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Jackson case could turn on jury selection

Singer's fame creates possibility for opportunistic jurors looking to grab a part of the defendant's glory.
/ Source: Reuters

There’s an adage around most courthouses that a trial is often won or lost in jury selection — and that may never be more true than in Michael Jackson’s child molestation case, legal experts say.

“It’s the whole ball of wax. It’s going to decide if he wins or loses,” Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles, said of the 46-year-old pop star.

That’s partly due to Jackson’s fame, which creates the potential for “stealth” jurors — people who want to get on the case with an agenda to either convict or acquit the self-styled “King of Pop” or win some notoriety for themselves.

And it’s partly because, with little physical evidence and two wildly opposing accounts of the case — one of them hanging on the testimony of a 15-year-old boy — the verdict may ultimately depend on who the jury is more inclined to believe.

Questioning of potential jurors had been scheduled to start on Monday in the central California coastal town of Santa Maria but it was delayed over the weekend for several days because the sister of Jackson’s lead attorney had become gravely ill.

Prosecutors say Jackson sexually abused the boy, then 13, at his Neverland Valley Ranch near Santa Maria, then conspired to commit extortion, false imprisonment and child abduction. Defense lawyers say the boy lied to police to help his mother extract money from the self-styled “King of Pop.”

Legal experts say prosecutors will look for jurors who are older, more conservative, less enamored with celebrity, willing to accept authority and appalled by child molestation. Jurors with their own children would be a natural choice.

The prosecution should avoid anyone who is a devoted fan of Jackson, as well as jurors who might want to overly analyze the case or second-guess authorities.  “You want someone who is going to say, ‘Yeah, I think he did it. Bang!”’ Goldman said.

Jackson’s attorneys may look for jurors who have advanced degrees, critical thinkers who question authority. The perfect defense juror may be “a left-winger who just moved from San Francisco with a lot of education and who is willing to forgive Michael Jackson his idiosyncrasies,” Goldman said.

Specter of Simpson trial
Both sides face the problem of Jackson’s international fame and the saturation news coverage of his trial. In fact, the six-month trial of a defendant as famous and controversial as Jackson on lurid sex abuse charges in relatively small, conservative Santa Maria may be the perfect storm for complicating jury selection.

Sensational trials, especially those involving a celebrity, breed special problems for attorneys trying to pick a jury because they attract would-be jurors with hidden motivations.

Court watchers point to the “Trial of the Century,” in which former football great O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend despite what prosecutors called a “mountain of evidence” against him.

Despite nearly around-the-clock news coverage in the weeks leading up to the trial, prosecutors were exasperated when many prospective jurors claimed to be only vaguely aware of Simpson or the sensational crime. When the case was over, several jurors wrote books about their experiences.

“That’s what you get with celebrity juries,” said Harland Braun, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented actor Robert Blake among other well-known defendants. “There are people who think the most important thing in their entire life will be as a juror on one of these cases. There’s fame, there’s importance, there’s the possibility of money involved. They have agendas.”

Braun added: “The normal reason we have jurors is that it’s supposed to be 12 people from the community just trying to do the right thing. That gets distorted in a celebrity trial.”

Some legal experts saw red flags when more than half of those summoned to the Jackson trial by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said they were willing and able to serve, a remarkably high number for a child molestation case that was expected to last six months.

Former San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer said the fact that more than 50 percent of those summoned agreed to participate “suggests that people want to be on this jury.”