LOS ANGELES, JAN. 25 -- Lawyers for Michael Jackson and the 14-year-old boy he is accused of molesting announced today an out-of-court settlement of the boy's suit against the superstar singer.
Neither side would discuss the terms of the settlement, which was announced after a meeting with Superior Court Judge David Rothman in the Santa Monica Courthouse. But the boy's lawyer insisted that "nobody's bought anybody's silence" and that his client will continue to cooperate in a criminal investigation against Jackson.
"He has gained peace," the lawyer, Larry Feldman, said in explaining why the boy has settled the case, adding that he will now have the chance to heal some "very, very deep wounds."
Using almost identical language to assert Jackson's need to get on with his life, Johnnie L. Cochran, the singer's lawyer, said the settlement did not constitute an admission of guilt. "He still maintains his innocence," Cochran said, adding that Jackson "does not intend to have his life destroyed by rumors and innuendo." The singer was not present at the courthouse.
The boy has charged that after befriending him, Jackson, 35, began a sexual relationship against his will. The accusation, which first surfaced last summer, created strains for the singer that ultimately forced him to cut short an international concert tour. It also made him the object of a worldwide media manhunt while he sought treatment at an undisclosed location for a drug problem his lawyers said was brought on by stress from the case.
In response to the accusations, separate criminal investigations were begun by the district attorneys of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. Jackson's ranch, Neverland, where some of the incidents allegedly occurred, is near Santa Barbara.
As rumors began circulating that a settlement was imminent, the intensive media attention that made the case the tabloid story of the year centered on the amount Jackson would pay his accuser as part of the settlement. Press speculation put the amount in eight figures -- a range of $10 million to $99 million.
But Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney who specializes in child abuse cases, said a payment of even $5 million would put the settlement in "the stratosphere."
MacLeish, who represented victims of the Rev. James Porter, the Massachusetts priest sentenced to 18 years in prison for abusing children, said the confidentiality of the settlement in the Jackson suit was typical for a child abuse case. And he emphasized that the agreement should not be taken in any way as implying guilt on Jackson's part. "There are all kinds of reasons why people settle civil cases," he said.
But he said the most critical part of the settlement was whether it in effect precluded a criminal case against Jackson. And he said Feldman's statement appeared to raise doubts about whether the case can in fact go forward. "I would be interested in knowing how attorney Feldman could say he wants to put the case behind him when there's still the possibility of criminal prosecution," MacLeish said.
Feldman said his client would not be a "reluctant witness" if a criminal case is brought against Jackson. But, he added, "I haven't heard the district attorney indicate that he's indicting anyone right now."
In a statement this afternoon, Gil Garcetti, the L.A. County district attorney, said his investigation was not complete. Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon Jr. refused to discuss the county's criminal investigation.
"The criminal investigation of singer Michael Jackson is ongoing and will not be affected by the announcement of the civil case settlement," Garcetti said. "The district attorney's office is taking Mr. Feldman at his word that the alleged victim will be allowed to testify and that there has been no agreement in the civil matter that will affect cooperation in the criminal investigation."
Under California law a minor who was a victim of sexual abuse cannot be compelled to testify in court. Any prosecution of Jackson would difficult be without the child's cooperation.
Both Feldman and Cochran were harsh in denouncing what Cochran called the "unprecedented media feeding frenzy" that has surrounded the accusations against Jackson.
"The tabloid press has shown an insatiable thirst for anything negative and has paid huge sums of money to people who have little or no information and who barely knew Michael Jackson," Cochran said. "So today the time has come for Michael Jackson to move on to new business and to get on with his life, to start the healing process and to move his career forward to even greater heights."
Cochran added that "at the appropriate time" the singer "will speak out publicly as to the agony, torture, pain he has had to suffer during the past six months."
Since the story broke last summer, both sides have tried with mixed success to manipulate the media to their own advantage.
Immediately after the allegations surfaced, Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator then employed by Jackson, aggressively attacked the motives behind the accusations, accusing the boy's father and his lawyer of trying to extort $20 million from Jackson in return for not going public.
On Monday, the L.A. Country district attorney's office said it would not bring charges against the father. Deputy district attorney Michael J. Montagna said the discussions between Jackson's representatives and the father's attorney appeared to be not extortion but attempts to settle a possible civil case.
Pellicano has since been dismissed by the Jackson camp, as has Bertram Fields, a prominent Los Angeles entertainment lawyer closely associated with him. Fields was replaced by Cochran, a black lawyer who represented truck driver Reginald Denny in a suit charging the city with negligence in not preventing his beating in the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
After Cochran became his lawyer, Jackson in December made first response to the accusations, delivering a four-minute statement by satellite from his ranch in which he proclaimed his innocence and appeared near tears in described being physically examined and photographed by police investigators.
For his part, Feldman was hired to represent the boy after another lawyer left the case. Lawyers for Jackson have accused him of courting the media and leaking details of depositions taken in connection with the case.
Some have suggested that the media spotlight on the case, along with the accusations of child abuse against director Woody Allen, have served to focus attention on a social problem long kept in the shadows.
Experts don't sound convinced. "I don't think the Woody Allen case or the Michael Jackson case make much of a difference in terms of prevention or reporting," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law. "I'm sad to say people focus on the celebrity."
Special correspondent Jessica Crosby contributed to this report.