For Tom Sneddon, A Broken Record

District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who first pursued Michael Jackson 12 years ago, faces the music after Monday's verdict.
District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who first pursued Michael Jackson 12 years ago, faces the music after Monday's verdict. (Pool Photo By Mario Anzuoni)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How bad is it to be Tom Sneddon now? For the second time in 12 years, Michael Jackson has gotten away from him. Anyone who sat in that courtroom in Santa Maria saw that Sneddon could be cranky and, perhaps worse for such a high-profile trial, bland.

Jim Thomas, a former Santa Barbara County sheriff turned NBC commentator, said that on Monday evening he and Santa Barbara County District Attorney Sneddon and others involved in the prosecution engaged in some post-game analysis at the house in Santa Maria where Sneddon and members of his team had been staying during the trial.

They had dinner. There were no tears. Sneddon even talked a little about golf. But he was "disappointed," Thomas says. "They were all disappointed, because they believed this boy."

The boy, of course, is the 15-year-old who accused the pop star of molesting him two years ago. His testimony was followed by the testimony of his mother, a combative, melodramatic witness who helped torpedo the prosecution's case. On Monday, several jurors said they disliked her and doubted her motives. At least two complained about the way she snapped her fingers on the stand. ("I thought, 'Don't snap your fingers at me, lady!' " a 79-year-old juror complained.) The foreman speculated that the accuser had been "taught to lie."

"They knew there were issues, especially with the mother," Thomas says of the prosecution. "I think they're more sad about that than anything else. . . . They feel the jury didn't give the boy the benefit of the doubt."

Yesterday, Sneddon and his colleagues were packing "all the files and paperwork and everything," and moving it all back to the office in Santa Barbara, according to Susan Tellem, who was brought in to handle the prosecutor's media requests in November 2003, when police first raided Jackson's Neverland ranch.

"We did the right thing for the right reasons," Sneddon said Monday during a news conference, after jurors acquitted Jackson on all 10 charges that Sneddon was pursuing. On the verge of retirement, the 64-year-old prosecutor seemed remarkably composed, denying the Jackson camp's contention that he'd been chasing a personal grudge against the pop star. He said he'd learned a long time ago to never look back.

Perhaps it's some small comfort that yesterday, Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. told the Associated Press that Jackson would stop letting children sleep in his room, because it "makes him vulnerable to false charges."

But still, losing such a high-profile case has got to hurt, especially in light of history. In the early 1990s, Sneddon looked into whether Jackson had molested another boy, but the case was abandoned when the boy's family settled with Jackson out of court, reportedly for $20 million. The prosecutor did not return two calls to his office yesterday, but in the news conference he said he couldn't help wondering if the "celebrity factor" had played a part in the jury's decision to acquit.

And then, of course, there was the accuser's mother. She was particularly important to the case because she provided much of the evidence for the conspiracy charge, in which Jackson was accused of imprisoning the accuser and his family and trying to ship them off to Brazil. Some legal analysts suggested during the trial that the conspiracy charge was distracting and weak, and the prosecution should never have pursued it.

Thomas says he believes the prosecution wondered the same thing.

"I think they still debate that among themselves," he says. "If they had to do it again, I think the consensus would probably be stick to the molestation," and skip the conspiracy.

Maybe. Maybe not. These are the sorts of questions that linger with prosecutors. People who know Sneddon say they doubt he regrets pursuing this trial. (On Monday, he said that if new molestation charges surfaced, "We'd review it like any other case.") But they also know how an important loss can stick around long after the jury has gone home. The accused robber who's acquitted, despite testimony about his strange physical characteristic -- a bent toe -- that the prosecutor thinks is compelling. The young man charged with killing his parents who gets off because the evidence was circumstantial. Prosecutors will tell you that they bring only those cases they believe in; when that's true, it must make defeat a nasty pill.

"I'm still so outraged that I lost," says Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and now a University of Southern California law professor, recalling a case from six years ago. It involved a man who managed to get his sentence for bank robbery reduced, despite Rosenbluth's best efforts. "I will never stop thinking about how that was the wrong decision and maybe if I had done something different, the appellate court would have found different," she says.

Now consider the second-guessing brought on by a case tried under intense public scrutiny.

"It's perhaps a little harder to move on, a little more difficult, because of the personal attention focused not only on the case but on you," says Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, who considers himself a friend of Sneddon's. He says he last spoke with Sneddon a few weeks ago, when the prosecutor seemed "confident" about the way the trial was going.

Trask, for one, wonders whether juries have a higher standard of proof for convicting celebrities than they do for ordinary people, even if they never admit it. Part of that has to do with the scrutiny directed at them, he speculates, and part with any awe they have for the famous defendant. "Because of the celebrity status, they want that smoking gun, they want that videotape." They want absolute certainty, Trask says, not "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Trask says that Sneddon, a father of nine, has earned his retirement after six four-year terms in office. Sneddon has said he won't seek another; the new DA will take over in January 2007. Trask doesn't think his friend will be too wrapped up in regrets. "He's been in big trials before, and he's dealt with the controversy before," he says. "He's extremely disappointed, but I don't think it's going to change anything in his life in terms of his philosophy."

It must be a strange feeling, though, to know what the first line of your obituary is going to be: To know that it will involve, of all people, Michael Jackson. To know that it will be about a case everyone watched, and how you lost it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company