Santa Maria, Calif. Following years of accusations and three swift weeks of jury selection, the trial of Michael Jackson is to begin in full today, with opening statements expected to raise one troubling question: Is one of the world's most recognized pop stars a pedophile?
Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon has built a case hinging on charges that Jackson in 2003 molested a 13-year-old leukemia patient at his secluded Neverland ranch, and that he and his employees held the boy and his family there against their will. Sneddon also is expected to allege that Jackson molested others, including a 13-year-old boy in 1993 whose family was reportedly paid a multimillion-dollar settlement by the singer.
In denying the charges, Jackson's attorneys, led by Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., are likely to paint the eccentric singer as an easy target for greedy parents willing to manipulate their children into making allegations of molestation. They will argue that Jackson's overly generous nature makes him vulnerable to con artists with hard-luck stories.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville, known for maintaining control in the courtroom, has placed a gag order on both sides, banned cameras from the courthouse and chides attorneys who stray from the point. It has been suggested that Melville will get the case to the jury well ahead of the expected five-month timetable.
Jackson, 46, who faces more than 20 years in prison if convicted on all 10 felony counts, was indicted after an investigation that lasted nearly two years and produced 1,900 pages of grand jury transcripts. Leaked excerpts from the transcript have prompted some legal experts to place the prosecution in the lead.
As is customary, prosecutors will make their opening statement first. They are expected to contend that in pursuing a friendship with the young boy, Jackson was "grooming" him for a sexual relationship.
The defense is expected to detail how Jackson has invited thousands of children to Neverland over the years. The attorneys also will present expert testimony explaining the susceptibility of children to suggestion, especially by parents, therapists and investigators.
Mesereau has indicated that he will have to go after the accuser's mother, alleging that she has a history of attempting to shake down celebrities.
In a motion for expert testimony on Jackson's finances, prosecutors describe the star as "a multi-millionaire, albeit with a billionaire's spending habits."
"His motive in this case was to preserve both his fortune and his reputation, the integrity of which was central to his ability to continue to earn a significant income," prosecutors said.