Less than a week before his next arraignment, Michael Jackson said Monday he has replaced his high-profile legal team in his child molestation case because “my life is at stake.”
Attorneys Mark Geragos and Benjamin Brafman “decided to step down” from representing the pop star, Brafman said Sunday. He would not reveal exactly what prompted the move.
Jackson, however, said he had terminated their services.
“Contrary to reports, this is a decision that I have personally made,” he said in a statement issued by spokeswoman Raymone K. Bain.
Jackson did not give a specific reason for dismissing Brafman and Geragos. However, Geragos has been busy with the Scott Peterson murder case in Northern California.
“It is imperative that I have the full attention of those who are representing me. My life is at stake,” Jackson said. “Therefore, I must feel confident that my interests are of the highest priority. I am innocent of these false charges, and will aggressively seek to clear my name.”
Thomas Mesereau Jr., Jackson’s new lawyer, represented actor Robert Blake in his murder case until they recently parted company, citing irreconcilable differences.
Mesereau has met with Jackson in the Orlando, Fla., area, where the singer is staying with his children. He said he would join the singer in court when Jackson is arraigned on child molestation charges outlined in an indictment handed down last week.
“I’ll have no comment on the developments until I appear in court Friday,” Mesereau said.
Brian Oxman, a Jackson family attorney, said the indictment prompted Jackson to re-evaluate his team. Oxman said Mesereau had been Jackson’s choice to represent him from the start.
Harland Braun, the defense lawyer who was replaced by Mesereau in the Blake case, said it is not unusual for Hollywood stars to change lawyers mid-case.
“Think of it as politics,” Braun said. “A candidate often changes managers in the middle of a campaign.”
He said Mesereau will face the challenge of a lifetime in defending Jackson.
“For a lawyer, it’s like being a Wallenda on the tightrope,” he said. “It’s a case that defines you forever.”
Change in representationGeragos said he, Brafman and Mesereau would notify Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville of the substitution of counsel during a conference call Monday. He and Brafman would not discuss reasons for the change.
“It was a decision that sort of has been happening over time, and I think at the end of the day it is probably better that it is resolved this way,” Brafman said Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Dana Cole, an attorney who has worked closely with Mesereau on cases including Blake’s, said Mesereau was approached by Jackson soon after he was charged with child molestation, but Mesereau was initially unwilling to take the case while he was tied up with the impending Blake case.
“Michael Jackson has always been very impressed with the pro bono work and contributions Tom has made in the African-American community,” Cole said.
Mesereau provides free legal services at the predominantly black First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, where he was honored recently for his contributions to minority communities. And every year he chooses a death penalty case in Alabama to defend at his own expense.
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson said the change could mean Jackson lost faith in his attorneys, or they in him. She also noted that Geragos’ representation of Peterson could be a liability in trying to find an unbiased jury, and that Mesereau would bring less baggage to the case.
Peterson case a factor?“Prospective jurors would be asked how they feel about Jackson being represented by someone who represents Scott Peterson,” she said. “And Mark is also going to be very busy with the Peterson case.”
Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon had no comment, according to Jason Karpf of Tellem Worldwide, a firm handling media inquiries for Sneddon in the Jackson case.
Jackson is free on $3 million bail.
Jackson, 45, was originally charged with seven counts of lewd or lascivious conduct involving a child under 14 and with administering an intoxicant, reportedly wine, to a child under 14.
In his ABC interview, Brafman turned aside suggestions there was conflict between Jackson and his lawyers over antics such as the dance he performed atop an SUV in front of the courthouse at his first arraignment, or over the reported influence on Jackson from advisers in his family or the Nation of Islam.
“I don’t think there is tension,” Brafman said. But he did say of Jackson’s advisers: “I think the team has to understand that it is not business as usual. They have to be focused. They have to understand if you win this case, nothing else matters. If you lose this case, nothing else matters.”