Santa Maria, Calif. Michael Jackson's family will be standing by him today for a courtroom confrontation with the man who wants to put him in prison -- a district attorney who investigated a child-molestation case against Jackson that was abandoned a decade ago when the accuser took an undisclosed settlement.
Although the legal agenda for today's pretrial hearing is significant, emotional overtones may take center stage. The subject of this session is Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon, the man who also tried to bring charges against Jackson in 1993 in a confrontation so bitter that Jackson wrote an angry song that only slightly disguised Sneddon's name.
Today, Tom Mesereau Jr., Jackson's attorney, gets to question Sneddon about his actions in the weeks before the current charges against Jackson were filed. The defense is seeking to show that Sneddon invaded the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege between Jackson and his former attorney.
Jackson has not been required to attend pretrial hearings, but he decided he wanted to be present for this confrontation.
"It's a faceoff between Jackson and Sneddon," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "And emotionally, it's a big moment in the case. This is high drama."
The hearing is also important legally, she said, because prosecutors stand to lose their key evidence if it is found that they obtained it illegally.
"This is the basis of the conspiracy count," she said.
In addition, she said, a finding that the prosecution intentionally interfered with the attorney-client relationship could prompt a motion to dismiss the charge entirely.
Jackson, 45, is charged with committing a lewd act upon a child, administering an intoxicating agent and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail.
Sneddon was subpoenaed by Jackson's attorneys to testify about surveillance he personally conducted at the office of a private investigator who was working for Jackson's former attorney, Mark Geragos.
The investigator, Bradley Miller, was not in his Beverly Hills office when Sneddon went there and photographed the building and its roster of occupants.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff's officials already have testified that they used a sledgehammer to break into Miller's office and seize videotapes and files relating to the Jackson case. They maintain they did not know Miller was employed by Geragos.
The defense says any materials seized from Miller's office should be suppressed and never see the light of day as evidence.
The seized materials are believed to be crucial to the prosecution case -- among them, a videotape of Jackson's 12-year-old accuser and his family praising the singer's character.
Prosecutors claim the tape was made under duress, with Jackson holding the family prisoner at his Neverland ranch. Without the tape, a central theory of the case against Jackson would be severely undermined.