Michael Jackson was acquitted by a California jury today of molesting a teenaged boy at his Neverland Ranch in early 2003.
The jury declared the pop star "not guilty" of all 10 felony counts in the case, and Jackson walked out of the courtroom a free man.
A crowd of Jackson fans outside the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., exploded in cheers as the court clerk read out the verdict count by count in a live audio broadcast.
Jackson, looking drained, left the courthouse minutes later and waved and blew kisses to his screaming supporters. He then got into his black SUV as members of his entourage hugged each other, and his motorcade sped away with a police motorcycle escort.
Jackson briefly dabbed his eyes with a tissue but stayed motionless while the verdict was read, and there was no audible reaction, according to reporters in the courtroom. Before leaving the courtroom, he embraced his lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr.
In a statement read in court by Judge Rodney S. Melville, the jury declared collectively that it had reached its verdict after careful study and now wants to return to anonymity.
"We the jury, feeling the weight of the world's eyes upon us, all thoroughly and meticulously studied the testimony, evidence and rules of procedure presented in this court since Jan. 31, 2005," the statement said. "Following the jury instructions, we confidently came to our verdicts. It is our hope that this case is a testament to the belief in our justice system's integrity and the truth. We would like the public to allow us to return to our private lives as anonymously as we came."
In a subsequent news conference, members of the jury sharply criticized the accuser's mother, complaining that she had snapped her fingers at them during her testimony and made them uncomfortable.
Asked whether the parents among the jurors were troubled by evidence that Jackson slept with children at Neverland Ranch, one juror, a gum-chewing blonde woman identified only as Juror No. 10, appeared to blame the accuser's mother for allowing her son to share the pop star's bed.
"As a parent, it's something that you are constantly . . . protective of what happens to your children," she said. Saying she was speaking for herself and perhaps a few other jurors, she added, "What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen, just freely volunteer your child to sleep with someone," whether it was Michael Jackson "or any person for that matter?" She said the boy's mother during her testimony "came on very strong, you know."
Another juror, an elderly white-haired woman, interjected, "I disliked it intensely when she snapped her fingers at us. I thought, 'Don't snap your fingers at me, lady.' "
The jury foreman, a Hispanic man, also said he was offended when the mother snapped her fingers and winked at him from the stand. "That's not the way our culture is," he said.
Asked if the jurors believed defense attorney Mesereau's argument that the accuser's family were thieves and scam artists out to frame Jackson, Juror No. 10 said, "The thought was definitely there. . . . Things just didn't add up."
The foreman said jurors decided from the start that "we had to look at [Jackson] just like any individual and not a celebrity."
The chief prosecutor in the case, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon Jr., refused to criticize the verdict but insisted that his team had done the right thing in taking Jackson to court.
Asked in a separate news conference whether, in view of allegations that Jackson previously molested other boys and criticism of the latest accuser's mother, he felt in hindsight that he had "the wrong family on the stand," Sneddon said, "We don't select our victims, and we don't select the families they come from."
"I'm not going to look back and apologize for anything we've done," Sneddon said, adding, "We did the right thing for the right reasons." Asked if a child molester had escaped unpunished, he said tersely, "No comment." He said that the "celebrity factor" played a role in the case, but he did not elaborate.
The verdict came on the seventh day of deliberations in the case, which presented starkly contrasting views of the eccentric 46-year-old pop star. Prosecutors portrayed Jackson as a pedophile who lured the accuser, now 15, and other boys to his ranch and molested them after plying them with alcohol and showing them pornography to loosen their inhibitions and arouse them. Jackson's defense team, led by Mesereau, charged that the family of the accuser, a cancer survivor who was 13 when the alleged molestation occurred, was motivated by a desire to extract money from Jackson through false accusations. Jackson paid millions of dollars in 1993 to settle a case in which another boy charged that the pop star had molested him.
Before beginning their deliberations on June 3, the eight women and four men of the jury listened to 14 weeks of testimony and arguments in a case that has been closely watched across the United States and around the world. The jury sent word at about 12:30 p.m. Pacific time (3:30 p.m. EDT) that it had reached a verdict. Jackson subsequently left the Neverland Ranch in a four-vehicle motorcade for the 30-mile trip to the Santa Barbara County courthouse.
Jackson, who was indicted last year in the case, was charged with one count of conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion; four counts of committing a "lewd act upon a child;" one count of attempting to commit such an act and four counts of "administering an intoxicating agent to assist in commission of a felony." The conspiracy charge encompassed allegations that the boy and his family were held captive to get them to rebut a television documentary in which Jackson acknowledged sleeping with boys as the accuser sat by his side.
As word circulated that a verdict had been reached, a crowd of Jackson's fans -- a mainstay outside the small county courthouse -- waited with anticipation for his arrival, and police turned out to block of streets and beef up security.
Judge Melville barred cameras from the courtroom, but he allowed a live audio broadcast of the jury's verdict.
Jackson, who appeared increasingly frail and gaunt as the trial dragged on, did not take the stand during the proceedings. Mesereau had said in opening arguments that the jury would hear from the defendant.
Accompanied by family members and bodyguards, Jackson arrived at the courthouse at about 1:45 p.m. (4:45 p.m. EST). Wearing a black blazer with a lapel crest and his signature armband with a white shirt and black tie, Jackson made his way into the courthouse as an aide held up an umbrella to shield the pallid pop star from the midday sun. Among those accompanying him were his sisters, La Toya and Janet Jackson.
Fans shouted their support for their idol upon his arrival. "Innocent! Innocent!" they chanted.
The jury was made up of seven whites, four Hispanics and one Asian. The jurors ranged in age from 20 to 79.