Pop star Michael Jackson today pleaded not guilty to child molestation and conspiracy charges that were detailed in a grand jury indictment. The indictment, unsealed today and read by the judge in the case in a small California courthouse, charges Jackson with 10 counts related to the alleged molestation of a child under 14 early last year at his Neverland Ranch.
Read the story:Michael Jackson Pleads Not Guilty to Molestation Charges (Post, April 30)
Video:Jackson Arrives at Courthouse (AP, April 30)
Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor and chief of the Sex Crimes Unit for the Manhattan DA's office, was online Friday, April 30 at 2:30 p.m. ET, to discuss the Michael Jackson case.
Fairstein is also an author. Her current title is The Kills.
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.
Today seemed so low-key -- much unlike his last appearance at court. Will this make a difference in his trial?
Linda Fairstein: It will only make a difference in his trial if it continues to stay at this level. The last court appearance seemed to represent such a lack of control by his advisers that it threatened to undermine what went on in the courtroom. So I assume his advisors have tried to put a lid on some of the conduct, but because it's clear that his Web site is inviting fans to the courthouse and encouraging rallies that the circus atmosphere will return as the trial approaches.
North Palm Beach, Fla.:
What kind of evidence (substantial?) does the grand jury have to have in order to indict Michael Jackson?
Linda Fairstein: There are no specifics about the kind of evidence as long as its credible. My belief in a case such as this is that the victim testified -- if there were any eyewitnesses and media rumors so far suggest that the accuser's younger brother did witness some events -- then the grand jury assuredly heard that too. What we don't know yet is whether or not there is any evidence that corroborates or supports the witnesses such as physical items removed from Never, Neverland when the search warrant was executed.
Examples of physical evidence could be alcohol or drugs that may have been used to intoxicate the child might have been found in places the children described; pornographic videos or Internet sites might prove what the kids said; and in leaks I've seen in the media other sexual paraphernalia may have been seized. If so, these things may have been presented to the grand jury.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
How come it takes so long to arrest, arraign, indict, and prosecute a criminal defendant nowadays? Jackson, Peterson, Blake, Skilling, Bryant -- have any of those folks had one day of TRIAL yet?
Come on already. What about justice swift and sure? WWII was won faster than this.
Linda Fairstein: You've said it perfectly. In ordinary cases all over this country because of courtroom backlogs, the system rarely moves swiftly. High profile cases are the worst examples of how the system works and your list includes the current ones. There's no good reason for these delays. Usually when the defendant is incarcerated before trial, like Peterson, you might get the fastest result, but the defendants on bail tend to want a lot of foot dragging before they get into the courtroom.
Why are grand jury transcripts often kept secret or redacted after the jury has sat and ruled? Isn't this a violation of the public's right to know?
After all, the grand jury sits in the name of the public not in/by/for itself.
Linda Fairstein: Good question. Grand juries are by law designated to be secret proceedings and laws in each state prohibit grand jurors from revealing any of the evidence that was put before them just as the lawyers are prohibited from discussing grand jury evidence.
They were created to be this way and not like the public forum of a trial proceeding. That's why we never see transcripts of a grand jury proceeding nor ever hear grand jurors.
California St., NW, Washington, D.C.:
I just don't get the public's fascination with criminal incidents, that happen day in and day out, just because the perp is some sort of "name". If anything that should be a reason to shun them, not glorify them. Thought?
Linda Fairstein: I am in complete agreement with you. I don't understand why the allegation of criminal conduct seems to heighten the celebrity aspect of many individuals charged and I think justice would be much more swiftly accomplished if these cases were handled out of the media spotlight. Sadly, it's just not a reality anymore.
What kind of evidence might we see from the
prosecutors in this case? Do you envision some kind
of physical evidence? Otherwise, it appears to me
that it will be difficult to convict Jackson if there are
simply conflicting stories.
Linda Fairstein: As I mentioned a few answer back, what we'll find out shortly in the legal discovery process the only physical evidence I would expect exists at this point would be items seized from Jackson's home with the search warrant and without them -- things that the children might have described as having played a role in the criminal events -- I agree, it would be a most difficult case for the prosecution.
How hard do you predict it will be to find a fair and impartial jury given all the hype around Michael Jackson's case?
Linda Fairstein: It's very, very difficult to find juries for these high profile cases. You start with the fact that Jackson is one of the most famous people in the world today, so there's no blank slate -- many people come to the courtroom with opinions about him. Not only is there his reputation as a musician but there is also past bad news about similar conduct to these charges and the baby dangling incident, so as people enter the courtroom, many of them will already have formed opinions about his innocence or guilt.
Of course, what we rely on in our system of justice is that people will be candid with attorneys for both sides in the jury selection process and reveal the biases they have so that they can be struck from the jury. What prosecutors and defense attorneys need are 12 people who can say, "Yes, I've heard these stores on the news but I understand I have to put that information aside and base my verdict solely on what the evidence is at the trial."
Is it harder to expect of people after all this media saturation? Yes, surely it is. That's why they will likely screen hundreds of prospective jurors in a case like this, hoping to find 12 honest people instead of the usual 20 or 30 who are screened in an ordinary criminal trial.
Do circus rallies at hearings overly impress the judge? What kind of defense attorney buys off on that kind of nonsense as helpful to his case?
Don't they know that judges can grind axes, too?
The presence of big time celebs -- though not rowdy buffoons -- at Martha Stewart's trial actually HURT her case as the jurors later said.
Linda Fairstein: I agree 100 percent. Martha Stewart celebs were well-behaved and still did not add anything to the defense support. These ridiculous displays outside the Jackson courthouse and the luring of fans literally to courthouse steps has a great likelihood of backfiring. It takes away all of the dignity of the process, is likely to outrage the judge and may be inappropriately threatening to prospective jurors.
Given the media circus of the O.J. trial, has the Court gone to any particular lengths to restrict media? How about to tell the lawyers reign it in? It would seem that Michael Jackson would get a better trial without the hysteria inside and outside the courtroom. He would have a cleaner base to build a defense, no?
Linda Fairstein: Your remarks are quite logical. I think the judge will certainly attempt to control things as much as he can. The media has important rights in this country. Gag orders are among the last actions that any judge wants to take and things that happen off the court property -- even on the streets nearby (like Jackson's rallies) -- are often out of the control of the court because they're in public places. Certainly if Jackson's legal team is able to recommend control over the client's conduct, they would be very wise to reign him in.
What's next to happen in the case now?
Linda Fairstein: The legal process is only beginning at this point. In the next weeks a schedule will be set for the discovery process during which the prosecution will have to disclose to the defense much of the evidence that lead to the indictment. That will allow the defense to file motions requesting evidentiary hearings. For example, the defense will move to suppress evidence taken from Jackson's home. There will be hearings about issues like that. It's my educated guess that we are six months to a year away from a trial.
California St., NW, Washington, D.C.:
So as a former prosecutor, what is your take on this case so far? Based on your years of reviewing evidence and the info that is out there, do you think he is guilty? (Guessing of course you will not be called as a juror!)
Linda Fairstein: I'm gonna hedge my bet until I learn whether any evidence was taken from Jackson's home because the little that I've heard suggesting that the accuser may have been drugged would be very hard to prove without independent evidence.