Saturday, November 22
Malice in Neverland
Iain S Bruce, Sunday Herald, November 23, 2003

There’s talk of conspiracy and racial motivation, but one thing is clear: the end has finally arrived for Michael Jackson.

Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff got his man in the end, leading a manacled King of Pop into ignominy. A moment captured in a startled mug-shot that sent shockwaves around the world, it marked the conclusion of an investigation begun more than a decade ago, but that ultimately only raises more questions than we can ever expect to be answered.

Pursued, paraded and publicly charged with multiple counts of child molestation, Michael Jackson posted his $3 million bail on Thursday and walked out into an international storm. It created a virtual news blockade that pushed even tragedy in Istanbul from the USA’s front pages, but the multi-million-selling star’s arrest is just the beginning of a high-stakes game of billion-dollar deals, conflicting interests with a cast of protagonists ranging from the shadowy to the bizarre.

You could be forgiven for thinking we’ve slipped into a parallel universe – but this is the 21st century, so it must be real. Yet already, one thing is certain: the assured destruction of the wildly eccentric man-boy at its centre.

“Never mind his career; Michael Jackson’s life is effectively over. It’s America’s biggest celebrity scandal since OJ Simpson’s murder trial and the reaction has been so absolutely devastating that guilty or not, he has no hope of a future. There’s no possibility of his leading anything even approaching a normal existence again,” said MSNBC’s New York columnist Jeannette Walls.

“A train wreck that began 10 years ago is finally ending in a global wave of revulsion and anger that will finish him. He’s become a freak show.”

Holed up with a gaggle of family members on a luxury resort near Las Vegas, even a man famously inured to the rigours of reality can hardly have escaped the conclusion that his fate has been sealed. Although details of the charges facing Jackson are scarce, he has been accused of committing “lewd or lascivious acts” with a child under 14 in a case that is reportedly extremely similar to the failed criminal action taken against him by Santa Barbara’s District Attorney in 1993. Then, a 13-year-old California boy provided graphic testimony detailing encounters at the star’s Neverland ranch and various hotels in which he alleged the singer repeatedly initiated sexual contact between them.

The 1993 investigation’s collapse amid rumours of bought-off witnesses meant that nothing has yet been proved against Jackson, but this second set of accusations will leave few willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. As he enters a January courtroom for the commencement of preliminary hearings, the singer faces the destruction of his fortune and up to 10 years in prison .

The trial will reap rich rewards for some, however. Already celebrated for representing Winona Ryder in her high-profile shoplifting case, Jackson’s chief legal defender Mark Geragos has stepped onto an international stage. Like OJ Simpson trial attorney Johnny Cochran – whose successful defence of the star led to global recognition and enabled him to build a nationwide chain of personal injury specialists – Geragos now stands on the brink of massive success. [...more]

Invigorated by a $450 hourly rate, nearly all lawyers of this calibre juggle multiple cases and Gergaros insists his 10 qualified staff and a barrage of assistants have the capacity to simultaneously manage Jackson’s defence, a double-murder trial and multitudinous ancillary briefs. Last Tuesday he requested that prosecutors release $15,000 and Peterson’s pickup truck to fund his reputed $100,000 bill and, with a windfall looming, he is in no mood to surrender anything.

“Ultimately, it is not much different than what I normally do except for more media,” 45-year-old Geragos told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If you’re a trial lawyer, it doesn’t get much better than this.”

What prize awaits prosecutor Tom Sneddon is less clear. Taking his second crack at Jackson, Santa Barbara County’s district attorney never disguised his disgust after the 1993 trial collapsed when the singer’s accuser – reportedly accepting a multimillion-dollar settlement – refused to testify. Numerous accounts cite apparent delight and a “grandstanding” performance at Tuesday’s press conference, but the veteran prosecuter denies furthering a personal vendetta by timing his swoop to coincide with Jackson’s greatest hits release.

“I’ve been successful, I have a good career and I’m not worried about getting another notch on my belt. When that 1993 case went to bed it went out of my mind. I haven’t given it a passing thought since,” said Sneddon, who Jackson publicly attacked in his 1995 song DS. “We’re going to handle this like any other case, because I got more important things going on in my life than to listen to a song by a guy everybody calls Wacko Jacko.”

However plausible the grudge theory, other compelling factors must have occurred to Sneddon. In no-holds-barred legal hardball, only one winner can emerge from the battle with Geragos and when public prosecutors face regular ballots, and celebrity wields almost universal power, victory’s potential spoils are tantalising. [...more]

At the centre of the feeding frenzy, meanwhile, will be a 45-year-old man whose conduct cannot be predicted. Much has and will continue to be made of Jackson’s troubled childhood and the bizarre life played out behind the walls of a private fantasia complete with its own fairground and zoo. That is of dubious importance here, but it is clear both from his conduct during a previous court appearance – when he giggled from behind his hands – and his unrepentant protestations that there is nothing sinister in sharing his bed with children that the star could yet throw a few more wildcards into the game.

There is some speculation, indeed, as to whether the star is even fit to stand trial: “I don’t know who’s advising him or if he’s surrounded by reliable people, but his previous behaviour in court and the statements he’s made about this issue have been unwise to say the least. There’s no way to make a reliable judgment here, but he’s certainly given the impression of someone with little understanding of the situation’s realities,” said Steven Berglas, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who’s written books about the stress of success.

Sufficiently rational to face a jury or not, there remain a fair proportion who believe the singer should not be under fire at all. Several members of Jackson’s family have rejected the charges as racially motivated and many fans believe he’s the victim of a long-running conspiracy.

“Even the attorney for the father of the 12 year-old-boy at the centre of the controversy has said he does not believe his son has been victimised or abused by Michael,” said Craig Halstead, co-author of Jackson’s biography. “It’s also curious the police moved in to search Neverland on the very day his new album was released. Many fans believe there is an ongoing campaign to sabotage Michael’s reputation and career and the timing of these allegations certainly supports this theory.”

“The media frenzy is all about Michael Jackson, not the subject of predatory paedophiles,” said campaigning US attorney Andrew Vachss. “I just hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that this is meant to be about the assault of a vulnerable 13-year-old boy.”
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