Jill Smolowe
June 06, 2005 12:00 PM

As Jay Leno took the stand on May 24, expectations were high that he would tear into the 15-year-old who claims that Michael Jackson molested him. Despite months of Tonight Show jokes at Jackson’s expense (“It was so hot I was sweating like a Cub Scout at the Never-land ranch,” he cracked on May 23), the pundits figured he’d repeat what he’d told investigators months ago: that when he’d been contacted by Jackson’s accuser and his mother in 2000, they were “sort of looking for money.” Instead, Leno backed off, testifying that he’d phoned the boy at the hospital after the young cancer patient had left him several “overly effusive” voice messages. “I was put through to a room, and I spoke to [him], his brother and his mother,” Leno said. When he continued to receive “adult-like” phone messages from the boy, Leno said, he noticed a woman’s voice in the background, but he wasn’t sure if it was the mother. As for any evidence of the shakedown Jackson’s attorney Thomas Mesereau had promised during opening statements, a relaxed Leno offered only this: “No one ever asked me for anything and I’m sure of it, because if they had, I would have sent something.”

“Never predict a jury” goes the conventional trial wisdom. But with the 13-week-old Michael Jackson trial expected to go to the Santa Maria, Calif., jury as early as the first week in June, witnesses (there’ve been more than 140 so far) have proved the wildest cards in the deck. Those meant to bolster the prosecution case, like Jackson’s ex-wife Debbie Rowe, 46, proved more potent for the defense team (see box). And defense witnesses, like Brett Barnes and Wade Robson, who had testified that they frequently shared Jackson’s bed but were never molested, scored points for the prosecution. So, perhaps, did Leno, whom Inside Edition legal analyst Jim Moret calls “a total bust for the defense.”

Still, the defense landed some telling blows last week, with several witnesses who portrayed the accuser’s mother as a liar, perjurer and welfare cheat. CPA Mike Radakovich testified that after winning a $32,300 lawsuit settlement, the mother went on to collect welfare. In addition, Connie Keenan, editor of the Mid-Valley News in El Monte, described how the mother talked her into running an article that would help raise money for the boy’s blood transfusions. Later, Keenan testified, “I found out that the child was indeed covered by insurance.”

As testimony wraps up, the question, of course, is which witnesses have made the greatest impression on jurors. The defense has made the accuser’s mother its star witness, using her erratic turn on the stand to help paint the portrait of a woman who exploited her son’s battle with cancer to fill family coffers. “The mother was Exhibit A,” says Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson. “Is this a woman you believe and trust enough to send Michael Jackson away to jail?” But district attorney Tom Sneddon and his team have succeeded in painting a deeply disturbing portrait of Jackson. “It’s rare that prosecutors can point to a self-acknowledged lifestyle that includes sleeping with multiple boys, hundreds of times,” says L.A. defense attorney Trent Copeland. Which view will hold sway in the jury room? Says Moret: “I think it’s 50-50.”

Jill Smolowe. Howard Breuer, Vickie Bane and Johnny Dodd in Santa Maria

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