SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Michael Jackson was found not guilty Monday on all counts in his trial on child molestation charges, ending a two-year legal saga for one of the world's most well-known pop stars.
The courtroom sat silently as Judge Rodney Melville opened jury envelopes and silently read the verdict forms before allowing the court clerk to read the verdict out loud. Lead defense attorney Tom Mesereau Jr., who scored a dazzling legal victory in the case , patted Jackson on the shoulder after the verdict was read. Two jurors dabbed their eyes with tissues.
Jackson showed no visible reaction in court. He then slowly, silently walked out of court surrounded by family and his bodyguards, looking slightly stunned. The singer briefly waved to fans.
His fans, kept behind barriers at a distance from the courthouse, shouted and wept with joy over Jackson's acquittal, celebrating a complete victory for the singer's defense team, though one that may not repair his tarnished and ever more bizarre public image .
“Justice is done. The man's innocent. He always was,” Mesereau later said in a statement on Jackson's official Web site.
Tito Jackson told MSNBC by phone that Michael was resting in the hours after the verdict, and the family was “just trying to absorb everything.”
In the same interview, Michael's brother Jermaine Jackson thanked his brother's longtime fans for their support throughout the trial and said the family was heartened by the results. “Being a family and staying together we can overcome anything,” Jermaine Jackson said.
Michael Jackson, 46, was indicted on 10 counts for allegedly molesting a then-13-year-old cancer patient, serving him wine and then conspiring to hold him and his family captive. The charges included four allegations of molestation, one of attempted molestation, four of serving alcohol to a minor and one for conspiracy.
He could have faced nearly 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges. Instead, he got into his black SUV with his family and aides, and quickly departed the courthouse complex, arriving back at Neverland shortly after 6 p.m. ET to another throng of cheering fans.
Defeat for D.A.
Jackson's acquittal was an astounding defeat for District Attorney Thomas Sneddon , who long pursued charges against the singer. Not only did the jury acquit Jackson on all 10 charges but also found him not guilty on a series of lesser charges, such as serving alcohol to a minor.
“I think we all just looked at the evidence and pretty much agreed,” said juror No. 5, a 79-year-old widow, at a news conference after the verdict.
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Asked at a separate news conference why he went forward with a case based around an accuser that had serious credibility issues, Sneddon said he always felt confident about his case.
“We don't select our victims and we don't select the families they come from,” he said.
When asked whether his office would stop pursuing charges against Jackson, the district attorney replied, “No comment.” But he insisted that his prior efforts to indict Jackson in 1993 had “absolutely, unequivocally nothing to do with our evaluation of this case.”
Jurors sat through 14 weeks of testimony, then deliberated for seven days before reaching their decision. The jury of eight women and four men ranged in age from 21 to 79; eight were parents and six acknowledged they were fans of Jackson's music.
Two were Hispanic, one was Asian and the rest were white. Jackson supporters had protested that no black jurors were chosen for the trial.
As the trial unfolded, dozens of witnesses described the intricate and often unsettling details of life at Jackson's Neverland ranch.
Prosecutors argued that the singer molested the boy, now 15, in late February or early March 2003, shortly after the airing of a documentary, "Living with Michael Jackson." On that program, viewed worldwide by an audience of millions, the accuser held hands with Jackson, and the singer confessed that he allowed young boys to sleep in his bed — but insisted it was an innocent, loving act.
Jackson's handlers viewed the documentary as a P.R. nightmare, according to testimony, and worked to prepare a so-called "rebuttal" video to counter the details revealed in the British-produced film, which was seen by many at the time as a confirmation of longtime suspicions about Jackson's relationships with children.
Mother on the stand
Prosecutors alleged that Jackson and his associates conspired to hold the accuser and his family in their custody so they could help stem the flood of negative publicity.
Testimony revealed that the accuser and his family stayed at Neverland in the weeks following the documentary, and taped an interview offering warm praise for the singer — an interview the mother claimed was scripted.
They also stayed with Jackson during a trip to Miami and accompanied the pop star on his private jet back to California, a trip during which the accuser's mother claimed she saw Jackson licking her son's head.
The mother spent several days on the stand, offering testimony that was always dramatic, sometimes bizarre and occasionally incoherent. She described her last stay at Neverland as tense and scary, but never quite explained why she didn't called police or other authorities.
