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From Legal Analysts, a Mixed Verdict on the Trial

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."

In this case, analysts said, the credibility not just of the accuser, now 15, but also of his mother played a crucial role. The 36-year-old woman had to be admonished by Melville not to make speeches and not to address the jury directly during her testimony. Her appearance in the witness stand hit a theatrical note as she at times imitated the German accents of two Jackson aides, and threw her arms up in the air, imploring the jurors: "Please don't judge me!"

"The taint from [the accuser's] mother and her credibility carried over to the kid," said Wayne, adding that defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. made the most of his cross-examinations -- a skill he is noted for in California legal circles.

Child molestation "is the most difficult thing to defend against," Wayne said. "I'd rather do a hundred murder cases than one of these." Juries are predisposed to believe a child, she said, and the details of such cases are generally difficult for the average person to sit through.

In addition to the allegations at the heart of this case, California law allowed jurors to hear testimony about past accusations of molestation against Jackson even though they never went to trial. Two accusations were settled out of court years ago for millions of dollars, jurors learned. Still, "it wasn't enough to show that he probably molested kids," said Levenson. "They had to show that he molested this kid."

Stanley Goldman, professor of law at Loyola Marymount, said allowing prior-acts evidence, usually so damaging in trial, ended up backfiring here. "This case strikes me as completely and utterly unique; I've never heard of a case in which the prosecution has argued five prior allegations, none of which had resulted in criminal prosecutions, and three of the alleged victims testified that nothing happened."

Sneddon denied that he was blinded by his own frustration at not being able to prosecute one of the earlier accusations -- in 1993 -- because the alleged victim refused to cooperate after collecting settlement money from Jackson.

"My past history with Mr. Jackson had absolutely, unequivocally nothing to do with our evaluation of this particular case," he told a news conference after the verdict.

Dave LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said Sneddon "is a very moral individual" who felt compelled to give the accuser his day in court.

Even though he oversees a staff of 48 attorneys, Sneddon is "one of the few" district attorneys who continue to try cases themselves rather than settling into administrative roles, LaBahn said. "The number-one reason that cases go not-guilty is it's a victim issue."

Mesereau's defense of Jackson relied on shredding the credibility of the alleged victim and his family, whom he portrayed repeatedly as a pack of con artists who had targeted Jackson for a "shakedown."

"The defense picked the right theme, that the mother was a grifter," said Levenson. Prosecutors, she said, made the mistake of thinking "they could home-town this verdict. But these jurors proved to be pretty independent, articulate, not just doing a gut-check."

Tensions between the defense and prosecution teams in this case were thinly veiled, at times erupting into snarling matches that compelled the judge on at least one occasion to effectively send both sides into a timeout, ordering everyone to "take a few moments" to compose themselves.

The atmosphere in Santa Maria both inside and outside the courtroom was decidedly low-key in comparison to other celebrity trials, such as the O.J. Simpson murder case, when souvenir hawkers set up stands outside the Los Angeles courthouse.

Skip Miller, a Los Angeles litigator who tried a civil case against Jackson and won a $7 million verdict a couple of years ago in a suit brought by a concert promoter, was impressed by the four months he himself spent working in the Santa Maria court. "It's a blue-collar town with working-class people," he said. "I think you get less of the O.J. Simpson effect." During the Jackson case he noticed "they kept it businesslike."

Miller, who has represented celebrities including Elton John and Rod Stewart in civil cases, said: "You want to get down-to-earth, solid citizens who'll listen to the evidence and do the right thing. I'm a strong believer in jury trials and in a jury's ability to figure it all out."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company