Ithought I'd heard every possible take on Michael Jackson's surprising-but-not-really acquittal -- until I asked a no-nonsense friend her opinion. Not missing a beat, she said, "I wondered why he was spared."

Spared. Not acquitted or released -- and certainly not forgiven. Spared. Like "blessed," this old-fashioned word evokes a nostalgic, church-folk vibe. But my friend, a businesswoman, wasn't finished:

"I figured it must have been for redemption."

Although there's been a world of chatter about Michael's acquittal in the media, at our jobs, in grocery lines and family rooms, little has been said about redemption. On TV, every third law-school graduate has been christened a "legal expert" worthy of explaining the prosecution's missteps, the defense's brilliance and a celebrity-worshiping public's culpability.

In fact, we're all experts. Folks who barely followed the proceeding have passed judgment on the jury, the defendant's mother, attorneys for both sides, journalists and, of course, Jackson. Our smorgasbord of judgment is being served piping hot, with generous helpings of guilt, blame and scorn for all.

But in the spirit of "spared," let's step back from what we know -- and think we know -- about this mess.

One thing does seem clear: This is a man with a problem. Those who'd excuse Michael's Neverland sleepovers as understandable attempts to recapture his youth should note that any other 46-year-old man who confessed to sleeping with preteens would be under the jail.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found that half of Americans disagreed with Jackson's acquittal; one-quarter of all respondents said they were outraged. Personally, I'd prefer citizens to be exercised over mounting deaths in Iraq or the erosion of their civil liberties. But I have no problem in a society that too often ignores its children's welfare with outrage over any child's seemingly unpunished abuse -- however crazy that child's mother appears, however clumsy his family's attempts to extract celebrity loot.

Yet awaiting the verdict, I found myself worried for Jackson. I remembered watching, as a kid in my Gary, Ind., hometown, the pre-fame Michael being yanked off his feet during a talent show by a young woman who clutched him as he fought for release. Even then, I felt sad for this tiny boy who inspired such frightening passion in strangers.

The whole world watched as the adorable child morphed into the brilliant eccentric -- self-mutilating, manipulative, and egocentric enough to christen himself "the King of Pop." Like many who've heard Jackson's poignant descriptions of his abusive childhood, I suspect that it helps to explain him. The only face scarier than Michael's at the Santa Maria, Calif., courthouse was the cold, masklike visage of his father.

I won't claim to "know" how Michael's fascination with boys is played out. Past testimony, reports of porn and of alcohol-spiked "Jesus juice" suggest "molester." Yet we all know that sometimes where there's smoke, there's . . . more smoke.

But ours is a world of absolutes -- one is either guilty or innocent, sick or healthy, a convicted felon or a free man or woman. People aren't so simple. To my mind, Jackson -- like many others -- slips into the between, a place where he seems guilty of, or responsible for, something, not the exact charges he faced or pedophilia as we think of it. Something unsettling.

But I wasn't in the courtroom. So I won't insult the jury -- whose seven white, four Hispanic and one Asian members included eight parents -- by doubting. I accept that jury members tried, as their foreman attested after the trial, to "look at [Jackson] as just like any other individual." I believe they "seriously" studied the evidence, struggling to meet the judge's 98 pages of instructions. I trust their verdict was fair, according to the law.

But the law isn't perfect. I wished that somewhere in the between -- in the gap between reasonable doubt and unreasonable grandiosity, between certain guilt and far-from-innocence -- there was a place where Jackson could have been found accountable:

For exercising terrible judgment. For taking advantage of -- and allowing himself to be taken advantage by -- grasping, star-struck parents. For the sense of entitlement that a worshipful public bestowed upon him but which desperately needs checking.

I wished for a place, other than "guilty," where he could be stopped. But "accountable" isn't a sentence. So though I wasn't thrilled with the verdict, part of me was relieved. A prison term for Michael Jackson, I felt, might have been tantamount to a death sentence. And though I think that Jackson's discomfiting fondness for youngsters demands counseling and a ban on sleepovers, I don't believe the star deserves to die.

But I'm speculating. The plaintiff can fall back on a civil suit, news of which could be coming soon in a tabloid near you. The rest of us are left with speculation and judgment -- both of which we've offered abundantly.

And we get to decide what it means.

Which brings us back to spared. The word takes us into yet another uncomfortable place -- into the realm of the spiritual. To a place where those who've transgressed -- and who hasn't? -- can find peace, even forgiveness.

Perhaps this man, whose childhood fame, riches, isolation and traumas ensured that he'd have no clue as to "normal," has learned something. Perhaps he understands that the real love of his life -- his devoted public -- has grown less enamored. Perhaps Jackson -- who grinned as he danced incongruously atop a car after his arraignment -- looked grim after regaining his freedom because he'd just heard a wake-up call.

Perhaps my friend was right. After a year in which the public was spared no ugly detail or unfounded conjecture, maybe Jackson was spared for redemption.