January 31, 2005 08:00 AM

The first round of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial began in Santa Maria, Calif., Monday morning, with the first 300 of some 750 potential jury members filtering through the selection process.

Avoiding the circus-like atmosphere that accompanied his arraignment last year, Jackson – wearing white and shielded by a bodyguard protecting him from the sun with an umbrella – quietly arrived in court around 9 a.m. local time. After briefly stopping to wave to fans, he walked inside to be screened by security.

As the long-awaited case went to trial, hundreds of fans gathered outside the courthouse, some of them waiting there since Sunday night to get a glimpse of Jackson. Several of them greeted passing cars and waved handwritten signs with such messages as “We’ve had enough! Michael is innocent” and “Honk 4 Michael.”

Jackson’s family was not with him on Monday morning, but they are expected to attend much of the trial, which court sources say is tentatively scheduled to begin Feb. 28. Judge Rodney Melville made it clear that prospective jurors would have priority over the defendant’s relatives when it came to seating.

Commenting on the case on Monday morning’s CBS Early Show, family matriarch Katherine Jackson said: “I know my son, and this is ridiculous.” Father Joe Jackson called the accuser’s motives simply “about money.”

Michael Jackson prepared for trial by posting a video on his Web site early Sunday, declaring he would be “acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told” and calling recent news leaks in the case “disgusting and false.”

Wearing a cobalt blue shirt and staring directly into the camera, Jackson says in his message: “Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court. … I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen.”

The singer, 46, is charged with 10 felony counts involving the alleged molestation of a cancer patient – then age 13, now 15 – after plying him with alcohol concealed in soda cans, the prosecution contends. Calling the accusations “a complete lie,” Jackson has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail.

The case is already being called the trial of the century, young as this century is. Jury selection – with 300 more jurors set to be called Tuesday and the final 150 on Wednesday – is expected to take as long as a month. Legal analysts predict that the case, which they say could last as long as six months, will be highly contentious.

Besides Judge Melville, 63, who has imposed a gag order on the case (forbidding anyone attached to it to speak to the media without specific permission from him), other principal players are:

• Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, 61, who has pursued Jackson for more than a decade after an initial charge of child molestation – which was later dropped after Jackson reached a settlement with the accuser. Jackson has derided Sneddon in song as a “cold man” with a vendetta against him.

• Defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau Jr., who may try to brand the child witnesses – both the accuser and his brother – as liars manipulated by their mother, whose character and motives he plans to question.

• Jackson’s young accuser and his brother (who allegedly witnessed the events inside Jackson’s Neverland Ranch) will be called to the stand, Melville ruled on Friday – and he also rejected the prosecution’s request to close the courtroom to the press and public for that portion of the trial.

The press leaks Jackson referred to in his Sunday message included a 1,900-page grand jury transcript that fell into the hands of The Smoking Gun Web site and ABC News earlier this month.

Among several shocking claims, the transcript included the accuser’s testimony that Jackson closed his eyes tightly while molesting him on a bed inside the Neverland Ranch, and that the star ignored the child’s warnings that he shouldn’t drink alcohol because of his medical condition.

You May Like

EDIT POST