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Trial of the Century: 'Got to Be There'

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page A15

Finally, Michael Jackson has had the sense of occasion to inject the race issue into his Trial of the Century. He told the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a celebrity-to-celebrity radio "interview," that he is among a string of "black luminaries" to face trumped-up charges. He compared himself to Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson, and warned ominously of a grand conspiracy against him. In fact, he said, "a lot of conspiracy is going on as we speak."

Perfect, Michael. The claim doesn't even rise to the level of the absurd, of course -- it's hard to imagine a more deracinated person, with his bleached skin, vanquished hair and mutilated features. But a Trial of the Century worthy of the appellation needs lots of random ingredients thrown in, like school-cafeteria soup at the end of the week.


Michael Jackson. (Ric Francis -- AP)

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Race, if available to the defendant, just begs to be added to the pot. And, as O.J. Simpson demonstrated, every once in a while it works.

Please, no lectures about what an immoral waste of time it is to pay even passing attention to the Jackson trial. This is a popular harangue in wonk-filled Washington, where anything or anyone without an acronym is automatically suspect. There are So Many More Important Things happening in the world, the lecture goes. I've even heard it from the snarkiest Internet blogger in town. Et tu, Wonkette?

The truth is that whether you choose to follow this tawdry episode or not, doing so is no more shameful than reading Shakespeare or Proust. Ever since the first tribal elder sat around the first campfire somewhere in East Africa and told a story, our species has been transfixed by narrative. The Jackson case is an unfolding yarn, and if we weren't the least bit curious about how it will turn out, we wouldn't be human.

Our special affinity for the subset of narrative known as "courtroom drama" goes back at least to the trial of Socrates, which captivated Athens in 399 B.C. If the accused -- whose alleged crimes, by the way, included corrupting Athenian youth -- had pulled up at the agora an hour late, still in his bedclothes, complaining of a near-fatal backache, surrounded by an entourage that included his faithful umbrella-holder-guy, you think the citizens of Athens wouldn't have been the tiniest bit interested? You think Plato wouldn't have bothered to report it?

Yes, I know, Socrates laid the foundation for Western thought, while Michael Jackson gave us some excellent popular music and the moonwalk. But the point is the same -- we can't resist a good story.

That must be why we proclaim a Trial of the Century, oh, every couple of years. I did my time at one: As a cub reporter, I was assigned to the bank-robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. (If the defendant can be described as an "heiress," you're already halfway there.)

Actually, I was the equivalent of umbrella-holder-guy for the San Francisco Chronicle's legendary trial reporter, Carolyn Anspacher. Most of the star courthouse reporters back then were female, perhaps because newspaperwomen had just broken out of the society-page ghetto. The women now making careers on cable television covering big trials -- Greta Van Susteren, the ferocious Nancy Grace -- came via a different route, from the legal profession. So yes, some things have changed.

But the basic dramatis personae and story line remain the same. You've got your preening, high-priced defense lawyer; your plodding, just-the-facts-ma'am prosecutor; your teeming media shantytown. You've got your minor witnesses thrust into sudden, fleeting fame (the Kato Kaelin Syndrome). You've got your courtroom surprises, your twists, your turns, your extraneous issues. You've got your judge struggling to keep the whole thing a notch above utter travesty.

You've got your defendant, who has to have some element of genuine mystery at the core, some unreconcilable contradiction. Wealthy kidnap victim and revolutionary bank robber? Clean-cut football star and vicious murderer? Kennedy cousin and remorseless rapist?

High-voiced, waiflike King of Pop and cold, calculating child molester?

In a certified Trial of the Century, finally, you've got one last thing: the whole world's attention. If you think American newspapers are caught up in the Jackson trial, check out the wicked glee with which the British tabloids cover "Wacko Jacko." For that matter, check out the Australian papers, the German papers, the Japanese papers.

"Elizabeth Taylor used to feed me, to hand-feed me, at times," Jacko told Rev. Jackson. Against firepower like that, resistance is futile.


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