Going After the Accuser

Michael Jackson's defense this week aggressively called into question the accuser's claims of child molestation. A parade of witnesses, from Larry King to a professional leg waxer, took the stand for Jackson, with more star power expected on the witness stand next week.

The appearance on Thursday by King, the CNN talk-show host, was short lived. With the jury out of the courtroom, King recounted that Los Angeles lawyer Larry Feldman had called the mother of Jackson's 13-year-old accuser "wacko" and had said she was "in it for the money." But King spent less than 10 minutes on the stand in a pretrial hearing before Judge Rodney Melville ruled King's statements inadmissible. The judge then repeated the ruling for another proposed defense witness, Michael Viner, a publisher, who was also at the breakfast meeting last winter with King and Feldman.

In April, Feldman testified for the prosecution that he referred Jackson's accuser to a psychologist who then contacted authorities, sparking the investigation that led to Jackson's current indictment on 10 felony charges. Feldman also denied on the stand that he had violated attorney-client privilege by speaking to a third party about the case and that anyone who says he did so is "lying."

King nonetheless told the court of his experience with Feldman, whom he said he has known for about 10 years. "I contacted Mr. Feldman in order to convince him to come on my show," King said of the breakfast at a Beverly Hills, Calif., restaurant. Feldman represented another Los Angeles teenager who won a $15 million settlement from Jackson in 1993 after making similar accusations. King said Feldman described that case as "strong" but said he was refusing to take on the current case because of the mother's behavior.

Trent Copeland, a Los Angeles criminal lawyer attending the trial, said King's proposed testimony would have been "devastating" and that Melville's decision was "a huge sigh of relief" for Santa Barbara County prosecutors at the end of the third week of defense witnesses. Jackson's publicist Raymone Bain said the entertainer was "a little disappointed" that King couldn't testify, but is "happy" about the direction of his trial.

Jackson's defense received another setback a day earlier when Melville ruled that the team must limit its questioning of character witnesses or risk opening up a new Pandora's box of rebuttal evidence for prosecutors. District Attorney Tom Sneddon said he wanted to introduce evidence about other possible molestation victims that the judge had earlier ruled inadmissible. He also threatened to enter evidence about Jackson's prescription-drug use and an incident in which Jackson was filmed dangling his baby son over a hotel balcony in Berlin.

Jackon's team originally provided a witness list of more than 350 names, many of them celebrities, to vouch for Jackson, including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Uri Geller and Deepak Chopra. But defense lawyer Robert Sanger said this week that he and his colleagues have "pared down" the list, leading observers to speculate that their case may last only another couple of weeks. Comedian Jay Leno is expected to testify next week, and actor Chris Tucker is also expected to take the stand. But Jackson's camp has not confirmed whether they intend to call his long time confidante Elizabeth Taylor.

"When the judge said that if they introduce character witnesses, they will open it up to rebuttal, that was a real sign to cut it short," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "You see the defense taking a turn now and really going after the mother so they can say that the accuser lied."

Much of that goal was accomplished later Thursday when Chris Tucker's former fiancee Azja Pryor denied that either the accuser's mother or sister ever complained about Jackson or expressed any distress during February and March 2003. That's the period when the accuser alleges that Jackson committed the fondling, and his mother alleges Jackson held the family against their will to get help with his public-relations effort.

Pryor said she met Jackson's accuser on New Year's Day 2001 when he was in the hospital with cancer and eventually became very close with him and his siblings, bonding especially with his older sister. Pryor also said she spent hours on the telephone with the accuser's mother, speaking mainly about the three kids, whom she said she "grew to love a lot."

"Did [the mother] ever say Michael Jackson was in a conspiracy to commit crimes against her family?" asked defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau. "Absolutely not," answered Pryor. "Did she ever say to you that Michael ever molested her children?" asked Mesereau. "No," said Pryor, who repeated "no" to a host of other questions related to the conspiracy charge, among them whether the mother had said she was being forced to go to Brazil and whether she was forced to do any interviews on Jackson's behalf.

"As a matter of fact she was very happy to do the rebuttal video," Pryor said, adding that the mother said she was upset her son's relationship with Jackson had been taken out of context by a British documentary filmmaker. "She was very anxious to tell the world that what her son had with Michael was a beautiful friendship," Pryor said. She added that the family planned a trip to Brazil with Jackson and his kids for Carnival and that she was even invited along. When Mesereau asked Pryor if the mother ever spoke of having to "escape" Neverland Ranch, Prior smiled. "It's Neverland. I don't really know who would want to escape. It's a fun place," she said.

A day earlier, Jackson's 12-year-old cousin Rijo Jackson testified that he had seen Jackson's accuser and his brother masturbating in separate beds in a guest cottage he had shared with them one night. "I saw them go to the TV, turn to a channel that had naked girls, and they did nasty stuff," Rijo testified, clarifying under further questioning what "nasty" meant to him. Rijo, who was 10 at the time, said the brothers urged him to do it too, but he got scared and ran off to tell Michael Jackson that the two were watching adult material on television.

Under cross-examination he admitted that he hadn't told his cousin about the masturbation. He also confirmed that he spent that night sleeping in the same bed as Jackson. "Did you do that often?" asked assistant prosecutor Ron Zonen. "Yes," answered Rijo. Defense lawyers hope the 12-year-old's graphic testimony will convince the jury that the alleged molestation victim was already familiar with self-gratification and was lying when he testified that Jackson reached into his pants to show him how to do it.

The attorneys also managed this week to elicit many witness statements indicating that the boys were delinquent in their behavior outside of Jackson's presence and that their mother was untrustworthy. Rijo said he saw the accuser and his brother stealing money from a drawer in a Neverland kitchen. Rijo's sister Simone said she saw the brothers steal wine at Neverland. Maria Gomez, a maid at the ranch, said she found a backpack with sexually explicit magazines in a Neverland guesthouse and assumed it belonged to the brothers. Neverland security guard Shane Meridith said he caught the brothers drinking in Jackson's wine cellar. And assistant chef Angel Vivanco said the younger boy had held a knife up to his neck.

As for beautician Carol McCoy: she gave the accuser's mother a leg, face and bikini wax at a spa near Jackson's ranch, and was one of several people who testified that the woman did not appear to be agitated nor forcibly confined in February 2003. An orthodontist and her assistant described a visit by the mother and the children to have teeth braces taken off. Neverland employee Kathryn Bernard reported taking the mother shopping.

Finally, a Los Angeles social worker described interviewing the mother and son after the broadcast of the documentary in which Jackson appeared slightly snuggling with his accuser and admitted to nonsexual sleepovers with boys. "I asked [the boy] very point blankly did he ever sleep in bed with Michael Jackson," testified social worker Irene Peters. "He told me no. He became a little upset. He said, 'Everybody's saying Michael Jackson sexually abused me. He never touched me'."

The defense team also benefited when Judge Melville allowed them to play a 19-minute video tour of Neverland ranch that District Attorney Sneddon tried to get thrown out, calling it a "puff piece" that was "self serving." But Melville said that when he refused a defense request to physically take the jury to the Neverland ranch, he "had in mind" a video presentation instead.

The film panned the 2,700-acre property, with panoramas of the grounds, amusement park, lake and zoo. While no children were filmed in the video, the jury could witness Jackson's preoccupation with children in the numerous sculptures of children playing and several paintings in which Jackson is shown as a Peter Pan or even a Pied Piper-type figure amid groups of children from various ethnic backgrounds.

Videographer Larry Nimmer, who specializes in legal-evidence videos, rode one of three trains on the property to take the footage. Inside, he included a shot of an "I LOVE YOU DADDY ... GET WELL" message that Jackson's daughter, Paris, had chalked on a kitchen menu board. (Jackson says he suffers from back pain.) And Nimmer carefully filmed many titles in Jackson's extensive book and video library. Books included the Bible, child-care manuals, coffee-table books on cinema and animation and others on Mickey Mouse, Michelangelo and the Third Reich.

The video seemed to underscore last week's nearly three-hour video of Jackson speaking on screen in outtakes filmed when he was interviewed for the controversial documentary. "Again it's like putting Michael Jackson on the stand without a cross-examination," said law professor Levenson. "He can tell his whole life story. You see the children's books. You don't see the dirty books."