From Legal Analysts, a Mixed Verdict on the Trial

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By Amy Argetsinger and Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Once in a while, the street-side screams of a zealous fan chanting "Michael!" would filter through the stucco walls of the California courthouse where Michael Jackson was standing trial, a muffled reminder that the man at the defense table was a superstar.

But the atmosphere inside the courtroom throughout the four-month criminal proceeding remained for the most part subdued, with presiding Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville determined to keep the clamor outside. Even as the lead attorneys for both sides sparred hotly like the former boxers both were, even as celebrities smiled at them from the witness stand, and even as the world-famous defendant himself sat mere feet away, the jurors would scribble copious notes while maintaining poker faces.

The way the Jackson trial played out left even the losing side paying respect to the system.

"We believe in the system of justice," said prosecutor Thomas Sneddon, who buried his head in his hands as Jackson was acquitted on all 10 counts of child molestation, conspiracy and providing alcohol to a minor.

How and why the verdict came about was a matter of both speculation and resignation among legal analysts.

"I do think Tom Sneddon was overconfident," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor who frequently attended the trial in Santa Maria.

"I think it looked a lot better on paper than it did when the witnesses testified."

While some observers argue that celebrity saved Jackson, others noted that, even with full acquittal, his fame also dooms him regardless, in a way everyday defendants aren't when exonerated.

"His reputation is tainted no matter what," said Lisa Wayne, a Denver-based lawyer and board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "The question now is, were there ever any victims or was Michael Jackson just targeted because of who he is?"

Erwin Chemerinsky, a criminal law expert at Duke University, noted that "the verdict also reinforces the fact that it's hard to get a verdict against a celebrity. . . .

"We all believe we know celebrities more than we do -- they're part of our lives -- and I think it's hard to get a jury to convict someone they've known for a long time. . . .

"The fact he got acquitted on all counts is a powerful reminder: When it's a celebrity, the jury has a strong sense of reasonable doubt."


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