Since the early 1990s, Santa Barbara, Calif., cops and prosecutors have viewed Michael Jackson not as Peter Pan, but as the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” (only this time he likes boys). Two kids have come forward before to accuse Jackson of molesting them, taken multimillion-dollar settlements from the star, and then refused to cooperate. Now the state has blown its chances of nailing him on charges of molesting a third boy, who said that two years ago, when he was 13, Jackson fondled him four or five times. Maybe the jury acquitted Jackson on all counts because the cops got it wrong. Or maybe the problem is that any family crazy enough to get intimately entangled with Jackson—and intimate the relationships are, sex or no sex—is too crazy to be believed, at least beyond a reasonable doubt.
Two different narratives emerged from the Jackson trial. The prosecution’s story was that Jackson finds vulnerable families, often headed by single mothers, with whom he enters into an implicit bargain: Give me your son to sleep with (and fondle), and I’ll buy you a Cartier bracelet, take you to the Caribbean, and (in one instance) put you on my payroll. In the defense’s version, the gold-digging families seek out Jackson, and the bargain is an innocent one: Michael embraces your family as his own, which, no big deal, means letting your son share a bed with him.“I’m your daddy,” Jackson wrote to the boy accusing him in a note read at the trial. “I’m very happy to be your daddy. Blanket, Prince Michael Jr., and Paris are your brothers and sister. Love, your daddy.” This characterization of Jackson as playful father to a rotating series of Lost Boys wasn’t entirely implausible, as my colleague Seth Stevenson has argued. It was also what defense lawyers had to work with, given that Jackson had talked about sharing his bed with young boys in the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson that rekindled the interest of Santa Barbara police and social workers.
Juries are often willing to cut kids slack when they testify about being sexually abused. Jackson’s accuser, now 15, wasn’t great on the stand. On cross-examination, he couldn’t remember when exactly the alleged fondlings took place. But he performed better in his initial interview with police investigators, a video of which the prosecution played at the close of the trial. In the video’s most compelling moment, he asked the cops not to tell his mother what had happened, undermining the defense team’s claim that she’d put him up to making false allegations and then coached him.
Still, to buy the prosecution’s whole case, jurors didn’t just have to believe the boy. They also had to believe his mother, because she was the key to the charge that the family had been imprisoned at Neverland. And once the mother took the stand, the family’s grifter past was hung out in all its tawdriness. The jury heard testimony that she’d lied about being beaten and groped at J.C. Penney to wring a $152,000 settlement out of the store (after shoplifting there); hid the settlement from state social workers so she could collect welfare checks; and then helped her husband try to shake down various celebrities for cash once their son was diagnosed with cancer at age 10. “Don’t judge me—please don’t judge me!” she cried while testifying that she saw Jackson lick her son’s head on a plane flight but did nothing about it. But it was hard not to, as Judith Shulevitz has pointed out, and at the same time not so hard to imagine that this family could have snared Jackson, rather than the other way around, in order to win a big settlement like that of his two previous accusers.
The prosecution’s biggest apparent weapon may have only served to hone the grifter image. In 1995, Jackson was on the mind of one of the drafters of a new California law that made it one of about a dozen states to allow the admittance of evidence of past sex offenses in a sex-crime trial. The law cuts against decades of common law that bars jurors from hearing testimony about past bad acts, for fear that it will be too prejudicial. In 1999, the California Supreme Court upheld the law in a case in which a defendant accused of attempted sodomy had pled guilty to two past rapes. The “evidence” that Jackson had previously molested kids had never led to a conviction or plea, but Judge Rodney S. Melville of Santa Barbara Superior Court let it in anyway.
All of which is a terrible idea, if you care about protecting a defendant’s right to a fair trial. But in Jackson’s case, it may have redounded to his benefit. The former employees and complicit mothers who trooped in to regale the jury with stories of Jackson’s past indiscretions—neon-green Spider-Man underwear on the floor outside the shower next to Jackson’s white briefs, Jackson with his hands down Macaulay Culkin’s shorts—were all easily portrayed by the defense as gold-diggers themselves. There was the chef who asked the tabloids to pay him $500,000 for the Culkin story and the maid who accepted $2 million from Jackson after bringing her son to him. Two of the former employees who testified had participated in a wrongful-termination suit against Jackson that ended with a $1.4 million judgment—against the employees for legal fees. These witnesses made Jackson look unsavory, but they also may have made the jury suspect the whole Jackson-trashing enterprise. Once one tattler gets paid off for his kinky Michael story, why not try to join him?
To be sure, it’s an odd pact that Jackson makes with his favorites-of-the-moment. This may be the only child sex-crime case in which the defense put on a witness who described arriving at the alleged perpetrator’s home in the middle of the night and sending her young son straight to bed with the accused molester. But before you get too exercised about the unpunished depravity that all this suggests, remember that this isn’t a case of sex offenders getting off and roaming around, free to strike unawares. It’s a case about Michael Jackson getting off and roaming around, free to strike only because a few parents hand over their kids to him. “And who could possibly believe this?” the mother of the accuser asked at the trial, recounting how Jackson’s assistants threatened to kill her boyfriends and her parents if she left Neverland. No one, really, especially if her question were turned inward.