Less than a month before Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial is schedule to begin, the court continued a pattern of shielding all evidence from public view Monday, releasing rulings and motions with blacked-out pages.
Only one written order by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville was released in detail — a decision to deny in part and grant in part a defense motion to suppress evidence seized from the office of Jackson's personal assistant. But the language of that decision was oblique and provided only vague clues to what was being admitted and what was suppressed.
"I've never seen a case with this level of secrecy," said
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson. "You'd think we were dealing with the Pentagon Papers.
"Everyone is filing papers in code and we're on the eve of trial. It may be that the prosecutors are bending over backwards to protect the rights of Michael Jackson. But it's impossible to tell."
Jackson's trial is scheduled to start on Jan. 31 and one more pretrial hearing is scheduled on Jan. 12. One of the documents released by the judge in a heavily blacked-out form was a prosecution report on a search of Jackson's Neverland ranch on Nov. 18, 2003. The cryptic entries included a statement that investigators had received information from a confidential informant who told them that Jackson had told the informant something. But whatever was stated was blacked out in the released documents.
The prosecution had asked to seal from public view all parts of specified search warrants. The judge went through them and redacted sections he felt should not be public because they might prejudice Jackson's right to a fair trial. The judge's ruling regarding suppression of seized evidence had to do with a search last Sept. 15 at an office in a detached garage where his personal assistant kept Jackson's file cabinets and computers. He found that Jackson had "a reasonable expectation of "privacy" as to materials kept in that office.
Melville said, "There is a concern for invasion of the defense camp when the case has been pending for a number of months and records of correspondence with counsel are kept by the client."
But he added, "The search warrant was not intended to reach any such materials and careful efforts have been made to avoid disclosure of attorney-client matters."
He said one folder which was labeled with the name of Jackson's attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr., contained only newspaper, magazine and Internet pages and clippings. However, he ordered sections of that file suppressed as well as others whose contents were not described.
"The court is satisfied that the search warrant was intended, and served, to gather evidence and not to disadvantage the conduct of the defense," the judge said.
Jackson, 46, has pleaded not guilty to charges of molesting a boy, conspiracy and administering an intoxicating agent, alcohol, to his alleged victim.