SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Part of Michael Jackson's winning legal strategy was convincing jurors that his accuser's family intended to get rich by suing the pop star for a cash bonanza. Whether that happens to Jackson may soon be clear.
When a celebrated criminal case ends without a conviction, it is often not the end of the defendant's legal troubles — O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant and Robert Blake are just a few celebrities who have been hit with civil suits.
Civil suits have their appeal: Victory can result in monetary damages and a sense of vindication, and such cases are easier to win because the burden of proof is lower. In Jackson's case, he already has a history of paying millions of dollars to make child molestation allegations go away.
During Jackson's criminal trial — which ended Monday with the pop star being cleared of molesting a 13-year-old boy — defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. told jurors that the accuser and his mother were "looking for a big payday" at the pop star's expense. The mother testified she did not plan a lawsuit and did not want "the devil's money."
She could still change her mind. The accuser's family has not spoken publicly since the verdict. The lawyer who appears most likely to file any civil suit, Los Angeles attorney Larry Feldman, did not immediately return a call Wednesday.
Feldman represented a boy who received a multimillion-dollar settlement after making molestation accusations against Jackson in 1993. Feldman is also the attorney the accuser's family approached after their close relationship with Jackson ended.
Lower standard of proof required
One key difference in a civil trial that would benefit the family is the lower standard of proof required.
While all 12 jurors in the criminal case would have had to find Jackson guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," in a civil case plaintiffs must simply prove their case "by a preponderance of the evidence." Also, only nine of the 12 must agree.
For those and other reasons, Jackson will have to be well-prepared for another trial, said Carl Douglas, a lawyer who has represented Jackson in past civil matters and a member of the "Dream Team" that won Simpson's murder acquittal.
"He has to send a message to the world: `If you're going to come after Michael Jackson, you have to be ready for a war,'" he said.
Another key difference in civil litigation is that the accuser's family could force Jackson to testify both in depositions and at a trial, said Daniel Petrocelli, the attorney who sued Simpson for the family of slaying victim Ronald Goldman.
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Jackson exercised his right not to testify at his criminal trial. But in a civil case, "if he refused to take the stand, there would be a default entered," and Jackson would he held liable for damages, Petrocelli said.
At the same time, family members would face even more stinging attacks on their credibility than they did during the criminal trial, where Jackson's lawyers worked to bring out the mother's history of welfare fraud and other possible scams.
"The defense was able to portray the mother as greedy, manipulative, grasping," said John Nockleby, director of the civil justice program at Loyola University Law School. "If she is the plaintiff, her credibility is sorely lacking."
The family's motives in pursuing a lawsuit could be critical in the eyes of the jury.
"Money is not a good enough reason," Petrocelli said. "The jury will see right through that. In the O.J. Simpson case, it was about justice, and money was barely mentioned."
If the accuser's mother sues, she will not have trouble finding a lawyer — the publicity alone would attract many eager candidates.
Slideshow: Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 "It's considered to be golden," Douglas said. "They will take a case with a big-time defendant just to get in the papers."
Any lawyer taking on a suit against Jackson would face enormous costs. The lawyer would have to study the entire file of the criminal case, which had over 600 pieces of evidence. Pretrial depositions would probably stretch over months, and a team of investigators would have to be hired. Those costs would have to be borne by the attorney in the hope of receiving court costs if the suit is won.
And the payoff in cases brought against celebrities is not necessarily a sure thing.
A jury held Simpson liable for the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman, and awarded $33.5 million to the families. But little was ever collected.
In Jackson's case, prosecutors presented evidence that his once vast fortune is in peril.
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