During opening statements in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial Monday, the prosecution laid out its case against the King of Pop, presenting his Neverland Ranch as an enticing playground with a seamy underside where Jackson preyed on the teenage accuser at the center of the case.
Defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. painted an entirely different picture of the situation, portraying the boy's mother as a scheming grifter who sought money from many celebrities, including Jackson, using her children as accomplices.
Read the story:Dueling Images Open Jackson Trial (Post, March 1)
Criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt was online Tuesday, March 1, at Noon ET to discuss the first day of opening statements in the child molestation case against Michael Jackson.
Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.
"Opening statements are not evidence, but they can make a powerful impression on the jury. Each side must make sure it doesn't make promises it can't deliver," said Merritt in an interview with washingtonpost.com.
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: Opening arguments in the Michael Jackson trial began yesterday. The DA, Tom Sneddon, spoke for three hours, telling the jury that Michael Jackson held a 13 year old cancer patient and his family captive at Neverland Ranch, supplied the boy with alcohol, and improperly touched him. It presented its theory that Jackson and his employees and associates engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to prevent the family from leaving the ranch.
The defense presented a portion of its argument, to be continued today. It went on the attack immediately, portraying a money-hungry mother with a history of making abuse accusations and filing lawsuits, who coached her sons to make up lies about Michael Jackson when she became afraid he would cut them off.
The defense continues its opening statement today. Then the first witness will be called. It is expected to be Martin Bashir, who made the British documentary in which Jackson and his accuser appeared together.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Why did jury selection go so fast?
Jeralyn Merritt: I think jury selection went so fast because the Judge denied the defense's request for individual sequestered questioning of the jurors. It had asked for both additional time to question the jurors and to question them individually in private. The Judge refused. After that, how long could it take?
San Francisco, Calif.:
It would seem to me that there is reasonable doubt in this case already. The mother lied in a case regarding alleged molestation of herself at J.C. Penney. Unlike a murder trial, there is no body here. It's hard to determine whether or not a crime even occurred. How can the prosecution get around that?
Jeralyn Merritt: The jury will have to determine the credibility of the accuser. If jurors believe him, then the prosecution can get a conviction. However, if his story does not ring true to the jury, or if they believe the defense theory that the mother engineered a false accusation against Jackson, they will acquit him.
A week ago, I would have bet almost anything that Jackson was guilty, but after yesterday's revelations, I'm suddenly in doubt. Did the D.A. know about the boy's mother allegedly extorting/conning money out of businesses and celebrities? And if not, do you think he would have gone ahead with the case if he had known?
Jeralyn Merritt: The D.A. should have been aware of the mother's history. Yes, I think the DA's office would have pursued the case anyway. It believes the boy. Now we will see if the jury does as well.
Is there any chance that the jury will see this as a witch hunt by the prosecutor? He's been unsuccessful against Jackson before, hasn't he?
Jeralyn Merritt: The jury very well may see a witch hunt. This prosecutor, Tom Sneddon, tried to get Jackson in 1993 and failed when the case settled in the civil courts. He has made no secret of the fact that the case against Jackson was never closed in his mind, and that if new accusations came to light, he would pursue them.
I noticed that all of the charged molestation occurred after the mother's video rebuttal of the Bashir documentary. Is that to avoid giving the defense the ability to show she lied? How do juries usually react to witnesses that are shown to be liars about other things, e.g., obtaining funds for already paid medical bills?
Jeralyn Merritt: Judges give juries long instructions about how to evaluate the credibility of witnesses. If a witness is found to have lied about one thing, the jury is free to determine that all of his or her testimony lacks credibility.
Up to and even after the documentary, both the mother and the accuser are on record as denying that Michael Jackson did anything untoward to the boy.
The prosecution will have to come up with a theory as to why Jackson would begin molesting the boy after the documentary aired--when he knew the eyes of the world were on him.
The boy in this case is/was a cancer patient. How is he doing, health-wise? Does the prosecution plan to have him testify? And how old is he now?
Jeralyn Merritt: He will testify. He is 15 now. I have seen varied reports on his current state of health. His younger brother will also testify.
What are the chances that the judge will allow testimony or evidence from the 1993 case against Michael Jackson? What impact might this ruling have? The prosecution's case seem quite weak and it seems that everything will hinge on testimony/evidence from the 1993 case.
Jeralyn Merritt: The Judge has not yet ruled on whether he will allow evidence from the 1993 case. If he does, that will not bode well for Michael Jackson. Although, Jackson has always said he settled the case to avoid having to deal with the legal case.
Also, the mother in this case went to the same lawyer and psychologist used by the 1993 accuser. Some jurors might see that as collusion. Of all the lawyers in California, why did she pick him?
It is my understanding that the jury will not be sequestered during the trial, which is estimated to last six months. Is this one of the reasons why the jury wasn't sequestered? Or are there other reasons?
And, any reason why they expect the trial to last that long?
Jeralyn Merritt: Sequestering a jury in a trial expected to last as long as this one works a hardship on the jurors. It is also very expensive. The Judge just has to hope the jurors follow his instructions and don't read or view media accounts or discuss the trial with their family when they go home at night.
It would have been much harder to find jurors willing to sit on the jury if they had been sequestered. Leaving your family and your life for six months is a lot to ask for.
I know that the defense is contending that the accuser's mother has a history of conning people and performing extortion. But are they claiming that there is a specific extortion of Michael Jackson for cash in lieu of making these accusations of child molestation ?
Jeralyn Merritt: I don't think the defense will argue there was a specific cash amount demanded by the mother. Their argument is that she has a history of making accusations of misconduct against others for financial gain. They will present witnesses who will testify that she coached her sons to lie.
