SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Michael Jackson tried for years to portray District Attorney Tom Sneddon as an overzealous prosecutor with a personal grudge, and Sneddon sometimes played into that caricature.
In “D.S.,” an anti-Sneddon song on his 1995 album “HIStory,” Jackson calls the prosecutor a “cold man” who is trying to “shock in every single way.” Sneddon’s gruff demeanor and often baffling sense of humor didn’t help him shake perceptions that he was out to bring down an international pop star who avoided criminal charges from 1993 molestation allegations.
But Sneddon and his supporters say he is driven by a strong desire to help victims, and especially children.
“My past history with Mr. Jackson had absolutely, unequivocally nothing to do with our evaluation of this particular case,” Sneddon said Monday, after the verdict came back. “That’s been a nice little 30-second sound bite the media has used to try and justify this thing. But it never had anything to do with either the sheriff’s investigation or our decision to file.”
Sneddon, who has been a prosecutor for 35 years and has held his elected office for the past 22 years, has helped children through fundraisers, victims’ advocacy programs, and coaching youth sports.
“He’s done more for kids in this community than anybody,” said former Sheriff Jim Thomas, an NBC News analyst and close friend of Sneddon.
‘Mad Dog’ doesn’t have bite
A former boxer at Notre Dame who earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for his tenacious courtroom demeanor, Sneddon grinned and joked with reporters at the November 2003 news conference announcing a warrant for Jackson’s arrest.
Despite his jovial demeanor, he denied any personal vendetta and dismissed a suggestion that he had planned the charges to coincide with the release of a new greatest-hits collection by Jackson.
“Like the sheriff and I are really into that kind of music,” Sneddon said sarcastically.
He also said that when the 1993 case ended, “It went out of my mind. I haven’t given it a passing thought.”
Jackson paid a multimillion-dollar civil settlement to the 1993 accuser, and the boy subsequently refused to cooperate with authorities.
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Too personally involved
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor, said Sneddon’s remarks and behavior leading up to the trial seemed to suggest he was too personally involved in the case. She cited his decision to personally monitor the office of a private investigator working for Jackson’s former attorney, Mark Geragos.
Slideshow: Michael Jackson trial “I don’t think anyone could question his dedication to helping children,” Levenson said. “But in the courtroom you’ll have more credibility as a prosecutor the more objective you are. You don’t want to make it personal.”
Craig Smith, a former prosecutor who worked under Sneddon, said his former boss’s attempts at humor sometimes fall flat, and that he could appear overconfident or flip.
“Tom has a very good sense of humor,” said Smith, a Santa Barbara College of Law professor. “I think sometimes in public settings it doesn’t come off too well.”
One of Sneddon’s worst moments came when he cross-examined actor-comedian Chris Tucker, a defense witness. When Sneddon showed a photograph of the accuser’s family with Tucker, the comedian quipped, “That’s a nice photograph. Can I get it?”
Sneddon snapped back, “That depends on whether you’re a good boy,” a remark that many observers found patronizing given that Sneddon is white and Tucker black.
Smith, who is also black, said he has never detected any racism when he worked for Sneddon, and that Sneddon gave him some of his best assignments.
“I think it was a poor choice of words,” Smith said. “I certainly cringed when I heard that. “I think Chris Tucker took him by surprise. He wanted to come back in a humorous way.”
Out with a whimper
Sneddon, 64, announced before the Jackson case that he would not seek office again. Though his caseload has included murder, rape, arson and bribery cases, the molestation trial will go down as his most high-profile.
Jackson fans claimed Sneddon was only pursuing the pop star for glory, but he allowed his deputies to shine at key moments in the trial.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen handled closing arguments and took the lead during questioning the accuser’s mother, the most erratic and difficult witness in the case. As the mother testified — often refusing to answer questions directly — Sneddon sat at the prosecution table with his head in his hand.
He was more enthusiastic when he presented evidence of dozens of adult magazines found in Jackson’s home. As he presented each new bag of evidence, he strutted back to the prosecution table with his head held high.
Body language was a focus for court-watchers because a gag order prevented participants in the case, including Sneddon, from talking with reporters.
After his defeat, Sneddon quickly faced the cameras to proclaim, “We all did our job, did it conscientiously.”
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