Michael Jackson, the legendary "King of Pop" who has been dogged for years by accusations of child molestation, was acquitted today of all charges related to allegations that he molested a boy who spent time at his Neverland ranch and appeared with him in the 2003 British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson."
The panel of eight women and four men acquitted Jackson of molestation, attempted molestation, plying minors with liquor, and conspiracy stemming from an alleged attempt to hold his accuser and the boy's family virtual hostages of Neverland after the documentary aired. Jurors deliberated for slightly more than 24 hours over seven days before announcing they had reached a unanimous verdict. They had reportedly asked for a readback of the testimony of Jackson's accuser before reaching their decision.
Courtroom observers said Jackson brought a tissue to his eyes and his lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr., put an arm around him as jurors read the verdict. Fans gathered outside the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., cheered wildly as they learned about Jackson's acquittal. With his entourage of relatives, bodyguards and attorneys around him, Jackson walked slowly out of the courthouse and waved at his cheering fans weakly as he ducked into his waiting SUV, a free man.
After the verdicts were announced, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville, who presided over the trial, read a statement from the jury: "We the jury feel the weight of the world's eyes upon us." Jurors asked to be allowed to return to "our private lives as anonymously as we came."
District Attorney Tom Sneddon said he was disappointed in the verdict but he was proud of his office and the work on the case.
"I've been a prosecutor for 37 years, and in 37 years, I've never quarreled with a jury's verdict and I'm not about to start now," Sneddon said.
Sneddon, who was involved in the 1993 molestation investigation of Jackson, said his history with the singer never influenced his decisions in the case. He had no comment on whether his office would continue to pursue other investigations against Jackson and declined to say whether he believed a child molester got away with a crime. Sneddon insisted his office did the "right thing for the right reasons" and said he had not talked to the alleged victim and his family after the verdict.
Neither Jackson nor his family commented immediately after the verdict. In a statement released on Jackson's official Web site, Mesereau said, "Justice is done. The man's innocent. He always was."
Began with 'Living With Michael Jackson
Jackson, 46, was accused of molesting a now-15-year-old boy, who spent time at his Neverland ranch and appeared with him in the documentary. He faced 10 charges that included felony conspiracy with 28 overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. Jackson denied all the charges, and his defense argued that the alleged victim and his family made up the allegations in an attempt to get money.
In "Living With Michael Jackson," which was broadcast in February 2003, Jackson talked about his fondness for having innocent sleepovers with children. While holding hands with his accuser, he said, "Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone." The documentary sparked the events that ultimately led to the police raid on Neverland and Jackson's arrest and trial.
Prosecutors argued that Jackson molested his accuser, a cancer survivor who was 13 at the time of the alleged molestation, after showering him with lavish gifts and accommodations. The prosecution claimed Jackson showed the boy adult magazines and Web sites and served him wine, which he allegedly referred to as "Jesus juice."
"At night they entered into the world of the forbidden, they went into Michael Jackson's bedroom, which was a veritable fortress," Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen said in closing arguments. "They learned about human sexuality from someone who was all too willing to be their teacher. ... Are you comfortable with a middle-aged man getting in bed with a teenage boy as he possesses material like this that excites him?"
Prosecutors said Jackson's alleged actions with his accuser were the latest in a pattern of bad behavior. They presented testimony that Jackson molested or behaved inappropriately with five other boys, including two youngsters who reached multimillion-dollar settlements with the singer in the 1990s. The judge ruled that jurors could not hear the amounts of the settlements.
Jackson was never criminally charged for those allegations and has always denied any wrongdoing.
"Michael Jackson, not for the first time, took sexual liberties with a 13-year-old boy," Zonen said. "That testimony [of Jackson's current accuser] should be believed, and Michael Jackson should be held responsible for what he did."
For the Defense, a Credibility Issue
Jackson's defense cast doubt on the credibility of the accuser and his family, particularly his mother. In his closing argument, Mesereau called Jackson offbeat, naïve and a target for the accuser's family, which he said consisted of "con artists, actors and liars." The real issue, Mesereau said, was "whether the accuser's family was credible."
"If you do not believe [the family] beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Jackson must be acquitted. That's the law," he said.
