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Trial of a Century

But the bailiff, Leslie Avila, takes pride in the place. In two dishes on her desk she keeps candy and lozenges, of which Michael Jackson often avails himself. Before court one morning, she sweetly tells the reporters that when they rip pages out of their notebooks, little flecks of paper fall onto the floor, and it is she, Leslie, who has to pick them up every day. So, please, she asks, be aware of that.

Melville is 63. He and his wife like to compete in weekend "team penning" horse competitions (the goal is to separate horses from a herd and corral them). He is a recovering alcoholic who said in a 2001 interview that he's been sober more than 25 years and that this has helped him, as a judge, understand some of the problems of the defendants who come before him. He has a sense of humor, doing whatever he can to keep the spectacle outside at bay. He announces Thursday that on Tuesday he will have to cut testimony short, so that he may attend the dedication ceremony of a new county juvenile detention center -- "and of course you're all invited," he says with sarcasm. When the jury goes home on a Friday, he bids them a loving farewell, with a singsong toodle-oo: "Goodbye!" he says, waving. "I'll see you Monday."


Oh, the banality: To witness the Michael Jackson trial as it creeps interminably along is to be underwhelmed by the ordinariness of it all. (Ric Francis -- AP)

Although there can really be no jury of Jackson's peers, this is a true sampling of those who walk through the wide valley of middle-class ideals. They look as if they were pulled out of a checkout line at a Von's supermarket. You will never see them on the news until it's all over, and then they will look like the people who show up on the news in incidental anonymous background shots. ("How high will gas prices get for your family trip this summer?" "Are Americans eating too much?")

What an annoyance for pleasant, friendly Santa Maria (pop: 85,000) to be chosen as the place to try Jackson. But what a symbolic gift to foreign reporters (from France, from Britain, from Japan, from Brooklyn, from The Washington Post), who almost always mention the strawberry fields and relative inactivity: Here is America. There is one Target, one Home Depot, one Costco, one Big!Lots, six freeway exits and endless taco stands. Here is something as extraterrestrial as Michael Jackson, having to drag out of bed early every morning, do his makeup and land his spacecraft amid all this plain life.

We in the press corps pay particular attention to Jackson's coiffure, especially any sign of its appearing askew and more wiggish. Hair is just another unknown in the Jackson case. Not just Jackson's hair but mysteries about everyone else's: Why does his publicist have hers straightened and dyed blond? Does his mother wear a wig, and is it the same one every day? Why does his attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr., wear his white hair in a Prince Valiant pageboy? Why does MSNBC legal analyst Anne Bremner wear an enormous, "I Dream of Jeannie" blond fall tacked onto her head? Jackson is far from the only person in heavy makeup and questionable hair at his own trial -- the men and women of television are made up, their hair highlighted, their teeth whitened. There's something freaky about all of us, in the end. We are all altered in the modern sense.

The accuser is 15, and in his four days on the stand, he was asked not only about what Jackson allegedly did to him when he was 13 but about what he has done to himself.

Imagine being a teenage boy and asked to tell the court and several dozen media reporters about the following things: What each of nine teachers said about you in disciplinary reports, even going back to seventh grade, which is ancient times. Whether you shoplifted. What you've ever had to drink that had alcohol in it, and when, and how much. How many times your father and mother fought, before the divorce, and in what ways did your father verbally or physically abuse you or her before you never saw him again. When you first masturbated. What your grandmother told you about masturbation vs. what Jackson told you about masturbation.

For all the small and large contradictions in their testimony against Jackson, the accuser and his siblings are certain of one thing: The past tense of the verb "to stay" is "stood." Therefore, "We stood at Neverland," the sister says. "We stood at the Calabasas Inn" after one of a series of escapes from Neverland, the brother says. "We stood at Michael's hotel," the accuser says. "Then when we got back, we stood at Neverland again."

"We're good talkers," the mother appears to say during an on-camera break in the taping of the 2003 video, the one where she and her children go on and on about how much they love Michael.

The rest of us stood, and will go on stooding, among the barricades and fences, sitting in our "media overflow" trailer, or sitting in an available courtroom chair, parsing the trial as it slowly winds toward conclusion or disaster. After the accuser left the stand, the week took on the air of a misbegotten First Amendment case, as detective after detective took the stand to identify each object seized from Jackson's home: books!

"Are you aware," Mesereau asks one detective in cross-examination, "that these books are all available on Amazon.com?" The detective is not aware. In fact, from Deputy J.L. Doughnut to Lt. Pizza Break, the law enforcement officers seem happily unhip, not knowing of L.A.-based publisher Taschen's catalogue of titles, or that Bruce Weber is a photographer for Vanity Fair who has spent a career photographing delectable young men at play in pastoral swimmin' holes. They know not that people collect oddball German nudist magazines from the 1950s as form of kitsch. What would be perfectly normal on a Manhattan coffee table has the misfortune of looking strongly suspect to the long arm of the law in the Santa Ynez Valley, more evidence of the cultural disconnects that split Americans.

Jackson's pornography ("commercially available adult material," if it please the court) is of the sort that is widely available, shrink-wrapped and behind-counter in most 7-Elevens -- Penthouse, Club, Barely Legal. And there's a buried lead in all of this: Jackson apparently digs naked chicks, as in women, as in over 18. (But the prosecution will contend that a predator like Jackson keeps this stuff around merely to lure pubescent boys.)

In the media room, the reporters at first jump up excitedly and get closer to the monitor when the DA puts each piece of tawdry evidence up on the "ovo," which is court-speak for overhead projector. Journalistic giddiness abounds when the words "Your honor, I'm going to need the ovo" are spoken.

But now . . . ho-hum, another issue of Barely Legal. There is less darting outside to make a call to the news desk. It takes a lot of time to present each piece of evidence, give it a number, show it to the witness, then perhaps show it to the jury on the ovo.

In the courtroom, this drags into the afternoon. You notice that the Associated Press's grande dame of courtroom journalism isn't writing down much; in fact, her head is lolling snoozily, snapping awake at intervals. The courtroom sketch artist has stopped sketching for now. The minute hand on the clock appears not to move, and neither does Jackson. This is Foreverland.


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