Ah, the good old days of the O.J. Simpson trial. Seems like only yesterday. Why did the prosecutors make him try on that glove? What was with all the clocks on Judge Ito’s desk? Did Robert Kardashian’s hair serve as the inspiration for Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”? What is Faye Resnick doing now that the trial is long over? For that matter, what did she do before?
That wasn’t just the Trial of the Century. It was the Celebrity Trial of the Century, which meant a lot more tipsters on the tabloid payrolls, more talking heads on TV than you can shake a gavel at, and book deals up the wazoo.
I thought nothing could top it.
The trial of Michael Jackson — the new and undisputed Celebrity Trial of the Century — begins with jury selection on Monday in Santa Maria, Calif. Brace yourself. This could make the Simpson affair seem like a dispute over a parking ticket in night court. That isn’t because one crime is more heinous than another — the brutal murder of two people qualifies as the most serious of judicial business — but rather the level of celebrity involved.
Who was O.J. Simpson, anyway? He was a great football player. But as an actor, he was firmly embedded on Hollywood’s C-minus list, the “Naked Gun” movies and a few Hertz commercials serving as his high-water marks. His trial attracted attention because he seemingly had it all and yet threw it away in the most senseless and dastardly way possible.
With Michael, expect to see the same sort of plummet from grace, only from a higher high to a lower low. He is one of the most famous entertainers in the world. At one time, he actually had talent. He’s big. No, he’s bigger than big.
A staggering fall from grace
He is accused of child molestation, and there aren’t many offenses in any society more despicable than that. True, a double murder is horrible, but somewhat understandable when you consider the volatile cocktail of rage, ego and jealousy. Michael’s alleged transgressions involve robbing innocence from children, a premeditated act by a man who apparently — if the charges are indeed true — tried to use his wealth and influence to get away with it.
Michael Jackson on trial as a child molester? If the supermarket tabloids had a wish list, that would be at the very top, ahead of a Brad and Angelina hot tub party, ahead of a Britney Spears ultrasound, ahead even of a Paris Hilton fling with the New York Jets.
With this trial, the American public will hear more than it ever wanted to hear about Michael’s highly unique relationship with kids. There will be talk about Michael inviting them into his bed, which Michael doesn’t seem to have a problem with, but which most people feel is an inappropriate way to mentor the young. Topics such as pornography and liquor in the presence of children will be presented by the prosecution and derided by the defense. Testimony by witnesses young and old will delve into creepy behavior. Whether it is true or not is yet to be determined. But it’s impact on the national psyche will be clear.
The world will experience a paradox the likes of which it has never seen before: People have a ravenous appetite for celebrity doings, but this may make them throw up.
The participants figure to establish their own celebrity. Representing Jackson will be Thomas Mesereau Jr., by all accounts a respected criminal attorney who doesn’t crave the spotlight like many of his ilk. Still, despite his best efforts to lay low, he will intrude on every living room, giving his spin on the day’s events and becoming the Johnnie Cochran of the moment. He may even inspire a sitcom character, like Jackie Chiles on “Seinfeld.”
A man on a mission
In the other corner will be district attorney Tom Sneddon, a pugnacious sort who seems to be taking great delight in taking the air out of the King of Pop. Sneddon has been after Jackson for quite some time, following a trail of toys and underwear in much the same way that Lieutenant Gerard hunted Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive.” Only in that one, we all believed Kimble was innocent. Sneddon is convinced that where there was smoke, there was a gloved hand where it shouldn’t have been.
Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville will also step into the spotlight. The usual progression for judges who become celebrity judges overnight begins with accolades about his exemplary record and his no-nonsense approach to proceedings. By the time the trial is a week or two old, the judge will be as respected and revered as Barney the dinosaur. He will make at least a half-dozen rulings that will be laughed at as amateurish by pundits. It will often seem as if he’s the one on trial.
And let’s not forget the cavalcade of Michael Jackson supporters who will march through the courtroom or outside of it, proclaiming his innocence in the most preposterous manner. His sister La Toya will show up on camera a lot, and a graphic will identify her as “La Toya” so audiences can differentiate between she and the defendant. Michael’s brothers will appear everywhere, and, if their brother is indeed convicted and sent to prison, will unite on an a capella version of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
Most of all, there will be the crazy fans and the even wackier media. They’ll share space outside the courthouse. The fans will complain that the media has tried and convicted their hero. The media will interview them saying that. They’ll feed off each other.
On Monday, jury selection begins. If any of the jurors have been saving a sure-fire excuse to get out of jury duty, this would be a great time to use it.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.