About 100 people greet the star Monday for a hearing to question DA Tom Sneddon

By Frank Swertlow Stephen M. Silverman
August 16, 2004 05:00 PM

Michael Jackson did not go quietly into court Monday morning in Santa Maria, Calif.: About 100 fans cheered as the star emerged from a double-decker tour bus for a pre-trial hearing that, in fact, did not require the star’s presence.

Jackson wore a white suit with a mustard yellow armband and was escorted by several family members – parents Katherine and Joseph Jackson, and siblings Jermaine, Janet, Jackie and LaToya – also dressed in white, the Associated Press reports.

Michael was shielded by a bodyguard carrying an umbrella over him, though he did flash a peace sign to fans – some of whom carried signs reading, among other things, “Our Love Is With You” and “Michael Jackson Is Innocent.”

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon was the first witness of the day, with questioning about comments he allegedly made about the case despite the gag order in the case imposed by Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville.

Sneddon and Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau Jr. engaged in a heated exchange, prompting Court Judge Rodney Melville to say: “Mr. Sneddon, I’m going to ask you not to spar with the attorney.”

The case is becoming something of a public-relations showdown. On Sunday, Jackson paid a surprise visit to Los Angeles’s preeminent African-American church, while prosecutors also received a boost Sunday.

According to a leaked report , California’s attorney general had rejected Jackson’s claim that he was “manhandled” when sheriff’s deputies took him into custody last year.

“The timing is amazing,” Loyola University Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, tells AP. “This means both sides are playing the public relations game. No matter who leaked it, prosecutors want the public to see Michael Jackson as a manipulator and a liar. And it gets some of the spotlight off Sneddon.”

Jackson’s visit to the First AME Church the day before his Monday’s hearing has also raised eyebrows.

“Jackson has never been involved with the African American community in the past,” said defense attorney Steve Cron. “I can’t imagine why else he would suddenly get religion.”

Jackson, 45, is charged with committing a lewd act upon a child, administering an intoxicating agent and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail.