It was the first time Michael Jackson had seen his accuser since the boy left Neverland. This week, the 15-year-old cancer survivor took the stand to testify that Jackson sexually molested him in the singer's bedroom when the boy was 13. "I was under the covers, and that is when he put his hand down my pants and started masturbating me," the teen said calmly, describing the first of two such alleged incidents. "A day after that, he did it one more time."
The teen said Jackson, 46, told him that it was healthy for men to masturbate, and then he set about teaching the boy how to do it, bringing him to ejaculation. "I felt weird," the boy testified, under questioning from Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon. "I was embarrassed about it. He said it was OK, that it was natural." The young accuser also testified that Jackson tried to pull his hand toward his own genitals, but he resisted.
The explicit statements came late on Thursday, capping a dramatic week for the prosecution in which the teen and his younger brother both described a series of inappropriate and lewd encounters with Jackson during the three years they spent time with the singer as a guest at his ranch. Most of the incidents--including the alleged molestations--came in February 2003, in the days after the airing of the Martin Bashir TV special "Living with Michael Jackson," featuring sequences in which the boy and Jackson held hands and the singer admitted to sleeping, chastely, with children.
But with the end of the graphic description, the teen wasn't done for the day. When Sneddon finished his direct examination, Jackson lead attorney Thomas Mesereau took over. In a series of rapid-fire questions Mesereau tried to blast the story as fiction designed by the boy's family to win money from Jackson. He aimed to show that molestation charges "suddenly" cropped up after the accuser's family met with lawyers in Los Angeles, including Larry Feldman. Feldman was the lawyer who won a multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson for another boy who made similar sexual allegations in 1993. "You first went to two lawyers and a psychologist who Larry Feldman referred you to before you went to any police officer?" Mesereau asked the witness. "Yes," he confirmed.
Mesereau raised another theory too: that the boy may have come up with the story to get back at Jackson for snubbing him. The boy described how he had bumped into Jackson at Neverland--two years before the alleged abuse--after being told that Jackson had left the premises. "My best friend was trying to avoid me and it made me sad," the witness said. "It feels like my heart broke right there." If the testimony weren't startling enough, Jackson provided more drama. Jackson failed to arrive at the courthouse by the 8:30 start time on Thursday, prompting Judge Rodney Melville to issue a warrant for Jackson's arrest and to revoke his $3 million bail, unless he appeared within an hour. With journalists from around the world speculating about whether Jackson would be forced to attend the rest of his trial in an orange jail suit, the entertainer sped to court from a local hospital--and arrived eight minutes after the judge's deadline. Jackson's lawyers and his publicist said the singer and dancer had tripped while getting dressed, injuring his back. Wearing silky blue pajamas under his jacket, Jackson shuffled into the courthouse, apparently in pain. Melville cancelled the warrant and reinstated the bail arrangement, allowing the trial to continue--and Jackson to remain a free man.
Thursday marked the second time in three weeks Jackson has held up the court to go to the hospital, and legal experts agreed the judge will not stand for it a third time. "You can't act like you're a kid when you are on felony charges," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson. "The judge decided that it's time for him to be a grownup." Levenson described Melville's court as "military" in style and said the judge is clearly fed up with what she called Jackson's antics. "The whole world does not revolve around Michael Jackson," she said. "The judge wants to teach him a lesson."
Appearing mature and composed in a dress shirt and a military-style crew cut, the teen described his visits to Jackson's Neverland estate, which began in 2001 when the accuser was seriously ill with cancer at age 10 and asked to meet the celebrity. When questioned by Sneddon, the youth told of making crank calls with Jackson, seeing the singer naked and witnessing Jackson "humping" a female mannequin he kept in his room. The brothers, who are not being named to protect their identify, testified that Jackson encouraged them to drink vodka and wine--which Jackson called "Jesus juice," to look at sex magazines with him and peruse adult sites on the Internet. The boy's account ended dramatically on the story of the inappropriate touching.
Prosecutor Thomas Sneddon put the accuser on the stand in just the second week of a trial expected to last for months. Now that he has already presented the heart of his case, Sneddon must spend the rest of the trial supporting the accuser's version of events so that jurors will believe him and not Jackson. Legal analysts say Sneddon's "frontloading" strategy of featuring the accuser and his siblings at the trial's outset is highly unusual, but appears designed to create sympathy for the victim and his family. Judge Melville is also expected to rule later in the trial on whether to allow into evidence facts regarding the 1993 molestation charge that was dropped. The appearance of a second apparent victim would bolster the prosecution's case and buttress the credibility of the three siblings who have testified so far.
Jackson has been charged with 10 felonies, including four alleged acts of molestation, one attempted molestation, administering alcohol for the purpose of committing a felony and holding the boy and his family against their will. If convicted of all charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Jackson's defense team has denied all the charges, and blamed them on what they say is the boy's family, which they say has a history of making dubious legal claims in order to make money.
Thursday afternoon, Mesereau vigorously hammered at the witness's narrative, as the lawyer had previously done with the accuser's brother and sister. "Once the cross examination started, it was clear that all the coaching went out the window," said Ron Richards, a Los Angeles criminal attorney who is attending the trial as a media consultant. "He was really playing into the theory that all the family was after was the money."
Mesereau also challenged the teen's statements to the jury that Jackson had done less to help him with his cancer than other celebrities such as Los Angeles comedian George Lopez. Citing rides in limousines and a Rolls Royce, and trips to Miami on a private jet, Mesereau suggested the teen was ungrateful for all the gifts and benefits Jackson showered on his family. The jury has heard the singer organized a blood drive on the boy's behalf and provided his family with a white Bronco to drive to doctors' appointments.
"Are you telling the jury you deserved a lot more?" Mesereau asked cynically.
Earlier in the week Mesereau had gotten both the sister and brother to admit that they had lied to various authorities several times in the five years since they met Jackson. While the alleged victim held up well under cross-examination and has yet to be caught in a lie, several inconsistencies popped up between his recollections and that of his siblings.
On several occasions the accuser's testimony stopped short of allegations his sister and brother had made. And his description of the molestation was brief and unemotional. That struck some observers as evidence the boy had been coached. "He was minimizing some of his testimony today on some of the most damaging allegations," said legal expert Richards. "This is a sign of someone who is very eager to say what he has been trained to say, and that he has been coached."
Prosecutor Sneddon hopes jurors will see the boy as a sympathetic but damaged figure. At the beginning of his questioning Sneddon had the boy reveal that his biological father was physically abusive. "I got hit sometimes. Not as much as my mother," said the teen. "I saw him hit my brother. He hit my sister, slapped her." He also testified that the family lived in a one-room apartment at the time he became ill with cancer, which doctors said was terminal. "It felt like there was a knife in your stomach," he said of his cancer. "The doctor told my mother and father that if he cancer didn't kill me the chemotherapy would because I was getting an adult dosage." But his cancer went into remission after one year.
Sneddon also had the teen describe how much he had admired Michael Jackson, in an apparent effort to portray how deep the betrayal was when the alleged abuse occurred. "I thought he was like the coolest guy in the world," the teen testified. "I thought he was my best friend ever. I really liked him."
Trial testimony will resume Monday, as Mesereau continues to cross-examine the boy. Court was not in session Friday as judge weighed series of legal motions, among them whether the sexual history of the siblings and their mother can be included in evidence. The prosecutor will also seek to show that Jackson was in the midst of a financial crisis, which is why he allegedly detained the family to commandeer them into public-relations efforts to rehabilitate his image after the damaging television program.