Well ahead of schedule, a panel of 12 jurors was finalized Wednesday for Michael Jackson’s trial on child molestation charges.
“We have a jury,” Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville announced from his bench mid-morning Wednesday.
The selection happened very rapidly — though after two weeks of delays. It had been expected to last several weeks, but took only five court days. However, it was interrupted by a one-week break due to the death of an attorney's sister and another one-week break when Jackson was hospitalized with apparent flu-like symptoms.
The panel includes four men and eight women, ranging in age from 20 to 79. Seven are white, four are Hispanic and one is Asian. Eight have children. Only five of the 12 said they were aware of 1993 child molestation allegations against Jackson; one said they or a family member personally knew Jackson.
None is African-American, despite efforts by the pop star's attorneys to secure at least one black juror on the panel. The prosecution team led by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon vetoed two black women who were questioned, including one who criticized the jury pool's composition.
“Just look around us. A jury of his peers would be people of his age and people of color, mixed diversity,” she said. “How diverse is this jury looking to you right now?”
The woman claimed her husband had been treated with prejudice while working for the sheriff’s department. Jackson appeared upset when each woman was removed.
Among the jurors selected were a woman who said her grandson was required to register as a sexual offender. A 42-year-old woman whose sister was raped at age 12, and whose two nieces who were sexually molested, was seated as well.
Others on the panel: One woman who said she was related to the pilot of Flight 93, one of the planes that went down on Sept. 11; a 20-year-old male fan of “The Simpsons”; and a man who is interested in Western art and country music.
The jury, which ranges in age from 20 to 79, includes a civil engineer, a horse trainer, a physical therapy aide, a wheelchair-bound student and a student nurse whose aunt visited Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch.
One jurors was asked during selection if he recognized celebrity witnesses in the case including self-help guru Deepak Chopra. He responded, “I think he's a rapper.”
Lawyers for both sides must help pick another eight alternate jurors. Opening statements could begin as early as next week, after Melville considers some last-minute motions.
After hardship questioning by the judge eliminated some prospects at the outset of the process, a pool of 243 prospective jurors was formed for individual questioning by lawyers. Just a handful of the remaining pool of more than 220 were dismissed by Wednesday morning when the jury was finalized.
Detailed questioningSelection moved quickly after Melville imposed tight time limits on how long each prospect could be questioned.
“It’s unheard of in a case like this to have a jury this fast,” former San Francisco prosecutor and legal analyst Jim Hammer said.
Jackson is charged in a 10-count indictment with molesting a boy at Neverland, plying him with alcohol and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He has pleaded not guilty.
The latest charges stem from alleged incidents in February and March 2003, when the alleged victim was 13, but the singer faced similar accusations in 1993. He settled with his previous accuser for $15.3 million, according to documents revealed last year.
During questioning, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. asked prospects about their interest in the arts, their feelings toward Jackson, and whether they believed child witnesses could be led to lie. The defense will argue that the mother of Jackson's accuser has told him to lie.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen's questions included whether prospects were Jackson fans, and whether they had seen a recent Fox News interview with Geraldo Rivera in which Jackson said many of the news reports about him are untrue.
The judge also said several more names had been added to the case's star-studded witness list, including Eddie Murphy, Macaulay Culkin and Smokey Robinson. More than 300 possible defense witnesses submitted earlier included Kobe Bryant, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross and Jay Leno.