Michael Jackson Case: The Openings

The Smoking Gun reports live from opening statements in the Jackson trial. Updates here every 10 minutes--whether you want them or not!

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Michael Jackson Case: The Openings

FEBRUARY 28--TSG staffers will be filing rapid-fire dispatches from the Santa Maria courthouse, so check back regularly for the most up-to-date accounts of arguments delivered by Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon and Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau.

9:12 AM PST: "On February 3, 2003, the defendant, Michael Jackson's, world was rocked. Not in the musical sense but in the real world sense," District Attorney Tom Sneddon told Santa Barbara jurors this morning. On that date, Sneddon explained, Martin Bashir's documentary "Living with Michael Jackson" aired in England, immediately creating a firestorm over the pop singer's admission that he shared his bed with boys to whom he was unrelated. Jackson's world was so rocked, Sneddon reported, that an associate, Marc Schaffel, described the fallout from the Bashir production as a "train wreck."

At this point, Sneddon noted that some might be surprised that the defendant was "heavily in debt." An objection from Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau was sustained by Judge Rodney Melville, despite Sneddon's contention that the motive for the alleged conspiracy revolved around Jackson's possible financial peril.

9:28 AM PST: The case against Jackson, Sneddon said, is "about the manipulation of a young boy," a 13-year-old cancer survivor whom Jackson exposed to pornography and exploited, in part, because the child was estranged from his father. Sneddon noted that Jackson was a man who "had a habit of sharing his bed and his bedroom" with young boys and had the teenage accuser refer to him as "Daddy."

In the wake of the Bashir broadcast, Sneddon told jurors, the accuser and his family were viewed as a "loose end" that needed to be contained and isolated by the Jackson camp, which was, in early-February 2003, planning a "rebuttal" video to "Living with Michael Jackson." In a bid to secure an interview with the family for the rebuttal program, Jackson and his aides used "logic, reason, and appeals to trust," but when those approaches failed, they "got their interview through extortion."

9:45 AM PST: After his opening remarks, Sneddon fell into a familiar recitation of the case against Jackson, which he said began in 2000 when the accuser, then 10, was living in a studio apartment in Los Angeles. It was then that the child was diagnosed with cancer and underwent operations to remove a 16-pound tumor, lesions from his lung, and a kidney. While doctors told his family to prepare for a funeral, Sneddon noted, the child is a "fighter" who survived cancer. Now 15, he is a high school freshman, who plays on his school's football team and participates in a Navy-sponsored youth program.

The youth's cancer diagnosis, Sneddon reported, led to his introduction to Jamie Masada, owner of L.A.'s Laugh Factory. As a "last wish," Masada arranged for the boy to speak with comedians Chris Tucker and Adam Sandler. And with Jackson, who invited the child and his family to his Neverland Ranch. The boy's first visit to the 2800-acre estate came while he was in recovery (Jackson dispatched a limousine to the family's home for the three-hour trip to Neverland).

During that first stay, Sneddon said, Jackson pulled the boy aside at one point and asked him to ask his parents if he could stay with the performer, then 43, in his bedroom. The parents agreed and the child and his younger brother bunked that night with Jackson, (the boys slept on Jackson's bed while the performer slept on the floor). It was during the brothers's first Neverland stay that Jackson and aide Frank Cascio showed the boys pornographic web sites on a laptop computer in Jackson's bedroom. As they looked at photos of topless women, Jackson remarked "Got Milk?" at one point, Sneddon said. The singer even directed a lurid comment at his three-year-old son, who was on the bed, apparently sleeping. "Prince," he said to the boy, "you're missing a lot of pussy."

From that point, Sneddon noted, the accuser "became one of those boys that shared Michael Jackson's bed." The prosecutor added that "the private world of Michael Jackson is quite different from what is seen on video." When the star entertained children at his home, the minors visited porn sites with Jackson and viewed sexually explicit magazines like "Barely Legal" and "others with far more offensive titles," said Sneddon.

9:55 AM PST: Segueing into a section of his opening dealing with alcohol, Sneddon painted a dark picture of what boys encountered at Jackson's home: "Instead of cookies and milk you can substitute wine, vodka, and bourbon." While the entertainer claims not to drink, Sneddon said, witnesses will dispute that contention. In fact, he added, Jackson encouraged children to imbibe, and personally served them alcohol at times.

To support these alcohol claims, Sneddon said prosecutors will present testimony from flight attendants who served Jackson alcohol concealed in Diet Coke cans. Jurors will also hear from ex-bodyguard Christopher Carter, who will testify that he once saw the accuser drunk at Neverland, and former house manager Jesus Salas, who told investigators that he once brought booze to Jackson and several young children. A peek into Jackson's world, Sneddon said, reveals that it is not a Peter Pan existence, but rather one filled with sexually explicit magazines and frequent talk with boys about masturbation, which the singer emphasizes is natural.

