There were a dozen of us at dinner, two round tables pushed together and several conversations going on at once. In the middle of the first week of jury selection in Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial I heard someone repeat the rhetorical question that cut through the din and that, for me, came closest to explaining why we were all in Santa Maria, California, perhaps for the next five months, along with more than 1,000 other media people from around the globe.
“Was there ever,” said NBC Senior Producer Adam Gorfain, “a more famous international celebrity brought to trial on a serious felony charge?”
Some around the tables started tossing out names: O.J., Fatty Arbuckle, Roman Polanski — and when each was knocked down as not being on Jackson’s level of achievement and earned worldwide stature, or as having faced charges not quite as serious as molesting a 13-year old cancer patient, the question seemed settled for the moment and our smaller conversations resumed.
Our waitress, a funny and straight-talking local woman who’d become our regular server at a favorite local steakhouse, couldn’t help overhearing our talk and offered that she’d received a jury summons but hadn’t been called to court. “Anyway, I think he’s guilty,” she said.
Heavy responsibility of jurors
Judge Rodney Melville welcomed each of three pools of 150 prospective jurors to “Department 8 of the Superior Court” last week. In his quiet businesslike manner he reminded all in the room that jury service is “a duty, not an option…part of the cost of freedom,” and said the role of those ultimately selected for the Jackson trial panel of twelve jurors and eight alternates would be to “impartially judge and decide major legal controversies.”
Melville decided after only three of the six scheduled sessions that the more than half who said they’d serve comprised a big enough pool to pick the panel. “We have enough,” he said unexpectedly after Tuesday’s morning session, and that was that.
But the scores of Santa Barbara County residents who requested and received hardship deferrals provided a window into the likely profile of the “peers” who will decide redemption or ruin for “the most famous international celebrity ever brought to trial on a serious felony charge.” They were long-haul truckers and tow truck operators, salesmen and soldiers, pregnant women and teachers and students, disabled men and cafeteria workers. Many were sole providers, or had sick spouses, children or parents; or they said their employers wouldn’t continue their salaries through a long trial, threatening the loss of their homes or health insurance.
“Your employer won’t pay?” Melville pressed one young man. “He’s an attorney,” the man answered, “no sir!”
Another woman, eight months pregnant, said she was willing to serve but planned to breast feed her infant. “You’re excused,” Melville said. “The first one!”
To another man who said he too was a sole provider, Melville asked, “You have no other source of income?” “Just my wife,” the man said, to laughter. “I’ll tell her you said that,” the judge deadpanned. More laughter.
Serious criminal trial
But there won’t be much laughter once the trial itself begins. The prosecutor, Tom Sneddon, has believed since an earlier unproved uncharged allegation against Jackson that the pop star is a pedophile, and that this time he’s got an accuser willing to testify in the case that he says will prove it. Jackson has said to each allegation against him that he is totally innocent, that the current case is “a big lie,” and his attorneys and supporters have painted the accuser and his family as gold diggers out for the biggest score of all. As NBC News was the first to report in detail, the accuser and his family have told totally different and contradictory stories not just in the current case but in a prior lawsuit as well as in the rancorous divorce between the accuser’s parents.
There’s no middle ground in this case, no possible settlement that could provide the two sides with a tolerable place to land. Because the trial won’t be televised, the key players — the prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, and the alternately stern and serious judge himself — won’t become soap opera characters pinned indelibly to moments of courtroom drama.
There will be no “…if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” moments, no “dancing Ito’s” parodies.
It will just be a criminal trial about one of the more than 300 child sex abuse cases actively under investigation at any given time in a county in Central California. There will be evidence and experts and witnesses — and rulings throughout to keep all those elements hued to strict interpretations of the law.
Picking a panel who can 'impartially judge'
And, at the end, there will be a jury, now in the process of being selected. The next step, voir dire, is delayed for one week because of an illness in the family of defense attorney Tom Mesereau, Jr. Once the process resumes, those who survived the first cut will be questioned in court by prosecutors and defense attorneys.If too many prospects are revealed to have a pre-disposition or an agenda — some are already talking about the books they plan to write — Judge Melville might have to call more of those summonsed to his courtroom.But our waitress at that favorite steakhouse of ours probably shouldn’t hold her breath: She’s already showed her hand, she’s convinced Jackson’s guilty and the system says that means she’ll have no role in the trial of “the most famous international celebrity ever charged” with so serious a felony.