'A Pure Love for Children'

Michael Jackson's lawyers wasted no time in attacking the heart of the prosecutor's case. The first two defense witnesses this week were young men who both swore the singer never touched them inappropriately--even though they had each spent many nights sleeping in the pop star's bed during childhood visits.

Wade Robson, 22, a dancer and film director, and Brett Barnes, 23, a casino dealer who flew to California from Melbourne, Australia, to testify, were among five boys whom state prosecutors have said Jackson molested during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jackson was never charged in those cases, but Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville had allowed prosecutors to introduce the evidence to show a "propensity" and "pattern" that they believe Jackson repeated two years ago with his current accuser, who has testified that Jackson molested him when he was 13.

Many observers thought the evidence of past molestations formed the strongest segment of the prosecution case, so Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau Jr., chose to attack it first. In their testimony both men, who remain close friends with Jackson, categorically denied anything remotely sexual had ever occurred. "I think it's ridiculous," Robson told jurors on Thursday. Barnes took the stand later that day, saying, "I would never stand for it."

On Friday, Mesereau buttressed their testimony with four more witnesses who said they never saw Jackson behave badly: Robson's mother, Joy; his sister, Chantal; Barnes's mother, Lisbeth, and his sister, Karlee. Joy Robson denied that Jackson molested her son, dismissing his body contact as routine touching. "Mr. Jackson hugs everybody," she reported. Robson testified that she spoke with Jackson practically every day during the period her son stayed at Neverland. Borrowing a line from Disneyland, she said, "I would have said it's the happiest place on Earth."

Far from worrying about Jackson's behavior at the ranch, Robson said she trusted Jackson. "Michael is a very special person," she testified. "Unless you know him, it's hard to understand. He's not the guy next door. He's unique ... He has a very pure love for children."

Chantal Robson testified that she, too, spent nights with her brother in Jackson's bed and that she saw nothing untoward. "Do you think it's appropriate for a 10-year-old girl to sleep with a 35-year-old man she just met," asked prosecutor Gordon Auchincloss in cross-examination. "I think it's appropriate for a 10-year-old girl to sleep with a friend," said Robson. "He's my friend, and I love him."

Mesereau asked Lisbeth Barnes why she'd given her young son permission to sleep in Jackson's bed. "Why not?" she replied. "Did you trust him?" Mesereau asked. "Implicitly," she replied. "He's just a nice guy. I still do trust him."

While a defense motion to have the charges thrown out was rejected by the judge Thursday, the arguments by Jackson attorney Robert Sanger provided a preview of their strategy in the coming weeks. The defense will argue that the current accuser and his family lied on the stand and that the so-called "pattern" witnesses laying out old allegations had financial motivations to lie. "The witnesses that came on had a tendency to self-destruct," said Sanger. "The smoking-gun evidence that these witnesses were supposed to present just didn't come through."

Sanger called the accuser's timeline of events "preposterous" since the boy alleged on the stand that the abuse took place only in the final weeks that he spent with Jackson, a time when the singer had been stung by public response to his comment in a documentary film that he enjoyed nonsexual sleepovers with boys. As well, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had already opened an investigation into the singer's behavior. "It is inherently improbable that somebody would say at this point, 'Well, why don't I molest this child?' It just makes no sense," Sanger said.

The defense lawyer ridiculed the evidence of forcible confinement, saying the family's "escapes and returns and escapes and returns" to Jackson's Neverland Ranch included trips to restaurants, leg-waxing appointments for the mother and at least one ride in a Rolls-Royce. But his greatest scorn was reserved for the accuser's mother, a victim of spousal abuse who previously won a settlement of $150,000 from J.C. Penney after claiming store security guards assaulted her and her children. "This is one of the most clearly deceptive witnesses who has ever appeared in any court," Sanger claimed.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon shot back that he was "offended" and "sick and tired" of Jackson lawyers accusing all his witnesses of lying. "Anyone who stands in their way ... are perjurers," Sneddon said of the defense attorneys. "This jury ought to be given the opportunity to decide for themselves." Melville ruled in Sneddon's favor, giving no explanation for his decision, and bid the defense call its first witness, Wade Robson.

Robson met Jackson at age 5 when he won a dance contest in Brisbane, Australia, where Jackson was giving a concert. "I was imitating him ... he asked me to perform with him the next night." Robson said he first visited Neverland at age 7 and had slept in a bed with Jackson 15 to 20 times over the years. At age 9, he moved to the United States after Jackson helped him launch a career in dance, music and choreography in this country.

"Has Mr. Jackson ever molested you?" asked Mesereau. "Absolutely not," answered Robson, who also denied ever having taken a shower with Jackson, contradicting last month's testimony by a Neverland maid who said she saw the two in a shower together. Robson also said Jackson wore "shorts" when in the Jacuzzi. And he said he never saw Jackson touch any other children inappropriately. As for what he would do during his sleepovers with Jackson, Robson replied: "We'd watch movies, we'd play videogames, have a pillow fight every now and then. We'd talk, hang out."

The cheery portrait of Jackson seemed to quickly evaporate under a rapid-fire cross-examination by prosecutor Ron Zonen, who frequently referred to Robson's "crawling into bed with Michael Jackson" and "sleeping with" Jackson, characterizations which Robson protested. The prosecutor then showed Robson a series of adult-content books and magazines that the witness said he never knew Jackson possessed. After flipping through pages of an art book that included photos of nude boys, Zonen stressed several times that the "genitalia were prominently displayed" and repeatedly asked Robson whether he would have concerns about a child sleeping with a man who owned these materials.

Robson said only one of the magazines--which showed men in sex acts with men--would cause him concern, and even then, only if it was a stranger, not a good friend. "You wouldn't be concerned about a child sleeping with a man who has these?" pressed Zonen. "If it was a man I didn't know, maybe. But not Michael," the witness replied.

Prosecutors also tried to undercut Brett Barnes, who also met Jackson as a 5-year-old in Australia. Both men stayed overnight at Neverland Ranch the night before testifying but said they were warned not to discuss the case with each other. Barnes, who still lives in Australia, nonetheless visited Neverland "countless" times and shared a bed with Jackson there and on numerous world travels with the singer. Under Mesereau's questioning, Barnes said that Jackson "absolutely" hadn't molested him. "And I could tell you right now that if he had I wouldn't be here," he emphasized.

But under cross-examination by Zonen, Barnes appeared somewhat evasive, and his obvious loyalty to Jackson at times seemed to work against him. After Barnes testified that Jackson always wore pajama bottoms when the two would share a bed, Zonen confronted him with a photo of Barnes and Jackson showing the singer in his underwear. The prosecutor also hammered home how many times the young Barnes would stay with Jackson or travel from Australia to see Jackson--without a parent present. "Two or three times you came to North America alone?" Zonen asked. "I was very fortunate," the witness answered. "You're seeing that where the prosecutors are really making their points [that the witnesses, as boys] admit [to having] stayed hundreds of nights in the same bed with Jackson, and Robson said he'd even let his child sleep with him," said Jim Thomas, a former Santa Barbara sheriff who was involved in trying to bring the earlier cases to court almost a decade ago.

Both Robson and Barnes said they had sleepovers together with Jackson and several other children at Neverland--including Macaulay Culkin. Culkin, star of the "Home Alone" movies, is expected to testify next week that he, too, spent a great deal of time with Jackson, including sleepover parties, but that the singer never assaulted him. If he does, then three of the five alleged victims of past molestations will have come to court to say they were never Michael Jackson's victims at all.