His child molestation trial behind him, Michael Jackson now faces another daunting task: restoring his tarnished legacy as the "The King of Pop" and resurrecting his career.
A jury acquitted Jackson on Monday of all 10 charges related to allegations that he molested a now-15-year-old 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 hostage the accuser and his family at Neverland after the documentary aired. 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.
Despite his acquittal, some experts say Jackson will always carry the stigma of being an accused child molester, especially since a cloud of suspicion has followed him since 1993 when a 12-year-old boy made similar allegations against him. Jackson was never criminally charged in that case and always has denied wrongdoing, despite settling with the boy's family for reportedly more than $20 million.
Some jurors said they suspected Jackson may have molested children in the past, but not in the current case. Though found not guilty in a court of law, the court of public opinion may not be so convinced.
"What many people forget is that even if a jury finds you not guilty, it doesn't mean you didn't do anything. … And in America, what he needs to understand is that the only thing worse than being a rapist or a murderer is being a [an accused] child molester," said Mike Paul, who is president of the public relations firm MGP & Associates and has taught reputation management at New York University.
Confronting Past Mistakes and the Man in the Mirror
Prosecutors portrayed Jackson as a pedophile with an alleged longtime pattern of showering other boys, and his current accuser, with lavish gifts and attention as part of grooming and seduction process. The jury -- and the public -- learned about the alleged 1993 settlement. They heard allegations that he behaved inappropriately with other boys -- including former child star Macaulay Culkin, who, along with two other alleged Jackson victims, denied the accusations.
But Jackson repeatedly denied ever harming children. Doubts were raised about the credibility of Jackson's current accuser and his family, especially his mother, who was portrayed by the defense as a welfare cheat who exploited her son's illness to contact celebrities and live lavishly off Jackson. Some say that the trial may not have changed anyone's opinion of Jackson -- or the prosecution's case.
"I think people see what they want to see in Michael, and what the trial did was confirm what people want to think about Michael in the first place," said Seth Clark Silberman, a lecturer on African-American studies and lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. "For those who believed Michael was a child molester to begin with, the trial may not have changed their mind. For those who believe what the Jackson camp has been saying -- that there's been this conspiracy and the Santa Barbara County sheriff's department is out to get him, the trial supported their theories, too."
To stage a successful comeback, some say Jackson, with the help of strong-willed advisers, will have to really evaluate himself and the choices he has made. Lead Jackson defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. said before the trial and after the verdict that Jackson would not make himself vulnerable to accusations of child molestation again.
Jackson may also be advised to take a hard look at his lifestyle, says public relations expert Paul.
"It seems to me that he has always had yes men, people who weren't willing to tell him things he didn't want to hear," he said. "I would at least get him to admit that he has made some bad decisions in his life. … He would want to continue to help children, but the problem is that he would want to get personally involved in these kids' lives. I would tell him that at least as a form of self-protection, he cannot have any personal, one-on-one visits -- especially with young boys -- without having someone with him at all times. He wouldn't like it, but he would have to accept that."
When Eccentricities Go 'Wacko'
In addition to the molestation suspicions, there has been an ongoing media fascination with Jackson's appearance, which has changed radically over the years, and other peculiar behavior, such as purchasing the remains of the Elephant Man. When he was a media darling in the 1980s and early 1990s, his behavior was perceived as eccentric, the quirks of a genius. However, when molestation allegations first surfaced in 1993, his peculiar behavior took on more sinister connotations.
"It [Jackson's fame] allowed him the freedom to indulge in some of his strangeness," Todd Gold, author of the Jackson biography "Man in the Mirror." "It made it acceptable."
But Jackson may have brought some unwelcome scrutiny on himself.
In 2002, he generated international headlines when he dangled his infant son Prince Michael II over a balcony while greeting fans in Germany. And in the British documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," he raised eyebrows when he talked about his fondness for having innocent sleepovers with children at Neverland. While holding hands with the boy who is now his accuser in this criminal case, he said, "Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone." That episode sparked the events that ultimately led to his molestation trial.
A Loyal Following With New Fans to Come?
Jackson still has a very loyal following, as illustrated by fans who came from around the world to Santa Maria, Calif., to show their support during the trial and celebrated his acquittal. He has said publicly that he wants to return to the studio and work on his music. There have also been reports that he wants to join his brothers on a Jackson 5 reunion tour.
Since the heydays of his albums "Thriller" and "Bad" -- which sold 59 million and 28 million respectively worldwide -- Jackson's sales have been disappointing. His last studio album, 2001's "Invincible," sold just over 2 million albums in the United States and 8 million worldwide -- a success for most artists but a disappointment for the "King of Pop." Despite hitting the top of the music charts worldwide, Jackson hasn't had a No. 1 single in the United States since 1995's "You Are Not Alone."
Still, others say, don't count Jackson out.
"There's somebody out there, some music industry executive, some label, some producer, who will be willing to take a chance on him," said Craig Watkins, professor of sociology at the University of Texas.
In addition, established music executives and young music producers who grew up listening to Jackson may be willing to work with him and make him more appealing to listeners who are primarily familiar with the Jackson whose odd behavior and legal woes generated more headlines than his music.
"L.A. Reid [chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group] has said he would sign Michael in a minute," said Silberman. "I'm sure if he called artists like Pharrell or Kanye West, he would produce something that would sell well by contemporary standards. People have to remember that people don't buy albums the way they did in the 1980s. If I were Michael, maybe I would work on my memoir of my experiences. People love stories about overcoming something. … Who wouldn't buy that?"
It's Up to the 'King' and His Subjects
Jackson has not commented on his acquittal. Before the verdict, his older brother Jermaine Jackson said he wouldn't be surprised if his sibling became so distrustful of people and embittered that became a recluse after the trial.
Some believe seclusion would not be a proper path for Jackson's comeback.
"Michael needs to become reacquainted with the world again, maybe take L.A. Reid up on his offer," said Silberman. "Maybe he needs to move out of Neverland and move to New York and just be around people again."
The ball is "The King of Pop's" court. It remains to be seen whether Jackson -- and the public -- will be willing to give his career one more chance.