At first, she said, Jackson's aides tenderly offered to help her family from the barrage of media interest. Jurors heard a tape of associate Frank Tyson, whom prosecutors called an unindicted co-conspirator, telling her, “Let us take care of you. Let us protect you.” But she insisted that Jackson's associates, whom she called “killers” on the stand, eventually turned on her: holding her a virtual captive for weeks and plotting to take her family on a one-way trip to Brazil.
Yet testimony detailed that she could leave Neverland to shop and run errands.
The mother faced her own legal scrutiny during the trial, and Mesereau frequently underscored her credibility problems with jurors. She was forced to acknowledge she lied under oath in a 2001 lawsuit against JC Penney, and she took the Fifth over allegations that she committed welfare fraud. A welfare worker testified she had.
Other witnesses, including her former sister-in-law, portrayed the accuser's family as vindictive and money-hungry, the mother as a grifter who pleaded for help — often invoking her family's misfortunes — and always asked for more.
TV host Jay Leno told jurors how he grew suspicious when the accuser called him repeatedly, saying Leno was his hero.
Celebrities on the stand
Leno was just one of a handful of big-name entertainers who made their way to the Santa Maria courthouse, though most celebrities named on a star-studded witness list — everyone from Quincy Jones to Elizabeth Taylor — were never called as a confident defense surprised observers with a streamlined case that shaved the trial's length by a month or more.
Comedians Chris Tucker and George Lopez took the stand to describe their interactions with the accuser. Talk show host Larry King appeared in court, but Melville ruled his testimony irrelevant. Most notably, actor Macaulay Culkin — a longtime Jackson friend — took the stand to firmly deny that Jackson had ever molested him.
Other young men who had long been considered possible victims of Jackson also appeared. The now-grown son of Jackson's former maid described for jurors how Jackson turned a 1990 tickling episode into a fondling incident. The mother of a boy who received millions from Jackson in a settlement over 1993 molestation claims that nearly derailed his career said Jackson had begged to sleep with her son: “He said, ‘You don’t trust me. We’re a family. Why won’t you allow him to be in my bedroom?’”
Yet dancer Wade Robson, another longtime Jackson pal who faced molestation rumors, flatly denied any inappropriate touching by the pop star.
At times, testimony in the Santa Maria courtroom was lurid and unsettling. Investigators described finding smut in Jackson's bedroom, magazines like Hustler Barely Legal, with both the singer's and accuser's fingerprints.
The accuser's brother described sexually charged Web-browsing sessions during which Jackson allegedly showed the boys images of nude women while cracking jokes. In one jaw-dropping moment, the boy recalled Jackson pointing to an image of a woman’s breasts and quipping, “Got milk?”
A former Jackson security guard claimed he had seen the singer fondle and perform oral sex on another boy who later received a multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson. Another former employee claimed he saw Jackson put his hands down Culkin's pants.
Some of the most gripping testimony came from the accuser himself, who described how a man he once considered his “best friend ever” allegedly molested him twice.
Yet Mesereau and his team carefully poked holes in the credibility of the accuser and many other witnesses — noting, for example, that several former employees who testified lost a lawsuit against Jackson and were ordered to pay the singer $1.4 million.
Holes in the case
The veteran defense lawyer even got the accuser to contradict himself in front of jurors, and caught the accuser's brother in a lie involving an adult magazine that he claimed the singer showed him. Time and again, the defense team found effective weak spots in Sneddon's witnesses and presented their own witnesses to cast doubt on key details.
Prosecutors were also stung when one of their most high-profile witnesses, Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe, described the singer as a "great father" and attacked his aides. Called by prosecutors to describe a taped interview about Jackson as "scripted," she shocked the courtroom by saying just the opposite.
Her testimony backed up frequent suspicions that Jackson's interest in her was hardly romantic — “We never shared a home," she said — but did nothing to help the prosecution and left many with the impression that Sneddon's case had serious flaws.
Santa Barbara County authorities first raided Neverland in November 2003. Jackson was booked two days later, and indicted in April 2004.
But Sneddon first tried to prosecute Jackson 10 years earlier over the 1993 allegations. The accuser in that case backed out and charges were never filed, but the singer's associates claimed the district attorney had a vendetta against Jackson.
In a 1995 song, "D.S.," the pop legend even presumptively referenced Sneddon, calling him a "cold man."
MSNBC.com's Jon Bonné and The Associated Press contributed to this report.