Michael Jackson got a little help from some of his celebrity friends -- and even "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, who has used "The King of Pop's" molestation trial as a punch line. But will jurors be persuaded to reject the prosecution's case?
Jackson's defense rested today after almost three weeks of testimony. Jackson, 46, is on trial for allegedly molesting a now-15-year-old boy, a cancer survivor, who spent time at his Neverland ranch and appeared with him in the 2003 British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson." He has pleaded not guilty to 10 charges that include felony conspiracy with 28 overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. Jackson's defense has argued that the alleged victim and his family -- in an alleged scheme orchestrated by the boy's mother -- made up false allegations in an attempt to get a monetary settlement out of the singer.
The defense rested following the testimony of comedic actor Chris Tucker, who told jurors about how he met the alleged victim and his family. Tucker called the boy "cunning" and said he repeatedly asked for gifts but forgave him because of his illness. He testified that he grew suspicious and warned Jackson to "watch out" for the boy's mother.
Jackson's attorneys wanted Tucker and Leno to illustrate their argument that the alleged victim and his relatives are grifters who have approached celebrities to get donations and to live lavish lifestyles. In his opening statement, lead Jackson defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. indicated that Leno would testify that the boy and his mother asked him for money in what he believed was a scam.
However, Leno did not live up to the defense's expectations. He testified Tuesday that he received several phone messages from the alleged victim and was suspicious because the boy's admiration of him seemed "overly effusive" and scripted. But Leno -- who frequently has joked about Jackson and his legal woes on "The Tonight Show" -- also told the court that the boy and his mother never asked him for money and he never sent them a donation. Like comedians George Lopez and Louise Palanker before him, Leno did not tell jurors, as the defense had suggested, that the boy and his family tried to get money from him.
"Even though these folks have been portrayed as scam artists and grifters, Leno said he [the boy] never asked me for money in all these phone calls," said ABC News legal analyst Royal Oakes. "So here you have a kid talking with one of the richest guys in the world -- one of the most famous people -- and he has the chance to get money out of him, and he never asks for it. So, all in all, big setback for the defense, in my opinion."
Defense Targets Accuser's Mother's Character
Despite mixed results from Leno's testimony, Jackson's defense, critics argue, has poked holes in the prosecution's case by casting doubt on the credibility of the alleged victim and his family, particularly his mother.
"They have succeeded in casting further doubt on the prosecution's case, which had problems going in," said California-based defense attorney Steve Cron.
Some witnesses portrayed the accuser and his brother -- the only claimed eyewitness to the alleged molestation -- as unruly guests of Neverland. Jackson's 16-year-old cousin and some Neverland employees told jurors that they saw the alleged victim and his brother with wine and in Jackson's wine cellar outside the singer's presence. Some witnesses said they saw the brothers with Jackson's adult magazines, and Jackson's 12-year-old cousin testified he once saw the accuser and his brother masturbating while watching adult-oriented programming.
But the defense's primary target in its attack on character was the alleged victim's mother.
"They really focused on the character of the mother and deservedly so," Cron said.
Various defense witnesses portrayed the mother as a welfare cheat who exploited her son's illness to contact celebrities and live lavishly off Jackson. A welfare worker testified that the mother did not reveal that her family had received a $152,000 total settlement stemming from a 2001 lawsuit against J.C. Penney and Tower Records before she filled out an application for public assistance.
In the J.C. Penney lawsuit, the family accused guards at the department store of roughing them up after the boy left a store with clothes that had not been paid for. On Tuesday, Mary Holzer, a paralegal at a law firm that handled the lawsuit, said the mother at one point told her the injuries she claimed to have received were inflicted by her then-husband, not the guards. (The accuser's brother also admitted while testifying for the prosecution that he had lied in a deposition for the J.C. Penney lawsuit.)
An accountant told jurors that Jackson paid $7,000 in shopping, dining and other expenses for the family during the time they said they singer allegedly held them virtual hostages of Neverland so they could make a rebuttal video to "Living With Michael Jackson."
A former sister-in-law suggested that the mother was primarily concerned about monetary proceeds with her recollection of how she allegedly denounced blood drives held on her son's behalf.
"She told me that she didn't need my (expletive) blood, that she needed money," the woman testified.
The mother testified about Jackson's alleged conspiracy to hold her and her family hostage. Court observers described her behavior and testimony as sometimes bizarre, often erratic, rambling and combative.
Arguably, the mother's credibility was damaged before the defense began its case. Just before she took the stand, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville told jurors that she had invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on perjury and welfare fraud allegations. Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon had said in opening statements that the mother would admit she took welfare payments to which she was not entitled.
Macaulay and Friends Back Jackson
Before focusing on the accuser's mother, Jackson's attorneys began his defense by attacking prosecution testimony that the singer had molested or behaved inappropriately with five other boys, including former child star Macaulay Culkin and two youngsters who reached multimillion-dollar settlements with the singer in the 1990s.
