Over the last 15 years of his life, Michael Jackson became almost as well known for his time in court as for his moonwalk. Twice accused of child molestation, the singer was never convicted. Yet the two cases churned up plenty of lurid headlines, including details about sleepovers with young boys and descriptions of sexual foreplay with minors—a troubling pattern that left many people convinced that Jackson was a child molester.
In the first instance, a 13-year-old boy, whose father was friends with Jackson, accused the pop star in 1993 of fondling him during sleepovers. The Los Angeles police investigated, but before any charges were brought, the singer settled the case for an estimated $20 million. In an impassioned television appearance before the settlement, Jackson pleaded, “Don’t treat me like a criminal, because I am innocent.” But there was a lingering belief that he feared facing a jury. As one music insider who knew him well said at the time, “Michael is a fighter—if he thought someone was just trying to take advantage of him he would never give in.” Jackson himself said in British journalist Martin Bashir’s 2003 Living with Michael Jackson documentary, “I didn’t want to do a long, drawn-out thing on TV like O.J…. I want to go on with my life.”
If so, he was to be spectacularly unsuccessful. In 2003 a 13-year-old boy who was a cancer survivor befriended by Jackson made similar accusations and pressed ahead with a criminal case. The prosecution relied in part on the Bashir documentary, in which Jackson bizarrely defended his practice of sleeping with kids—innocently, he claimed—who were not his own. “It’s very right; it’s very loving,” he told Bashir. Still, the sometimes circus-like 2005 trial, which lasted 14 weeks and featured one memorable episode in which Jackson gleefully danced on the roof of his SUV, ultimately turned into a referendum on the accuser’s mother, who, as the defense pointed out, had once been implicated in a welfare fraud. After seven days of deliberation, the jury acquitted Jackson of all charges, but not all suspicion.
Indeed he seemed to emerge from the trial a broken man, the downward spiral of his life and career only accelerating. His friend Dr. Firpo Carr says that the singer, who spent his last years often traveling abroad and raising his children, continued to be tormented by the stain the accusations had left on his reputation. “It took a great toll on him,” says Carr. “He never recovered from the trial. He never did.” As Carr tells it, Jackson’s planned comeback was not just about money but about some attempt at personal redemption. “That was part of the reason for these concerts: to prove himself again,” says Carr, “to give something great to his fans, the show of all shows, and to have the comeback of all comebacks. This was so everyone would remember him for his music, not for the scandals. He didn’t get a chance to do that. But that’s what it was about.”