April 28, 2004 09:00 AM

In a major shakeup that has legal theorists reeling, Michael Jackson has replaced his lead defense team – high-profile lawyers Benjamin Brafman and Mark Geragos – only days before his scheduled appearance in court this Friday on charges of child molestation.

Brafman and Geragos confirmed that they are stepping down but gave no specific reason for the split.

“Mark and I elected to step down. There were a number of complicated legal and practical issues … but it’s not appropriate for us to discuss them. I wish Michael Jackson well … and I hope he will be completely exonerated,” Brafman, the New York criminal attorney, told Reuters.

Both attorneys are still expected to be at Jackson’s side at Friday’s hearing before a Santa Barbara County judge, where the star is expected to enter a plea of not guilty to an as-yet-unannounced indictment handed down last week by a Santa Barbara grand jury, Brafman said.

According to several reports, they will be joined on Friday by attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr., who represented actor Robert Blake in his murder case (until the two parted ways over irreconcilable differences). Mesereau is said to be taking over as Jackson’s lead attorney.

Citing a gag order in the case, Geragos, declined comment. (Some legal consultants suggest that Geragos’s focus on the Scott Peterson double murder trial could have meant that he wasn’t able to give Jackson 100 percent.) Jackson’s rep also declined comment.

Dana Cole, another Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who has worked with Mesereau, tells Reuters, “Jackson wanted to hire Tom in the first place,” though the lawyers was involved in the Blake case, so “Mesereau had to pass.”

The weekend news follows Jackson’s own statement on Friday requesting that the media leave him alone at the rented Orlando mansion where he reportedly sits in seclusion with his children as he awaits Friday’s arraignment.

“As I release this statement, there are helicopters hovering above my residence, reporters staking out, and photographers lurking behind bushes, running rampant around my compound,” said Jackson, 45. “I am respectfully requesting that media organizations please respect my privacy, and that of my children. I would greatly appreciate your cooperation.”

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