Jackson was never criminally charged for those allegations and has always denied any wrongdoing. Melville ruled that prosecutors could present the testimony about the allegations under a 1996 revision to California evidence law that allows prosecutors in sex crime cases to present testimony on alleged bad acts and propensity evidence.
Culkin and two other young men who were friends with Jackson in their youth, Wade Robson and Brett Barnes, all denied that anything inappropriate happened with "The King of Pop." They all said that they spent extensive time at Neverland and slept in Jackson's bed but denied that he molested them. Culkin was perhaps the most emphatic, calling the allegations against Jackson, "Absolutely ridiculous."
Some experts say the Jackson's celebrity witnesses were designed to distract jurors from the main charges he faces and to court their approval.
"You've heard of guilt by association, well this would be innocence by association," Ronald Carlson, professor at the University of Georgia School of Law. "If a good guy like Macaulay Culkin, Jay Leno and others are willing to come testify on Jackson's behalf, then he must be a good guy. But it's not like Jay Leno volunteered to testify; he came under subpoena."
However, other court observers say, celebrity will not influence jurors. Fame or not, a witness like Culkin was the best defense for Jackson against charges of prior alleged molestation because prosecutors said he was the victim.
"Who better than Macaulay Culkin himself to testify and deny the allegations?" said Cron. "This is not a case where celebrity really matters, but the evidence that is shown."
Lingering, Troubling Issues for the Defense
However, the hurdle posed by the allegations of prior misconduct may be too much for Jackson's defense to overcome, despite challenges to the credibility of his current accuser and his family and the supportive testimony of Culkin, Robson and Barnes.
Some experts believe that jurors still may be uncomfortable with the idea that Jackson had sleepovers and spent so much time with young boys. In addition, the defense, some experts say, did not effectively refute the testimony given by his 1990 accuser, who received a reported $2.4 million settlement from Jackson in 1994, his mother and the mother of the 1993 accuser. (The 1993 accuser, who reportedly received more than $20 million in an out-of-court settlement from Jackson, did not testify.)
Jackson's defense argued these accusers and their families all benefited financially from the molestation allegations against the singer and that they were all out for his money. But some analysts say that argument is not enough to combat their testimony and does not really explain Jackson's reasons to reach monetary settlements.
"They haven't showed that the accuser [in the current case] has ever lied, has ever made up a story for money or that his brother has, and they're the two key witnesses in the case," Court TV anchor Lisa Bloom said on "Good Morning America." "And there are two other boys, the 1993 accuser and the youth pastor [the 1990 accuser], who testified that Jackson molested him. They haven't been hit by the defense, either. This is a tough case for this jury because there is strong evidence going both ways."
Though the prosecution may have difficulty explaining the denials of Jackson wrongdoing by Culkin, Robson and Barnes, the defense may have to contend with jurors who may believe that "The King of Pop's" past settlements imply his guilt, despite Melville's instructions.
"From the defense's standpoint, they may feel they have disproved three out of the five prior [molestation] allegations, four if you count the current boy," said Carlson. "But statistics have shown that the rate of convictions in cases like this go up once testimony of prior similar allegations is admitted. You don't need all five allegations to win a conviction. Oftentimes you just need one."
'King of Pop' on Video, Not on the Stand
In addition, court observers say jurors may wonder why Jackson himself did not testify and whether this will ultimately haunt the defense.
"I wonder whether Mesereau is rethinking his opening statement where he told jurors, 'Michael will say this, Michael will say that,' " said Cron. "But Jackson is such a loose cannon."
In opening statements, Mesereau appeared to hint to jurors that "The King of Pop" would testify, twice using the phrase, "Michael will tell you."
"Michael Jackson will tell you one time at Neverland he got a very bad feeling and intuition," Mesereau said at one point. "Mr. Jackson will tell you he found those kids going through his magazines," he said at another time during his opening statements.
Throughout the trial, sources close to the case repeatedly told ABC News that Jackson would take the stand. However, ABC News has been told, Mesereau decided not to put the singer on the stand because he was comfortable that the prosecution had not proven its case.
Mesereau, sources told ABC News, believes he did not commit himself to putting Jackson on the stand because he did not use the word "testify." Jurors did hear from Jackson through videotape filmed by the singer's personal videographer and outtakes from "Living With Michael Jackson" that were played at the trial. On the video, Jackson is not challenged by prosecutors during cross-examination and says things such as, "I would slit my wrists if I were to hurt children" and "I'm a completely innocent guy."
After the prosecution finishes presenting its rebuttal case and Jackson's defense has an opportunity to respond to the rebuttal, closing arguments in the trial could take place next week. Then jurors will have their chance to decide.