Monday, November 8, 2010

The Michael Jackson Trial: An Anatomy of the Defense

by Anne Bremner

"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy"

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Michael Jackson case was won by excellent preparation and lawyering by Thomas Mesereau (who was nothing short of “mesmerizing”). The trial ultimately became a three-ring circus—the circus outside of court, a circus inside the court and a circus in the mind of the accuser’s mother, who ultimately became the fulcrum of the trial and the downfall of the prosecution. The netherworld of the Neverland trial fascinates to this day.

The Defense Packaged Jackson Well

"All Children, except one, grow up."
- J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)

Rather than as advised (putting Michael Jackson in a suit with one hand holding a girlfriend’s hand and the other holding a Bible), the defense dressed Michael Jackson in ornate costumes every day of the trial. During the course of the pre-trial, he wore a white three-piece suit with a gold arm band, the white symbolizing purity and innocence. On Cinco de Mayo, in a town that is 60% Hispanic, he wore a Cinco de Mayo vest. On the day of Jay Leno’s testimony, Jackson wore a joker’s vest, thereby showing a lack of hubris and some humility while facing the man who has been making fun of him on the nightly air waves and calling him a pedophile for months.

Michael Jackson entered as if on a red carpet accompanied by an umbrella holder every single day of the trial. On good days, he would carry his own umbrella and I noted those days on the air. Many celebrities have made mistakes in terms of what they wore to court, including Martha Stewart, who did not show much humility when she arrived for her trial carrying a Hermes Birkin Bag (a style that cost thousands of dollars). Or Courtney Love, who, when tried on charges of being under the influence of cocaine, looked like a rock star train wreck dressed in grungy cardigans and even a black strapless evening gown, showing disregard for the seriousness of the charges. Michael Jackson wore multi-colored jackets, different colored armbands, royal crests and military medals. Sometimes he looked like a toy soldier; other times he looked like a prep-school dandy. Throughout all, Michael Jackson conveyed to the jury a constant reminder that he is not like everybody else. He is rock-and-roll royalty, he is a celebrity, and he deserves special consideration. The Los Angeles Times called this the "fashion defense."

Michael Jackson Was Portrayed As Being in Tragic Decline

"Michael Jackson is one of the last living Innocents."
- Steven Spielberg

During the course of his trial, Michael Jackson visited the hospital on five separate occasions. He appeared vulnerable, childlike and sweet before the jury. Unlike Scott Peterson, his courtroom demeanor was absolutely perfect for this trial. He was respectful to the jurors, to the lower court staff, to the judge, and to everyone else involved in the trial. He also appeared to be in tragic decline throughout the trial. It was as if the trial was killing him. It would be difficult for the jury to convict and send to prison for the rest of his life a man who was barely holding on during the course of the trial itself. He weighed approximately 115 pounds. There were times during the trial that he had to go to the restroom to be sick, and he often appeared to be in obvious physical distress. He was taken to the hospital during jury selection, missing court, and showed up late for court in his pajamas, having been hospitalized yet again. The jury was aware that he was hospitalized twice during jury deliberations. It is human nature not to want to take out somebody who is already gone, and the defense sent the subliminal message through this that Michael Jackson had been punished enough (if there was some specter of belief in the jury’s mind that he was indeed guilty of child molestation).

Tom Mesereau was Mesmerizing

"If you squint your eyes it all makes sense"
- Anonymous producer regarding a made-for-TV movie about the Mary Kay Letourneau trial.

Thomas Mesereau was not the typical celebrity lawyer. He worked hard, he was dogged, he was prepared, and he pandered to no one. ABC News analyst Dana Cole stated, “Once Tom came on board, there was no more Hollywood slickness. He just decided to dig in and do the work, and I think that brought a lot of integrity and credibility to this case.”

