Santa Maria, Calif. In a high-stakes drama of legal gamesmanship, prosecutors and defense lawyers in the Michael Jackson child molestation case are battling over still-secret evidence that might make or break the case against the pop star.
During pretrial hearings that resume Monday, the defense has been trying to suppress evidence from two searches, claiming one sweep at Jackson's Neverland estate was overbroad and unjustified, and that another at a private investigator's office violated attorney-client confidentiality.
But defense lawyers also have shrewdly used the inquiry to uncover information from key witnesses -- including the stepfather of Jackson's accuser, who admitted demanding money for the boy's family to appear on a video tribute to Jackson's kindness.
The testimony had little to do with either search. Yet it appeared to bolster a key defense contention likely to be raised at Jackson's upcoming trial -- that he could have been the target of a shakedown.
Loyola University Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the defense brilliantly manipulated the hearings into "a preview of coming attractions."
"Even if they were to lose the motion to keep out evidence, they have gained a great deal," she said. "They put the prosecution on the defensive, and they've raised the idea of police incompetency and conspiracy which has worked so well in other cases."
Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said he would not rule on the evidence until the end of September, when the mother of Jackson's young accuser testifies.
Ironically, amid all the accusations of misconduct, including a difficult day on the stand for Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon, the public still doesn't know specifically what the two sides are arguing about.
Search warrant affidavits are sealed and witnesses speak only in vague terms about videotapes and other data seized in the separate searches at the private investigator's office and Neverland.
"It's a bit of a question just how important the evidence is," said Levenson. "But given the fight that's going on, it must be important. This is a major battleground."
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. Trial is set for Jan. 31.