10:02 AM PST: Moving into a description of Jackson's estate, Sneddon described it as a place that has been "used for beautiful causes." And, "some things very bad." Sneddon told jurors that they would get a good sense of Neverland through videos shot at the sprawling property. He described the estate as a children's wonderland, with its amusement park, zoo, and go-cart track. He also told of a secret wine cellar--the entrance to which is hidden behind a jukebox in the arcade building--where Jackson's "special friends" were poured alcohol by the entertainer himself.

Sneddon's tour of the property stopped into Jackson's office and bedroom, where, he said, investigators found pornographic magazines and DVDs during the execution of a November 18, 2003 search warrant. Fifteen sexually explicit magazines were found "laying by the tub" in Jackson's private bathroom. A briefcase also contained porno mags. And raiders, Sneddon noted, also found porn in a nightstand, which also contained cards and letters from the accuser and his family (some missives were addressed to "Daddy Michael").

10:22 AM PST: Testimony from two former Jackson employees--Salas and maid Blanca Francia--will show that Jackson, Sneddon told jurors, was "pathological" about not allowing anyone in his Neverland bedroom without his permission. Because, he said, "it is in this room that the defendant...opened his Samsonite briefcase and showed the boy sexually explicit material. It is in this room that the defendant simulated sexual intercourse with a mannequin. It is in this room that the defendant, while the boys watched a movie, walked in naked." And, Sneddon said, "It is in this room and on that bed that [the accuser] was molested. And it is in this room and on that bed that [the accuser's brother] saw his brother molested on two occasions."

Returning to the pornographic magazines seized by investigators Steve Robel and Paul Zelis, Sneddon told jurors that latent fingerprints from both boys were lifted from the titles, one of which also carried Jackson's fingerprints. Jackson used the magazines, Sneddon told jurors, to "stimulate" the accuser's "emerging sexuality."

10:40 AM PST: Turning to the alleged victim's brother, who is seen on the Bashir video as a chubby-faced 12-year-old, Sneddon said that jurors will hear testimony from a 250-pound 14-year-old who plays center on his school's football team. The child will testify that, on two occasions, he saw his brother being molested by Jackson while the child lay unconscious on the singer's bed. The child was "frozen by what he saw" from the staircase leading to Jackson's bedroom, and did not mention the incidents until months later when he was interviewed by psychologist Stanley Katz. The boy will testify that he saw empty wine bottles on Jackson's nightstand during the alleged molestations, said Sneddon.

Referring to the accuser's mother, Sneddon said that the woman hired a lawyer in the wake of the Bashir broadcast not because she was upset with Jackson, but because Bashir had not obtained releases to include her children in his documentary. Sneddon said that the woman has never considered filing a lawsuit against the performer. As for the accuser himself, Sneddon noted that the child will describe with "vivid particularity" how Jackson sexually assaulted him.

10:55 AM PST: Moving into a further description of Jackson's alleged coconspirators--Schaffel; Cascio; Ronald Konitzer; Dieter Wiesner; and Vincent Amen--Sneddon referred to the 28 separate overt acts that comprise the felony conspiracy charge leveled against Jackson (each of the coconspirators is mentioned in multiple overt acts). The "central focus" of the alleged plot, said Sneddon, was to isolate the family and get them to agree to appear in the Jackson camp's rebuttal video, which was to be broadcast on Fox.

Hired days after the February 6, 2003 U.S. broadcast of Martin Bashir's "Living with Michael Jackson" documentary, Ann Gabriel briefly handled crisis management and public relations chores for the entertainer. She was hired by David LeGrand, a Las Vegas attorney who began representing Jackson in January 2003.

11:15 AM PST: One of the first witnesses jurors will hear from, Sneddon said, was Ann Gabriel, who was hired by a Jackson lawyer to handle crisis management chores in the wake of the Bashir broadcast. Gabriel will testify about the Jackson organization's strategy to contain fallout from the program and how the singer himself was intimately involved in decision making.

Jackson's agreement to do interviews with Bashir was based on his belief that the resulting documentary would help jumpstart his stalled career, Sneddon said. And that is what led the singer to contact the accuser after having had nothing to do with the boy for about a year. Jackson told the child to go before Bashir's camera and tell the journalist of the star's crucial role in helping him recover from cancer. But, Sneddon noted, that plan backfired when viewers saw the finished Bashir product, with its scenes of the child holding Jackson's hand and resting his head on the performer's shoulder.

Even before the Bashir program aired in England, Sneddon said, Jackson aides were panicked. Because, he told jurors, Schaffel--though his media contacts--had obtained a transcript of the program. They realized, Sneddon said, the documentary "was clearly a boomerang on a comeback attempt."

11:28 AM PST: Speaking to jurors from a podium, Sneddon said that when the documentary aired in England on February 3, 2003, 17 million viewers tuned in. The program, he said, held the possibility of being a "landslide that would destroy everything in its path, including Michael Jackson." And the performer will not be able to argue that Bashir somehow tricked him into making damaging statements, Sneddon said, since Jackson subsequently made similar statements about sharing his bed with boys to Ed Bradley on CBS's "60 Minutes."