The accuser testified that Jackson masturbated him on two occasions. However, on cross-examination, Mesereau pointed out various inconsistencies in his accounts. The alleged victim also admitted that he told a school official after the documentary aired that "nothing happened" between him and the singer.
Mesereau accused the boy and his family of making up the allegations after they met with attorney Larry Feldman, who represented the 1993 accuser. The boy denied telling Feldman about his claims against Jackson.
The boy's sister testified that Jackson served her and her brothers alcohol and held the family hostage at Neverland after "Living With Michael Jackson" aired. But the defense showed a video made after the documentary aired that shows family members praising Jackson. The sister said the praise was coerced.
The accuser's brother -- the only claimed eyewitness to alleged molestation -- told jurors he saw Jackson fondle his brother. But cross-examination showed inconsistencies in the boy's accounts. The brother also admitted that he lied in a deposition for a civil lawsuit against J.C. Penney and Tower Records in which the family received a settlement of $152,000.
Some defense witnesses portrayed the accuser and his brother 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.
Mesereau told jurors the young accuser and his family were trying to pull "the biggest con of their careers."
"They just need you to help them," he said during defense closing arguments.
Jackson's Defense Targeted Accuser's Mother
No witness's character was challenged more by the defense than that of the accuser's mother, who testified about Jackson's alleged conspiracy to hold her and her family hostage so they could make a rebuttal video. Court observers described her behavior and testimony as sometimes bizarre, often erratic, rambling and combative.
In a press conference after the verdict, jurors said there they were not persuaded by one bit of testimony or evidence. But some indicated they were irritated by the demeanor and antics of the mother.
"I disliked it intensely when she snapped her fingers at us," said one woman on the panel, identified as Juror No. 5. She said she thought to herself, "Don't snap your fingers at me, lady."
Melville told jurors that the mother had invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on perjury and welfare fraud allegations. Sneddon had said in opening statements that the mother would admit she took welfare payments to which she was not entitled.
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 the six-figure J.C. Penney settlement before she filled out an application for public assistance.
A paralegal at the law firm that handled the J.C. Penney lawsuit said the mother told her the injuries she claimed she received from store guards were inflicted by her then-husband. An accountant told jurors that Jackson paid $7,000 in shopping, dining and other expenses for the family during the time they said he allegedly held them hostage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it only takes one lie under oath to throw this case out of court," Mesereau said during closing arguments. "You can't count all the lies under oath by [the family]. How many does it take to let you know this case is a fraud?"
Jackson's defense also undermined the credibility of some Neverland employees who claimed the singer molested or behaved inappropriately with young boys. The defense pointed to inconsistencies in their accounts, and suggested that some of them had motive to lie because they were part of a failed civil suit against Jackson and were ordered to pay him more than $1 million for costs and legal fees.
Jackson's trial promised celebrity testimony, and it didn't disappoint. Former "Home Alone" star Macaulay Culkin, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, comedic actor Chris Tucker and comedian George Lopez were among the celebrities who took the stand.
Culkin, Wade Robson and Brett Barnes -- two other young men who were friends with Jackson in their youth -- were among the five boys the prosecution alleged Jackson had molested or behaved inappropriately with. But all three denied that anything inappropriate happened.
The "King of Pop's" defense wanted Tucker and Leno to illustrate their argument that the alleged victim and his relatives are grifters who have approached celebrities to get donations. In his opening statement, Mesereau indicated that Leno would testify that the boy and his mother asked him for money in what he believed was a scam.
Tucker called the young accuser "cunning" and said he told Jackson to "watch out" for the boy's mother. But Leno testified that he received several phone messages from the alleged victim and the boy's admiration of him seemed "overly effusive" and scripted. He also said the boy and his mother never asked him for money. Lopez and comedian Louise Palanker also denied that the boy and his family tried to get money from them.
Still, even with the celebrity witnesses, jurors did not hear testimony from Jackson himself. In opening statements, Mesereau appeared to hint to jurors that Jackson would testify, twice using the phrase, "Michael will tell you."
Jurors did hear from the singer through videotape filmed by his personal videographer and outtakes from "Living With Michael Jackson" that were played at the trial. On the video, Jackson says things like, "I would slit my wrists if I were to hurt children" and "I'm a completely innocent guy."