December 17, 2003 01:55 AM

A deadline has finally been set by Santa Barbara County prosecutors, who say they will file charges in the molestation case against Michael Jackson on Thursday or Friday of this week, the Associated Press reports.

Furthermore, prosecutors have hired a public relations firm to handle the expected crush of news media inquiries, after last month’s free-for-all press conference at which Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon was criticized for his less-than-serious delivery of the news that Jackson was a wanted man.

The charges are to be filed at the courthouse in Santa Maria, near the singer’s Neverland Ranch, Sneddon said in a statement, which also directed journalists to Los Angeles-based Tellem Worldwide PR firm, to “reduce the number of calls coming into the district attorney’s office at this busy time.”

Among the clients listed on Tellem’s Web site are Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, Universal Studios Hollywood and Warner Bros. Online. (Warners, like PEOPLE, is part of Time Warner Inc.)

The PR announcement drew fire from Jackson family spokesman Brian Oxman, who called the action improper, given that “a district attorney is supposed to try the case in court, not in the press.”

Oxman also repeated criticism of Sneddon for cracking jokes at the news conference.

“It is an affront to common sense, if not professional ethics, for a DA to have a celebrity crisis management team, which is what this new PR firm styles itself as being,” Oxman said. He added: “First we had a press conference where the DA told jokes, and now we have a PR firm the DA has hired that also represents the Cartoon Network.”

A secretary at the district attorney’s office told AP that said Sneddon would have no further comment.

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