The light drizzle turned into a heavy rain on Tuesday. The dark cloud hanging over the courthouse in Santa Maria gave pop star Michael Jackson a bona fide occasion to use his trademark black umbrella.
A small gathering of fans braved the rain and wind to see the star return to court for jury selection in his child molestation trial. The crowd was smaller than usual. Blame it on the rain or blame it on waning interest.
Maybe Jackson followers are starting to realize that despite the fame, fortune, and the moonwalk, he’s just a man, like everyone else, who, according to the judge, gets the flu, like everyone else.
Housekeeping out of the way
Inside the crowded courtroom, a dark cloud of another kind seemed to hang over the jury box. Judge Rodney Melville assured the jury pool that he understands that there have been "false starts" and he knows delays in jury selection can have a negative effect.
Melville directly addressed the jury pool when he said Jackson was in fact sick last week. "I spoke with his doctor and you need to trust me. I wouldn’t let anyone take advantage of me or this court."
With that housekeeping out of the way, questioning of the initial group of 18 prospective jurors got under way.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen wasted no time in getting to the heart of the prosecution’s case, the testimony of a young accuser.
Zonen asked how potential jurors would feel about teens testifying? Can they tell the truth? Can they be influenced by their parents?
Juror No. 63, a female, said she’s not concerned about teens being truthful, but would be concerned with a young child testifying. Juror No. 89, another female said she "hopes and prays" they all tell the truth.
When asked if they would be influenced by Jackson’s celebrity or an A-list of Hollywood star witnesses, all of the prospective jurors answered no. They all said they could treat Jackson fairly, like any other person and they were not impressed by his fame.
Some in the overflow room wondered out loud if this is truly the case, or perhaps if this is a group eager to serve on this jury.
Former Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas offered some perspective when he said "most people believe they can make up their minds and they don’t need somebody who’s a celebrity to try and sway their judgment one way or another."
Although both sides waited to announce which potential jurors they would like to dismiss until after all 18 had been questioned, every reporter in the overflow room knew Juror No. 203, another female, would be given her walking papers when she said, "I would like to see this trial turn out a certain way. I have an opinion."
She went on to say that she thinks the prosecution is "a step behind." It came as no surprise when she was excused.
Ultimately, 20 prospective jurors were dismissed by the end of the day on Tuesday. The prosecution dismissed five jurors and the defense removed six others. In addition, by mutual agreement, three jurors were dismissed for cause and six for hardship.
The defense objected when the prosecution excused Juror No. 89, the only African-American on the panel. A brief meeting in chambers took place, before Judge Melville announced she was, in fact, excused.
Moving along relatively swiftly
Near the end of the day, legal experts and court watchers agreed despite the repeated delays, jury selection was moving faster than anyone had expected.
"I think the surprise of the day, frankly, is the speed of the process," Thomas said. "There are a number of court watchers who think there will be a jury seated as early as [Thursday] and opening statements as soon as Monday. Which would be about two weeks earlier than most people thought."
Predicting courtroom timetables, however, can be dangerous.
Certainly no one suspected a week’s delay because Jackson suffered from flu-like symptoms. And in the end, selecting a jury is anything but, to quote part of a Jackson song, "black or white.”