Do you think the Jackson team's idea of using celebrities as character witnesses will help or hurt him with the jury?
Jeralyn Merritt: It depends how many the defense puts on and what they say. Character witnesses testify as to the reputation of the defendant in the community for truthfulness and peacefulness. I would expect the judge to limit the number of such witnesses. If the defense goes with a few of them, those that know Michael the best, it should be fine. If it presents too many of them, the jurors may lose interest or think it's a ploy.
Re: Going To Same Attorney As 1993:
Isn't it possible the child's mother went to this attorney because he has more experience with Michael Jackson's life? It makes perfect sense to me.
Jeralyn Merritt: I think there is an issue with when she contacted the lawyer. If she went to the lawyer before she had any reason to suspect that Jackson did anything wrong, it looks suspect. Also, why did she go to a lawyer instead of the police? Who would you call if you thought your child was being molested?
I was interested in the questioning of the jurors about whether they thought children could be coached to lie. I think that children and adults can be coached to lie and I think that they also can do it on their own without much coaching too. Doesn't a question like this almost create a presumption that the kid is lying at his mother's urging?
Jeralyn Merritt: The prosecution intends to present evidence from an expert in child abuse to explain why the child waited so long to come forward, and why he didn't tell all of his allegations at one time. The jury will have to decide how much credibility to give this expert. The entire case is going to come down to credibility.
I like the fact that the judge is running the show (so far anyway) unlike a certain other high-profile case from a few years back. Since jury selection happened much faster than the pundits thought it would, is it also likely the trial will take considerably less time than six months? I can't imagine there are that many witnesses that it would take that long to try this case.
Jeralyn Merritt: One of the reasons the trial will take so long is that the Judge is ending court every day at 2:30 pm. Even though the jurors won't take a lunch break, that is still a short day.
The conspiracy charges will add a good deal of time to the trial. But I agree with you, this should be a one month trial, at most.
Given the publicity of this trial, what do you think the odds are of a mistrial?
Jeralyn Merritt: I think this Judge will do everything he can to avoid a mistrial. He will make sure both sides know what is allowed and what isn't in advance. He has 8 alternate jurors, so if one is found to have violated his rules, another will take his or her place. He is leaving very little to chance.
Of course, anything can happen during a trial and I would hope that if something comes up that really warrants a mistrial, the Judge would not deny it just because it's inconvenient to start over.
Does the makeup of the jury reflect the jury pool or the local population?
Jeralyn Merritt: The jury pool is chosen from the local population. Much has been made of the fact that there are no African Americans on the jury. But there aren't many blacks in Santa Maria county. Some legal experts have said they believe that African American jurors would be more likely to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt--which means more likely to accord him the presumption of innocence.
Even though Mr. Jackson's appearance is well known to all the world and accepted by his adoring fans, do you think it may affect the jury, e.g., his extreme cosmetic surgery is a suggestion that he may have serious mental health issues?
Jeralyn Merritt: No, I don't think Jackson's cosmetic surgery will affect the jury. Everyone knows that Jackson is eccentric. I really believe this will be a trial about credibility of witnesses and motive.
Do you believe that any celebrity witnesses who appear on Jackson's behalf will testify that it is impossible for Jackson to have committed the crimes with which he is charged?
Jeralyn Merritt: No. I don't think anyone can say that it is "impossible" for another person to do something because of their character.
I do think that the defense will present witnesses who will establish that Michael Jackson was not at Neverland on at least one of the occasions when the boy claims abuse occurred. Whether these witnesses will be celebrities, I don't know.
Have there ever been any other accusations like this made against Michael Jackson?
Jeralyn Merritt: There have been a few allegations over the years, but I'm not aware that any were substantiated. DA Tom Sneddon put out a call for others to come forward after the charges were filed in this case, but as far as we know, none have.
Just because the mother may have done some bad things in the past doesn't mean that Jackson didn't molest this kid. I agree it will come down to how well the victim testifies and how believable his story is. From what has leaked out in the media it all seems very believable to me. If the prosecutors have the evidence they say they do, I don't think any amount of evidence about the boy's mother will matter much. How likely is it that Jackson will end up testifying?
Jeralyn Merritt: Jackson's lawyers probably won't decide whether to put him on the stand until after the prosecution has finished putting on its evidence. If they believe the mother and accuser have self-destructed, there will be no need for him to testify.
If they think the case is up in the air or going in favor of the prosecution, Jackson may well testify.
How would you advise Michael to dress for his
court appearances? I find his attire attractive but distracting.
Jeralyn Merritt: I think Michael Jackson should dress like Michael Jackson. Not like an accountant.
He is unique and he should be himself. No one is going to think that Jackson wearing a jump suit makes him more likely to molest a child. On the other hand, if he disguises his persona by dressing in ways he's never dressed before, he risks appearing shifty and calculating and could lose credibility.
Dublin, Republic of Ireland :
Do you think that if Tom Sneddon keeps up this shouting, (it sounds to me that he almost has a personal vendetta), it will jeopardize his case?
Jeralyn Merritt: Yes. If Mr. Sneddon appears to the jury of being overly or personally invested in the case, the jury may see a vendetta - a man on a mission.
Since Michael is, or once was, the world's top performer, why wouldn't his attorneys want to put him on the stand?
Jeralyn Merritt: Putting a defendant on the stand is always risky. Jails are filled with defendants who thought if they could just tell their side of the story, jurors would see it their way.
Jackson may be better off arguing there is an overzealous prosecutor, a man on a mission to make a case; that the young accuser previously denied Jackson did anything improper; that the accuser's mother has highly suspect credibility issues; and that the timeliness is improbable;
Jeralyn Merritt: Thanks to all for participating. We could go on all day. Hopefully, we'll be back to do it again soon.