Reversal of Fortune

Eager prosecutors thought Michael Jackson's ex-wife would make an explosive closing witness. As the state wrapped up its case in Jackson's child-molestation trial, Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon put Debbie Rowe on the stand to nail down the charge that Jackson conspired with aides to keep the alleged victim and his family in custody. She would, he promised, say that Jackson and his handlers had "completely scripted" her testimony in a February 2003 video that was made to rebut a critical TV special--just as they had allegedly done with the family of the 13-year-old alleged molestation victim. "They scripted [Rowe's] interview just like they scripted [the victim's mother's] interview," Sneddon had said in his opening statement.

Rowe's testimony was explosive, but the victim wasn't Jackson. Once on the stand, the mother of two of Jackson's children often sounded like a star witness for the defense. "Did you take a look at a script?" asked Assistant District Attorney Ron Zonen on Thursday. "No," Rowe replied. The video crew had offered her a script with 105 possible questions, but Rowe said she refused to glance at it.

"As Mr. Jackson knows, no one can tell me what to say," she assured jurors at another point. She admitted that Jackson had asked her to appear in the video. She even admitted that a few of her remarks stretched the truth. But Rowe totally rejected the charge that Jackson and his handlers had forced her to make nice. "Michael [is] a wonderful person and a great father," she said. "Generous and caring." No wonder Jackson's defense team, led by Thomas Mesereau Jr., withdrew an earlier motion to have Rowe's words stricken from the record.

Observers were stunned at the prosecutors' reversal of fortune. "Certainly this is not the way the prosecution wanted to end their case," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. Rowe's testimony seemed to palpably rattle the prosecutors themselves. After her departure, Sneddon had a difficult time admitting routine evidence from a Jackson travel agent into the record, taking nearly an hour to lay a foundation for invoices and ticket receipts for air travel between Los Angeles and Miami. "I've got to start this break early," said Judge Rodney Melville, calling a recess on Thursday. "That was so painful."

Friday morning, Sneddon's team gained a small victory: Judge Melville admitted into evidence two books of Jackson's that included photos of nude boys. The pair--"Boys Will Be Boys" and "The Boy: A Photographic Essay"--were seized in a 1993 police raid on Jackson's home as part of an earlier molestation investigation that ended when Jackson paid the alleged victim $15 million or more. Citing pictures of boys without clothes, prosecutor Zonen argued that the books showed that Jackson had "a prurient interest in nude boys."

Jackson's lawyers argued that the books showed boys playing and swimming, were not illegal and that at least one of them had been given to him by a female fan. The other bore an inscription, apparently by Jackson, that emphasized childhood innocence: "Look at the true spirit of happiness and joy in these boys' faces ... This is the life I wish for my children. MJ." Admitting there "were photographs in each book which could be considered sexually explicit," Melville let them in and the jurors got a quick look.

For prosecutors, it was a small bright spot in a bad week. On Monday, prosecutors announced that former Jackson security man Chris Carter wouldn't testify after all. Carter was expected to tell jurors that he saw Jackson giving alcoholic drinks to the accuser in this case. That would provide key corroboration to the family's story, because Carter would have been the only adult who claimed to have seen Jackson giving wine or liquor to the 13-year-old. Whether the change of heart had to do with the fact that Carter has been jailed awaiting robbery and kidnapping charges in Nevada wasn't clear, though prosecutors had succeeded in severely limiting mention of the charges to Jackson jurors. Then came a travel agent who said she'd booked tickets to Brazil, apparently buttressing the family's contention that they were to be whisked off as part of the conspiracy. But she didn't tie the effort to Jackson himself.

And then came Rowe, who met Jackson in the early 1980s while working as a nurse for his dermatologist. She married Jackson in 1996 and had a son and daughter with him, Prince Michael, now 8, and Paris, now 7. She supported some parts of the prosecution's case. Divorced from him in 1999, she hadn't seen the children for years at the time of the video shoot and remains involved in legal proceedings to regain visitation rights--which prosecutors hoped would show Rowe had a motive to praise Jackson. At times teary on the stand, she seemed intent on establishing contact with Jackson, whom she hadn't seen since the divorce. But she somehow managed to sound friendly to Jackson while being estranged from him. "I've always considered him my friend," Rowe said under cross-examination by Tom Mesereau. "Still do?" asked Mesereau. "Yeah, if he'd talk to me," Rowe said.

Rowe's testimony may have also shattered the links prosecutors had been patiently forging between the superstar and the handlers who are unindicted co-conspirators. The conspiracy charge against Jackson hinges on establishing that he knew about and helped with efforts by his aides to restrain the alleged victim's family at his Neverland ranch. But Rowe seemed to believe that it was Jackson, not the family, who was the victim of a conspiracy by aides. During cross-examination, Rowe emphatically agreed when Mesereau asked her whether she thought that Jackson aides Marc Schaffel, Dieter Wiesner and Ronald Konitzer were liars who were trying to make money off of Jackson. "I think they are opportunistic vultures," she said of the trio. She said Schaffel, who is now suing Jackson for $3 million, "constantly" bragged about how much money he would make off Jackson. She portrayed Jackson as a somewhat distant figure, hardly a micromanager. "In my past knowledge he is removed from the handlers,"

Rowe said. "They were taking care of business--not always consulting him." Observers say Rowe was just the latest prosecution witness who hasn't lived up to Sneddon's advance billing. "I have never seen prosecutors so surprised by their own witnesses," says Levenson, the Loyola professor. In his opening statement, Sneddon promised jurors that the alleged victim had seen Jackson parade through the bedroom after a shower with an erection; on the stand, the boy didn't recall the episode. One flight attendant had told grand jurors that Jackson had asked her to hide the wine he was drinking in soda cans, but on the stand, she said the ruse had been her idea. And when the alleged victim's mother repeatedly rambled off-track during Mesereau's cross-examination, prosecutors found themselves launching objections to the testimony of their own witness. "We should be talking about how devastating the prosecution witnesses were to Jackson," says Andrew Cohen, a lawyer attending the case for CBS. "Instead, we're talking about how they hurt the prosecution. That's just a losing proposition for the government."

Ironically, the prosecution's high spot may have come when they presented evidence about allegations Jackson isn't charged with. Under California law, prosecutors were allowed to call witnesses who testified about past allegations of molesting five other boys, including the young man Jackson paid $15 million or more in 1994. One victim, the son of a former Jackson maid, told jurors about his own molestation. The past allegations may have lent weight to the current charges. "What the prosecution has going for it is sheer volume," says University of Southern California Law professor Jean Rosenbluth. "I think what the prosecution is hoping is that when you add them all up, it's going to lead them to a guilty verdict."

The prosecution promised to rest on Tuesday, but the remaining witnesses are believed to be minor ones offering more testimony about the alleged conspiracy. On Friday afternoon, lawyers argued outside the jury's presence over whether to admit testimony of a journalist named Ian Drew, who helped videotape Rowe's rebuttal video and was to interview the alleged victim's family in the days that followed. According to prosecutors, Drew recalled Jackson business associate Ronald Konitzer telling him that he couldn't interview the family because they had left Neverland unexpectedly. "I believe the word 'escape' was used," Drew told the judge and the lawyers. The escape phrasing would have been good for prosecutors because of the suggestion the family was being held against its will.

But the lawyers are the only ones who'll hear the testimony. At the end of the court day Friday, citing the "vagueness" of the Drew's recollection, Judge Melville disallowed Drew's testimony altogether. For the prosecution, it was a bad finale to a bad week.