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Jackson's fate will be in jury's hands very soon

Pop singer's ‘peers’ ultimately must decide who they believe, the teen-age accuser or Jackson himself. By NBC's Mike Taibbi
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

It’s the eve of what will likely be the last week of testimony in the molestation trial of Michael Jackson. The gun lap. A defense source, talking about the final shots his side will take, says simply, “We’re not done with her yet.” The source chuckles audibly, then ticks off the last witnesses whose testimony will attempt to debunk “her” story. 

The “her” in the conversation is, of course, the mother of Jackson’s accuser. In her own five days on the stand, testifying for the prosecution, the feisty East Los Angeles woman had taunted and challenged Jackson’s lawyers at every turn (“Now I know what goes on at Neverland,” she offered in an aside that was stricken from the record but heard by everyone in the courtroom, “booze and pornography and having sex with little boys”) and had also spun an apocalyptic narrative about her family’s victimization by an omnipresent Jackson-led conspiracy. Threats of death to her children, her boyfriend, and to her and her parents (they “could have me erased,” they “know where my parents live”). Scripted video praise for Jackson that she was forced to rehearse “10 times a day.”

Testimony offered earnestly that “one of the ways they said they could make my children disappear” from Neverland was via hot air balloon. An explanation that the only reason she lied under oath in a prior lawsuit against J.C. Penney, which resulted in a $150,000 settlement for her with no admission of guilt by the retail giant, was because she was afraid of her allegedly abusive ex-husband.

Through many of nearly three dozen witnesses over the past three weeks, Jackson’s side has taken dead aim at the credibility of this woman. Witnesses have painted her as an opportunist whose false story of victimization — and of her son’s molestation by Jackson — was intended to set the stage for a big future payday from a fading pop superstar already wounded and vulnerable after more than a decade of unproven allegations that he’s a pedophile.

This week the assault on the mother’s truthfulness will build to a crescendo. Two employees of a neighborhood newspaper will testify that the mother sought the paper’s help in raising funds for her cancer-stricken son (Jackson’s accuser) — but that she insisted that the money go to her account and allegedly made the false claim that the boy’s chemotherapy treatments were not covered by insurance. Two other witnesses will testify that the mother made more than a half dozen false statements on her applications for welfare and other benefits, false statements amounting to perjury, and that she repeated those false statements for more than a year in order to retain benefits to which she wasn’t entitled.

Comedian Jay Leno, according to a defense source, will testify that he recalls getting a phone call from Jackson’s accuser — the boy’s mother prompting him in the background — and that afterward he felt “they were looking for a mark.” The actor-comedian Chris Tucker will support the testimony of so many other defense witnesses that at no time in their conversations with the accuser’s mother did the woman say she was being kidnapped or falsely imprisoned by Jackson’s people, or forced to offer public praise for the singer, or threatened with death.  A paralegal working for the woman’s family in its lawsuit against J.C. Penney will testify, a source tells NBC News, that the mother told her the lawsuit was bogus, but that the paralegal had better keep quiet about that because the mother “knew some people in the Mexican mafia.”

There’ll be a short rebuttal case by the prosecution — “maybe no more than half a day,” according to one source; then detailed instructions from the judge, then final arguments by each side. And finally, probably in the second week of June, it goes to the jury.

And there’s the rub. When a criminal case goes to a jury there is no sure bet.

I’ve watched this jury every courtroom day for months. Observed the faces and habits of 20 citizens (12 jurors and eight alternates). They’ve paid attention. On average, they’ve filled about five stenographer’s notebooks apiece — about the same as most of the reporters in the room. They’ve heard what we’ve heard, seen what we’ve seen and, when they start deliberating, will see more than we’ve seen — for example, all the “adult material” in Jackson’s extensive collection.

And while they might decide that the drumbeat of challenges to the credibility of the accuser’s mother makes it impossible to support a guilty verdict “beyond reasonable doubt” on the conspiracy count against Jackson, it isn’t the accuser’s mother’s credibility that’s at the heart of the central charge in this trial, that Jackson molested a young teenaged boy.

The jurors will sit down to their deliberations with certain facts that are not in dispute: that Jackson drinks, and has the drinking habits of someone with a drinking problem; that Jackson collects pornography — lots of it, and some of it as graphic as it gets; that Jackson has shared his bed with dozens of individual boys on hundreds of nights, if not more; and that at least two other boys besides the current accuser, one of those boys having testified in this trial, have accused the singer of molesting them.

To those facts the jurors will add their own perceptions of the defendant, who has been sitting silently for months, just a few yards away from them. They will hear his breathy high-pitched speaking voice, recall his heyday as a crotch-grabbing dancer of apparently deliberate androgyny, and ask themselves — each of them, individually — whether they’re certain beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s not guilty.

For all those reasons of fact and perception — “that’s exactly what we’ll argue,” a prosecution source says — a guilty verdict on the molestation charges is not unthinkable. There are colleagues of mine, thoughtful and observant people, who absolutely believe Michael Jackson is a pedophile. One said to me, just last week at the penultimate junction of the defense case, “…if I’m a juror, even if I think this case is weak, I still wouldn’t want to be the person who let a child molester get off, so he could do it again.”

A boy has taken the stand and, under oath, said that his onetime “best friend in the world” molested him. Jackson has denied it.

Sometime in the next two weeks the jury finally considers the question: whom to believe.