Pajama bottoms and bombshells—the Michael Jackson trial has a bit of everything. Week two of the trial reached its absurd low point on March 10, when Jackson failed to appear in court, was given an hour to show up by the judge and finally arrived—eight minutes after the deadline—in blue pajama bottoms and black dinner jacket. A woozy Jackson, claiming back pain, avoided a sanction but had to listen to his 15-year-old accuser rivet the courtroom with his graphic tale of molestation. Says former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson: “You sort of heard the air go out in the room.”
Over the weekend the defense regrouped and produced a surprise witness: Jeffrey Alpert, dean of the Los Angeles middle school once attended by the accuser. In response, prosecutors held furtive meetings Sunday evening—”a bad sign,” says CBS chief legal analyst Andrew Cohen. True. The next day Jackson’s lawyer Thomas Mesereau trapped the accuser in several inconsistencies, including the admission that he twice told the dean Jackson “didn’t do anything to me.”
It was a rough day for the accuser and his family, who, says someone close to them, “are doing lousy. They feel like they are getting beat up. Seeing your children attacked and called liars is very difficult.” During their testimony the accuser and his brother, 14, and sister, 18 (both of whom have taken the stand), have been kept apart from their parents and from each other by the prosecution to avoid any suggestion they’re comparing stories. “They can’t talk to each other or give each other comfort,” says the source close to the family. “The kids have been kept out of school. If s been very tough.”
Things could get even tougher—and stranger. The accuser’s denial he ever spoke with Tonight Show host Jay Leno could hurt the case if Leno, who has said the accuser called him to ask for money, is summoned to testify. “The defense has made a lot of headway,” says former prosecutor and TV legal analyst Anne Bremner. But “you can’t take the temperature of a trial one day and predict the outcome. Things can change overnight.”
By Alex Tresniowski. Maureen Harrington in Santa Maria and Ron Arias, Champ Clark and Vickie Bane in Los Angeles
THE MAIN CHARGE
HOW BELIEVABLE IS THE ACCUSER?
The 15-year-old cancer survivor at the center of the case spent less than two hours under the gentle questioning of District Attorney Thomas Sneddon—and then endured a sometimes withering cross-examination from defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau that stretched over three days.
THE PROSECUTION: The boy testified that Jackson had twice fondled him while he lay in the singer’s bed at Neverland. Says former prosecutor Anne Bremner: “His description of the molestation rings true.” Tom Lyon, a professor at USC who is a lawyer and also an expert in child psychology, agrees. “What makes the accuser credible is the way the molestation unfolds, with drinking, talking about masturbation and the porn,” says Lyon. “Child molestation is almost always seduction. It’s not violent.”
THE DEFENSE: Under cross-examination the boy conceded that not long after the molestation is alleged to have occurred, he told the dean of his middle school that Jackson “didn’t do anything to me.” This was clearly a thunderbolt the prosecution hadn’t expected. The next day the boy said he denied the abuse because his classmates “were making fun of me.” Mesereau also pointed out the boy and his family didn’t file charges against Jackson until after meeting with two lawyers, including one involved in the 1994 settlement of the $20 million molestation suit against the singer. Says Bremner: “Mesereau is trying to show that the motive is the money, the money and more moneys.”
THE DEFENSE: Earlier testimony disclosed that the boy’s brother had initially told a psychologist he’d seen Jackson touching his brother but over his clothes. The accuser, however, explicitly said the touching occurred under his clothes. (But given the fuzzy chronology presented at the trial so far, it’s not clear the boys were referring to the same incident
THE PROSECUTION: Up to a point, says Lyon, “the inconsistencies in their testimony make them more believable. If they had been coached, all those little details would have been gotten straight and rehearsed.”
Defense lawyer Mesereau grilled Jackson’s accuser.
THE PROSECUTION: The accuser contends that Jackson plied him with wine in Diet Coke cans (which the singer called “Jesus Juice”), vodka and whiskey. In his opening statement Sneddon suggested that flight attendants on Jackson’s plane will back up at least some of those allegations.
THE DEFENSE: “By far the toughest issue for the defense is the alcohol,” says former prosecutor Jim Hammer. “If you listened very carefully to the defense opening, all Mesereau said about drinking was, The doctor will testify that he didn’t see it on the plane.’ That’s not a very strong statement. He’s worried about that part of the case.”
FLASHES OF ANGER
THE DEFENSE: Under questioning from Mesereau, the accuser became angry and argumentative at times—subtly underscoring the defense’s belief that he’s not making the accusations because he’s been abused but because he’s been cut off from Jackson’s generosity. ‘That hurts the accuser, no doubt about it.” says Bremner. “Had he been more restrained and more vulnerable, that would have worked against Mesereau.”
THE PROSECUTION: “Why wouldn’t a victim of a crime be angry?” says Lyon. “It’s perfectly natural.” Also, the accuser seemed far more confident and less evasive, on the stand than either his brother or sister. “He’s looking the jury right in the eyes, and they’re looking right back,” says Hammer.