Through the work of the defense, Michael Jackson’s world all made sense to the jurors. He was portrayed from the beginning, in the opening statement, as an odd genius who sits in a wishing tree and writes songs, as a Peter Pan and vulnerable child who would rather hang out with chimps than humans, one who surrounds himself with little children but is also the patron saint of children. Michael Jackson’s songs have healed the world and make the world a better place for children, and “What More Can I Give” and “We are the World” conveyed well to the jury. Michael Jackson was shown to be vulnerable throughout his life, because he was a child star, and that people only wanted to take advantage of him and that he never knew who to trust.

The culmination of that victimization was the prosecution brought by Santa Barbara County against him. Here the defense successfully put forth the theme that the case was about “money, money and more money,” and that the family simply wanted a conviction so they could extract even more money out of Michael Jackson. While the prosecution portrayed Neverland as “Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island,” the defense showed it as a refuge for children, the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, and the needy from all over the world. Neverland Valley Ranch had a full zoo, full arcade and movie theater, guest houses and its own fire department and miniature train and train station.

The Defense Closing Was Compelling

"Everybody gets so much information every day they lose their common sense."
- Gertrude Stein

The defense brought home its central theme in closing: if you have the slightest doubt regarding the credibility of the victim and his family, then Michael Jackson must go home. If you have the slightest doubt about the credibility of this family, then the prosecution fails. If you do not believe this family beyond a reasonable doubt, you must acquit. This is a family of con artists, liars and actors. Perjury is a habit for them. It is a pattern. The defense was able to show that the prosecution oversold their case and underperformed miserably, and instilled in the jury complicated feelings about the child star who grew up before all of our eyes. They pulled on the jury’s heartstrings about Jackson, his three little children and his family, including his mother, who were also dependent upon him.

The twists, turns and misfires in the twilight zone of the prosecution’s case were all turned against them. The defense called to the jury, essentially saying that jury duty is the highest calling in citizenship per Abraham Lincoln, and that the jurors needed to rise to the occasion and do the right thing. The verdict of acquittal was more reminiscent of the Scottish verdict of “not proven,” and that result was the natural progression from a very well-prepared and tried defense case and a failed prosecution.

The defense won because, (1) they were prepared; (2) they hit a home run in opening statement; (3) they destroyed the mother on the stand and thereby the son; (4) at every opportunity, they played the rebuttal video where the family denied being falsely imprisoned by, and spoke of their love for, Michael Jackson; (5) they presented Michael Jackson as a victim of opportunistic vultures and in tragic decline; (6) Debbie Rowe, the mother of two of his children, was a gem; (7) they had beautiful PR; (8) they had appropriate themes; (9) they capitalized on Michael Jackson’s celebrity; (10) they had a clear lead on the defense team; (11) they showed family support and had the mother Kathryn Jackson front and center; and (12) they took on Thomas Sneddon as a character out of Les Misérables.

“He could sing in front of 90,000 people but in front of 3 it is very difficult for him. We have sat in my studio when he is going to sing a new song and I had to close my eyes and turn my back.”
- Quincey J

Michael Jackson has left the building. He felt absolved. He was fully exonerated, although jurors have now indicated they have doubts about their verdict. The question is, was he bad? Was he the pedophile he was painted to be, or was he invincible? Was he truly innocent?

The prosecution had the haunting words of the accuser’s mother, “Michael Jackson has fooled the world.” Perhaps he did fool this jury. If Michael Jackson was indeed guilty and was wrongfully acquitted, perhaps his most lasting legacy is not (as he has claimed) helping children as the “patron saint of children.” Instead, it is in raising awareness regarding child molestation and the difficulty in proving these cases, thereby ironically helping to protect our world’s children from people like Michael Jackson in the future.

"I have seen him with children; they won't let him go to the bathroom without running in. They won't let him out of their sight. They even jump in bed with him."
- Lisa Maria Presley


Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Fascinating post Anne. This case does demonstrate how difficult proving molestation can be when the motives of the victims are suspect and when the alleged perpetrator is so attractive. Very interesting description of the defense strategy including Jackson's wardrobe.

Anonymous said...

What insightful comments!