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Judge wants Jackson case heard this year

Friday's preliminary hearing moved back to April 2
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Michael Jackson took a pass on the latest hearing in his child molestation case, thousands of his fans decided to do the same. Only about two dozen Jackson fans headed into court for a hearing at which Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said he wanted the trial to take place this year.

The attorneys said Friday they expect to be ready by December.

Melville also agreed to delay setting a date for a preliminary hearing until April 2. Such a hearing functions as a mini-trial in which the prosecution lays out its evidence and the judge decides if the case should go to trial.

Jackson, who is charged with seven counts of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14 and two counts of giving the child an intoxicating agent, was not required to attend Friday's hearing and he stayed away.

The result was a far more subdued affair than what took place during Jackson's arraignment in January.

Then, the entertainer had to negotiate a gauntlet of hundreds of cheering fans to get to the courtroom. Once inside, he was chastised by the judge for arriving late and darting out in the middle of the proceedings for a bathroom break. Afterward, he entertained fans by dancing on the roof of his car, then had everyone over to his Neverland Ranch for a post-arraignment party.

Fans on hand Friday filled two rows of seats in Melville's courtroom, where they were told to button their jackets and hide T-shirts bearing pro-Jackson slogans.

Outside court, Marina Sali, a 25-year-old college student from New York City, said it didn't matter that her hero wasn't there.

"Michael to me means everything," she said. "I will do anything to prove my point of view."

Tierra Alexander, 20, had the words, "Just leave him alone" on the back of her shirt.

On the other side of the debate was Sofia Hollum, who hoisted a sign supporting law enforcement and Jackson's accuser.

"I think it's important that when the children come forward and say they've been abused that we stand behind them and we believe in them," said the 37-year-old mother of two children.

Mark Geragos, left, and Ben Brafman, attorneys for Michael Jackson, arrive for a hearing at the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., Friday, Feb. 13, 2004. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)Nam Y. Huh / AP

In court, Jackson attorney Mark Geragos said he had just received 400 pages of evidence from prosecutor Thomas Sneddon and would need time to review it. Geragos said he understood the 400 pages meant the prosecution was "halfway there" in turning over material.

Meanwhile, fellow defense attorney Benjamin Brafman hinted there would be a need for hearings on "other serious issues" before a preliminary hearing could go forward. He did not elaborate.

The defense also implored the judge to provide an exception to a gag order preventing all participants in the case from responding to inaccurate information.

"If one can believe the media, I've been fired and rehired five times since we were last here," Geragos said. "Mr. Brafman also has fielded numerous calls on this issue."

Geragos also said potential witnesses were leaking information.

"We do not want in any way, shape or form to violate the gag order. But when it has to do with a client, when people are polluting the jury pool, we should be able to say something," Geragos said.

The judge made no ruling but gave the attorneys time to file further suggestions on the matter.

During a recess, the judge met with the defense attorneys in chambers to discuss material they are seeking to seal permanently. From comments in court, it was clear they objected to releasing audio and videotapes seized from the office of their investigator. They claimed these were covered by attorney-client privilege, an argument that the prosecution opposed. The judge made no ruling.

Melville did rule on a media request to unseal documents related to all searches in the case, saying they would remain sealed but he would release edited versions, perhaps as early as next week, of all but two searches.

Attorney Theodore Boutrous, representing media organizations including The Associated Press, said documents to be released involve seven warrants related to phone service providers, a warrant for 12 computer hard drives, and a warrant to search the home of Marc Schaffel, producer of the Jackson song "What More Can I Give."

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Associated Press Writer Tim Molloy contributed to this report.