
If he is acquitted, if Jackson's lawyers succeed in their defense that the entertainer is the victim of a grifting, manipulative, lying mother, then the toll on his career, his reputation, still will be profound. Jackson, free on $3 million bond, has pleaded not guilty and has called the charges "a big lie."
"This is one of the greatest tragedies imaginable," said Alan Light, editor of Tracks, a music magazine. "Michael Jackson was never allowed a childhood. He had four number one singles by the time he was 10 or 11. He has no idea what childhood is."
Yet he stands accused of robbing the innocence of a child. "If these things are true," Light said, "they are indefensible, inexcusable."
Sheryl Huggins, cultural critic and editor in chief of NiaOnline, a Web site for African American women, said, "I think a lot of Americans, black or otherwise, remember Michael Jackson from their childhood, growing up with his music and his personality. It's doubly tragic. It's tragic because of the charges but it's also tragic because we feel something that was special to us growing up is now tainted and being dragged down."
The son of a steel millworker, the stern taskmaster Joe Jackson, young Michael began performing with brothers Marlon, Tito, Jackie and Jermaine when he was 4 years old in Gary, Ind. The Jackson Five signed with Motown Records when he was 10.
There were a string of hits with his brothers -- including "I Want You Back" and "ABC" -- and then his solo career took off with platinum records and hits such as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." His anthem "We Are the World," co-written with Lionel Richie and sung by an ensemble of artists, was a global smash. Jackson wowed the world with his "moonwalking" routines. He made the dance music video the commercial art form it is today. He went to the Oscars with Madonna and was friend and confidant to Liz Taylor, Brooke Shields and Quincy Jones.
But Jackson today is a subject of derision. The brutal transformations from plastic surgery. The pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. His reported attempt to purchase the skeleton of the "Elephant Man," John Merrick. His belief that by lying in a hyperbaric chamber he could extend his life span. His quickie marriages, first to the daughter of Elvis Presley and then to a nurse, Debbie Rowe, from the office of his dermatologist.
For a time, Jackson was considered an eccentric genius. Then a strange presence in the tabloids. Now, he is often labeled a freak.