Michael Jackson left the courthouse here Monday just as he entered it, a free but somber man waving to fans and blowing a kiss, after a jury rejected charges that he repeatedly molested a 13-year-old boy, gave him alcohol and held him and his family captive at Neverland ranch.
The jury of eight women and four men concluded that the evidence was not sufficient beyond any reasonable doubt that Jackson was a predatory child molester who groomed his alleged victim with liquor and porn and then groped him. The jurors found him not guilty on all 10 counts.
"The evidence said it all," said one of the jurors, a middle-aged mother. "We had a closet full of evidence that made us come back to the same thing -- that there wasn't enough" to convict. "Things didn't add up," she said.
In comments after the verdict, the jurors did not call Jackson's young accuser a liar, but the foreman described the teen as programmed by his mother.
It was a stinging rebuke against the case brought by the Santa Barbara County prosecutors and sheriff's investigators, but it was a virtual moment of rebirth for the pop singer, who had faced the possibility of leaving the courthouse in a sheriff's van on his way to jail or prison for as long as 18 years if he had been found guilty on all charges.
Jackson returned to his ranch, a 2,600-acre estate in the nearby foothills, as fans and the media trailed behind and camped out at its gates.
What Jackson will do next is unknown. The taint of the charges may linger, but his attorneys and entourage have repeatedly described the case against him as an attempt to shake down the singer for money by a family of, according to Jackson's defense attorney, "con artists, actors and liars."
The sensational 15-week trial ended in early afternoon as the court clerk read the verdicts and repeatedly stated that the jury found the 46-year-old Jackson "not guilty."
In the courtroom, fans openly wept, and so did several of the jurors, who later described the scene as filled with emotion and a release of pent-up tensions. Jackson's mother wrapped her arms around Tito, one of her sons. The prosecutors leaned back, as if stunned.
Throughout, Jackson remained seated and still, as he has through the entire trial, and only toward the end did he raise a tissue to his whitened face and dab at his eyes. Afterward, he hugged his defense attorneys and left the courthouse in one of the entourage's four black SUVs parked outside, surrounded by his family and bodyguards, one holding the now trademark black umbrella above the entertainer's head.
Outside, the fans erupted in cheers, screaming, "We love you Michael," and jumping excitedly. One woman released a white dove each time a not-guilty verdict was announced, and others let balloons sail aloft in the warm breeze.
Jackson's lead defense attorney, the silver-maned Thomas Mesereau Jr., walked back inside after Jackson's retinue headed back to Neverland. Mesereau beamed, and said simply, "Justice has been served."
In his remarks after the verdict, a glum Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon said, "Obviously we're disappointed in the verdict," but went on to add that "we did the right thing" in pursuing Jackson. "We thought we had a good case." He denied -- again -- that he had a vendetta to pursue against the pop star.
Sneddon was asked in a news conference after the verdicts whether he believed a child molester just went free.
"No comment," snapped the prosecutor, who had investigated Jackson on previous allegations of molestation in 1993 and 1994. That accuser refused to cooperate after settling a civil case against Jackson in which he and his family were given a reported $20 million by the entertainer.
The media and most legal analysts following the case were divided over whether Jackson would be found guilty. So was Sneddon, who said he had "no inkling" which way the case would go when Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville announced that the jury had reached a verdict around 12:30 p.m. Pacific time Monday, after seven days and about 32 hours -- not including breaks -- of deliberations.
In the news conference in the courtroom after the verdict, the jurors (who were identified only by their assigned numbers) described a case that was weak and an accuser and his family, especially his mother, who could not be believed.
The jurors said they found the mother odd, and thought it weird that while on the stand, she snapped her fingers and tried to address them directly.
Sneddon suggested the jury might have been influenced by Jackson's celebrity and the throngs of media covering the trial, but the jurors said they often forgot that Jackson was in the courtroom.
They said their deliberations were calm and confident, that they raised their hands when they wanted to speak in the jury room, and that they remained on good terms. There were "no screaming matches," one of them said.
The criminal trial, with 140 witnesses, presented two clashing story lines.