Sneddon said that Gabriel, when asked to rate the trouble faced by Jackson on a scale of 1 to 10, placed it at 25. He quoted Jackson videographer Christian Robinson as describing the post-Bashir period as a "nightmare." For the accuser, Sneddon said, the feedback was particularly brutal, with classmates calling him a "faggot" and directing "rude, crude sexual remarks" at him. [The child testified in the grand jury that fellow students taunted him by saying he was "booty busted" by Jackson.]

11:41 AM PST: Placing Jackson at the center of the alleged conspiracy to falsely imprison the accuser and his family at Neverland, Sneddon said that, the day after the Bashir documentay aired in England, Jackson placed a 27-minute call to the accuser and his family, which "reasserts himself into" the family's life. Clearly referring to toll records, Sneddon said that Jackson reached the California family at 6:58 PM Pacific time. He also mentioned that a note seized from the home of Jackson's assistant, Evelyn Tavasci, showed that Jackson was seeking to contact the accuser's family at this time.

[Since Sneddon finished at about 12:30 PM--and the TSG scriveners are still trying to catch up on his opening statement, we're now going to pick up with Mesereau's opening argument]

12:36 PM PST: After noting that it was an honor to represent Jackson, Thomas Mesereau told jurors, "I'm here to tell you these charges are fictitious and bogus." He than bellowed, "These charges are fake, silly, ridiculous." After Melville sustained an objection from Sneddon, Mesereau described what he said were attempts by the accuser's mother to weasel money from several celebrities while her son was ill. The woman, Mesereau said, tried to score cash from Jay Leno, comedian George Lopez, and an actress who appeared on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

These gambits were scams, Mesereau said. In one instance, the mother received $20,000 from one comedian, claiming that the funds would be used for her son's care. Instead, Mesereau said, the money was used to buy TVs, CDs, and home entertainment equipment. The mother also approached celebrities like Mike Tyson, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler. But, he noted, "The best known celebrity became their mark, Michael Jackson."

After claiming that his client has been the subject of much inaccurate reporting, Mesereau launched into a brief biographical sketch of Jackson and his creation of Neverland Ranch, a place where Jackson can enjoy the childhood spoils he never had while a young man.

12:49 PM PST: Countering Sneddon's assertion that Jackson's estate was a den of iniquity, Mesereau told jurors, "We will prove that Neverland is not a haven for criminal acts, a lure for molestation, a magnet for crime." The singer's intentions toward the teenage accuser were honorable, Mesereau said, noting that Jackson took time from his career to help the child, unaware that "a trap was set" for him by the boy's family. In describing the kind of help Jackson provided when the child was ill, Mesereau said the performer counseled the boy to visualize that he was playing Pac-Man and that cancer cells were being gobbled up.

In a broadside on the accuser's mother, Mesereau described the woman as a shakedown artist who used her sick son as bait, a woman who coached her kids to lie in connection with an assault lawsuit the family once brought against J.C. Penney. Mesereau referred to a newly surfaced witness--who worked as a paralegal for the lawyer representing the family in the Penney case--who claims that the mother fabricated her allegations in that civil case. The paralegal contends that she hesitated to come forward because the mother once told her she had relatives in the Mexican Mafia.

Along with the alleged J.C. Penney scheme, the woman illegally obtained welfare benefits, Mesereau said, adding that she never bothered to mention her six-figure settlement from the department store when applying for those benefits. In other instances, Mesereau said, the woman "undertook a program to use her son to raise money." That bid, Mesereau told jurors, involved the family targeting Jay Leno, who spoke with the accuser on the telephone at one point. Mesereau said that Leno rebuffed the financial pitch and later told Santa Barbara police that the family was looking for a "mark."

1:08 PM PST: Another celebrity mentioned by Mesereau was comedian George Lopez, who the family apparently met via Jamie Masada, the Laugh Factory owner. Without providing any details, Mesereau told jurors that the accuser's family once claimed that Lopez swiped $300 out of one of their wallets.

Reeling off one financial scam after the other, Mesereau remarked, "It goes on and on."

Addressing the mother's claim that she and her children were held against her will at Neverland, Mesereau told jurors that the guest unit in which she was held allegedly captive was the suite that Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor requested when they individually stayed at Jackson's estate. He also mentioned that during this same period the Jackson camp paid more than $3300 for the woman's beauty treatments (cosmetics, aromatherapy, leg waxing) and other costs.

Mesereau told jurors that after the Bashir documentary aired, the mother was expecting a payday in return for her children's participation in the Jackson rebuttal video. However, when an opportunity to cash in never materialized, Mesereau said, the molestation accusations emerged. And the family "went to a lawyer, and then another lawyer," added Jackson's lawyer.

With Bashir expected to be called tomorrow as the first prosecution witness, Mesereau spent much time ripping the British journalist, whom the attorney claimed set Jackson up in a bid to "humiliate, degrade, and deceive" the entertainer.

2:26 PM PST: At this point, Mesereau stopped his opening argument, which he will resume tomorrow at 8:30 AM.