A conspiracy charge against Michael Jackson signals a new direction in the case, one that could include indictments for other people accused of conspiring with the singer to commit the crimes of abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
Jackson pleaded innocent Friday to a newly unsealed grand jury indictment listing the new conspiracy charge, as well as counts of molestation and giving a child alcohol that were similar to the ones in a previous indictment.
The grand jury indictment said Jackson conspired with “other uncharged co-conspirators and co-conspirators,” but the judge ordered that the parts of the indictment identifying them be removed before it was publicly released. The defense and prosecutors declined to say Friday who else may be arrested.
“We have a lot to say and we’re going to do our talking in court,” Jackson attorney Steve Cochran said.
Judge Rodney S. Meville softly and methodically read the 10 counts of the indictment Friday, which supersedes charges filed by Santa Barbara County prosecutors late last year.
Attorney Thomas Mesereau entered an innocent plea for Jackson, and Judge Rodney S. Melville asked Jackson if that was his plea. He nodded yes.
Jackson subdued at appearanceJackson was subdued at Friday’s appearance, arriving at the courthouse 40 minutes early wearing a dark jacket with a gold crest on its pocket, a red armband, a red tie and dark trousers with gold stripes on each side.
His demeanor contrasted with his behavior at his original arraignment in January, when he was scolded by the judge for arriving 20 minutes late and drew thousands of fans into the street by dancing atop his SUV.
Jackson made a brief statement after Friday’s hearing, flanked by his parents and two of his brothers.
“I would like to thank the fans around the world for your love and support from every corner of the Earth,” said Jackson, adding that he loved Santa Maria and its people.
Mesereau praised the judge and community and pledged a dignified defense.
“This case is about one thing only,” he said. “It’s about the dignity, the integrity, the decency, the honor, the charity, the innocence and the complete vindication of a wonderful human being named Michael Jackson.”
The conspiracy count alleged 28 individual overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
New charges against singer
Counts two to five alleged Jackson committed a lewd act upon a child. Count six alleged an attempt to have a child perform a lewd act upon him. Counts seven to 10 alleged the administering of an intoxicating agent, alcohol, to assist in the commission of a felony.
All the crimes allegedly occurred between Feb. 1 and March 31, 2003.
Jackson was originally charged with seven counts of lewd or lascivious conduct involving a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicant, reportedly wine, to a child under 14.
The conspiracy count could be a significant problem for the defense because the burden of proof is easier for prosecutors to meet than it is in the molestation counts, yet the punishment can be just as severe, said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson.
She said Jackson could be acquitted of the molestation charges but still convicted of conspiring to abduct the child and his family, falsely imprison them and commit extortion by threatening grave consequences if they accused him, Levenson said.
“It’s not the crime you commit. It’s what you do to cover it up,” she said.
In addition, any co-conspirators could strike a deal with prosecutors to testify against Jackson, said Dan Simon, an associate professor of law at the University of Southern California.
Levenson and Simon cautioned the added charges could backfire if jurors interpret them as signs of excessive zeal on the part of the prosecution.
The alleged victim was identified as “John Doe” and a witness to some alleged molestation was identified as “James Doe.” A source close to the case said the witness was the accuser’s brother, who stayed with Jackson and the boy at Neverland.
The accuser appeared on national TV in a British documentary holding hands with Jackson, who said the two had slept in the same bedroom but not the same bed. Jackson defended his sleepovers with children, describing the practice as sweet and innocent.
A source close to the family has said that around February 2003, when the special aired on ABC-TV, Jackson paid for the family to stay at hotels in Florida and Ventura. Jackson associates also discussed the possibility of the family leaving the country, the source said.
Earlier this month, an attorney representing two former Jackson employees said there was speculation that his clients would be charged with intimidation of witnesses in the case.
Attorney Joseph Tacopina said his clients, Vincent Amen and Frank Tyson, denied the allegations. He did not allow them to testify before the grand jury that indicted Jackson.
Tyson, who was Jackson’s personal assistant, has been accused of threatening to kill the younger brother of Jackson’s alleged victim if he revealed to authorities that Jackson had given the boy alcohol, Tacopina said.
Amen, who worked for Jackson’s production company, was accused of holding the family at Jackson’s Neverland estate against its will, he said.
It was unclear whether the conspiracy charges involved any of the alleged incidents.
The attorney said the accusations were false.
Tacopina’s law office did not immediately respond to a call for comment Friday.
The judge said the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings would be turned over to attorneys Monday but will remain under seal. He said he will hold a hearing on the sealing May 28.
The grand jury indictment allowed prosecutors to avoid holding a preliminary hearing before the judge to show there is enough evidence to put Jackson on trial.
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch and Associated Press Writer Ryan Pearson contributed to this report.