In the defense case, Jackson was the naive and childlike victim, a creative if strange genius and a guileless pigeon, ripped off and sold out by his closest advisers and the hired help, and entrapped by the accuser and his family.
The prosecution countered that Jackson was an evil puppet master, the orchestrator of a complex conspiracy and a man who spent months grooming his accuser and other young victims with lavish gifts, all-expenses-paid travel and constant phone calls before he began to show them pornographic magazines, give them alcohol and then go in for the assault.
"The lion on the Serengeti doesn't go after the strongest antelope," Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen told jurors in closing arguments. "The predator goes after the weakest."
The heart of the trial was the veracity of Jackson's accuser, now 15 and in remission from cancer, and his mother, sister and younger brother. The accuser said that Jackson fondled him twice. His younger brother recalled two other incidents, witnessed while he believed his older brother was asleep. The children also accused the singer of giving them wine, vodka and "Jim Bean" bourbon to drink, and their mother said they were kept as prisoners at Neverland in the wake of a controversial documentary about the singer by Martin Bashir.
But during the trial, Jackson attorney Mesereau scoffed at the family's motives, his voice dripping with derision when he called them "these little lambs," describing the family as seasoned shakedown artists attempting to pull off "the biggest con of their careers."
The family sued the JCPenney Co. after the boy was accused of shoplifting, saying that department store security guards roughed them up. They were awarded $152,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
Mesereau was merciless in his cross-examination of the accuser, his siblings, and especially his mother, whose time on the stand provided some of the more bizarre moments in the trial. She sparred with Mesereau and rolled her eyes and made exasperated comments to jurors about "the Germans" in Jackson's camp who kept her prisoner, even as she was taken out for trips to a day spa to have her legs waxed.
As for the children's testimony, it was often vague. They confused dates and times. The accuser admitted lying when he denied in earlier interviews with authorities that Jackson had molested him.
The current case erupted into the public eye in the fall of 2003, when dozens of Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department deputies descended on the singer's ranch in the coastal wine region. Armed with search warrants, they hauled away crates of pornographic material, computers, ranch records, videotapes and other evidence after the then-13-year-old cancer patient -- a Latino from a troubled family from East Los Angeles -- and his family charged that the pop star groped him in February and March of 2003.
The alleged molestation -- in which Jackson was accused of fondling himself and the young boy while the two were together in Jackson's bed -- occurred in the aftermath of the documentary filmed in late 2002 by British journalist Bashir, called "Living With Michael Jackson."
The boy said in court that the molestation began when "Michael started talking to me about masturbation. . . . He told me males had to masturbate. . . . If I didn't know how, he would do it for me." After about five minutes of touching, the boy said, "I kind of felt weird and embarrassed by it, and he said it was natural."
When the Bashir program aired on ABC in February 2003, Jackson was shown with the boy who would become his accuser, the two of them holding hands. On camera, Jackson denied having had plastic surgery -- but admitted sharing his bed with children during sleepovers at Neverland.
"Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson said. "The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone. It's a beautiful thing. It's very right. It's very loving. Because what's wrong with sharing a love?"
Jackson portrayed himself in the documentary as feeling like a little boy in a man's body. "I am Peter Pan," he told Bashir.
Previous incidents and allegations against Jackson were presented under a California law that allows a defendant's past actions to be weighed in sex crimes. Jurors said they found some of this evidence credible, but not enough to convict. During that part of the trial, former child actor Macaulay Culkin took the stand and said he had slept with Jackson on numerous occasions but denied any abuse. He described the relationship as "comforting" and Jackson as "childlike."
Two other young men, described in court as "special friends" who both slept with Jackson, also denied any inappropriate touching. The mother of one of the men, Joy Robson, said of Jackson: "Unless you know him, it's hard to understand him. . . . He's not the boy next door."
Now an acquitted man, Jackson is no less a mystery than when the trial began. But he is a happy one, said those who know him.
"I'm ecstatic," said Raymone Bain, a Washington publicist who worked as Jackson's spokesman during the trial. "We have been through pure hell. I just thank God that the jury showed mercy to Michael Jackson."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and the Associated Press contributed to this report.