June 16, 2005 — -- Michael Jackson's acquittal was a victory for a law that could have helped convict him in his child molestation trial.
Some members of the jury, which acquitted "The King of Pop" of all 10 charges related to allegations that he molested a now-15-year-old boy, said they suspected the singer had molested other children but that prosecutors had not proven he had done anything illegal to the accuser in his trial.
During deliberations, jury foreman Paul Rodriguez said, he and other jurors frequently discussed the testimony they had heard about past allegations that Jackson had molested or behaved inappropriately with five other boys, including two youngsters who reached multimillion-dollar settlements with the singer in the 1990s.
But, Rodriguez said, the jurors knew they could not convict solely on the basis of past allegations.
"We couldn't weigh that with this case in particular," he said. "We all felt that he was guilty of something. But we feel that if he didn't learn from this experience, then it's up to another jury to convict him."
The defense tried unsuccessfully to bar Santa Barbara County prosecutors from presenting testimony about the prior allegations, arguing that the singer had never been criminally charged for those accusations and that the evidence would unfairly prejudice the jury.
However, the verdict in Jackson's trial showed that propensity evidence in sex crime trials does not necessarily lead to an automatic conviction and jurors can fairly evaluate the evidence.
"You've got to really hand it to the jury in Jackson's case," said Ronald Carlson, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law. "In most cases, jurors are less likely to separate the past allegations from the present case before them and merge the prior accusations with the case before them. They decide to convict someone based on past similar [alleged] acts and not evidence in the current charges. Jurors in Jackson's case didn't do that."
Many court observers believed Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville's decision to admit the testimony was going to help prosecutors win a conviction.
"I admit, I thought the admission of the prior bad acts was going to be the end of Jackson," said California-based defense attorney Steve Cron. "I thought his defense would be hard-pressed to overcome that."
Prosecutors used the testimony to portray the singer as a pedophile whose actions were part of a pattern of behavior and tactics he allegedly used to seduce and groom young boys. The prosecution argued that Jackson won the trust of his current accuser, a cancer survivor who was 13 at the time of the alleged molestation, by showering him with attention, lavish gifts and accommodations.
Though he negotiated settlements for boys who accused him of molestation in 1990 and 1993, Jackson has always denied any wrongdoing. Three young men the prosecution had alleged were molested by Jackson -- including actor Macaulay Culkin -- testified for the defense and denied the accusations.
A change in California law in 1995 regarding sex crime cases allows prosecutors to present testimony on alleged prior bad acts or propensity evidence. The use of such evidence has long been a source of legal debate.
It has generally been disallowed in non-sex crime cases, and laws vary from state to state regarding the admissibility of propensity evidence in sex crime trials. In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which authorized the admission of a defendant's prior sexual offense evidence in sexual assault and child molestation cases but only when relevant. The prosecution must tell the defense its intent to offer prior sexual misconduct evidence before trial.
Law enforcement officials have argued that propensity evidence allows them to identify and protect the public from sexual predators, helps establish motives in sex cases and may empower victims who are hesitant to file police reports.
"The purpose of evidence like this is to show the person's modus operandi -- that this is a bad person who has behaved in a certain way with others in the past and that he probably behaved badly in the crime alleged in the prosecution's case in chief," said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.
Some legal experts have argued that propensity evidence may empower jurors to seek revenge for the past and cloud their judgment over whether the defendant is guilty of the charges he faces in the present.
But that didn't happen in Jackson's trial. Some jurors conceded that they were disturbed by the testimony -- some of which came from Jackson's defense witnesses -- about the hundreds of sleepovers he had at Neverland with young friends. Jackson and his supporters always insisted the sleepovers were innocent.
Jurors said they could not convict Jackson because they saw too many inconsistencies in the testimony of his accuser and were disturbed by the antics of his mother, who the defense portrayed as a welfare cheat who was trying to scam Jackson and as a woman who exploited her son's illness to contact celebrities and live lavishly.
"I don't think the mother inflicted good values in her kids and that made me have a hard time believing anybody in the family," said juror Tammy Bolton.
Ultimately, jurors were able to keep an open mind and showed that they could carefully weigh potentially damning testimony.