Sex, Smut and Fingerprints

Prosecutors in Michael Jackson's molestation trial this week presented jurors with a jarring mix of hot magazines and cold technology. The jury got a crash course in sexually explicit magazine content, as prosecutors spent hours projecting blown-up images of more than 80 photographs of nude women on the courtroom wall. That done, they led witnesses in a symposium on the arcane and sometime tedious science of fingerprint analysis, "ridgeology" and "porology." Sometimes, prosecutors mixed smut and science--showing sex-magazine photos from Jackson's magazine collection marked by little green arrows that showed where fingerprints had been found.

On Friday afternoon, prosecutors finally revealed the specifics. Robert Spinner, forensic supervisor with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, testified that technicians matched a total of 19 clear prints on the magazines. Only one of those magazines contained prints from both Jackson and the singer's young accuser, revealed Spinner, who is now retired. It was a copy of a magazine called Hustler Barely Legal Hardcore dated prior to October 2000. Page 54 bore Jackson's left thumbprint, according to Spinner. Three prints from the accuser's left hand lay on page 92.

Prints from both Jackson and the accuser--as well as the accuser's brother--turned up on several other magazines. But the single magazine that both Jackson and the accuser apparently thumbed is the most useful to Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr. Prosecutors hope the prints on the sexual material will bolster their contention that Jackson, 46, lured his accuser into inappropriate sexual behavior in February or March of 2003, when the boy was 13. Their theory is that Jackson viewed the heterosexual magazine content with the boy as part of a pattern of exposing him to erotic material in a gradual prelude to involving him in a sex act.

"It's the only corroboration the DA has tying the boy and Jackson to pornography," says former San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer. The boy's fingerprints are also the only physical evidence so far linking Jackson's alleged victim to the entertainer's bedroom. Prosecutors have already admitted no genetic material from the boy was found in Jackson's rooms.

Jackson's attorneys offered alternative theories to account for the prints. Just because Jackson and the accuser both left prints on the magazines, there's no proof they looked at them together. In his opening statement, lead defense attorney Thomas Meseraeau Jr., who admitted at least some of the magazines were Jackson's, assured jurors that Jackson never showed the boys the material. He suggested that the boys delved into Jackson's collection by themselves. This week, Mesereau's team pointed out that the accuser's prints might have been left days or even weeks apart from Jackson's. "Do you have any way to determine the age of the fingerprints?" Jackson attorney Robert Sanger asked witness Det. Tim Sutcliffe of the Sheriff's Department. "No," replied the detective.

Witnesses also admitted to Sanger that fingerprint testing wasn't carried out on the magazines until almost a year after they were seized at Jackson's ranch, raising the possibility that the accuser might have touched the magazines later. "Is it is a huge bungle?" Hammer, the former prosecutor analyzing the trial, asked rhetorically. "No, but the defense is looking for one little bit of doubt to put in jurors' minds."

Sanger raised complaints about the shortcomings of fingerprint identification. He mentioned small mistakes and the fact that technicians were using advanced equipment for the first time in the Jackson case. Citing another case, he said that last spring the FBI had held an Oregon lawyer for two weeks in connection with the Madrid train bombings because of "16 matches" by fingerprint experts that turned out to be wrong. "Fingerprint identification is subjective, correct?" Sanger asked fingerprint examiner Lisa Hemman Thursday. She agreed.

This week's evidence illustrated the extent of the prosecutor's massive investigation. Forensic experts detailed how they spent months painstakingly photographing, testing and comparing prints. There were 706 photographs of prints, mostly taken from the adult magazines; 178 contained "sufficient detail" to examine further. Detective Sutcliffe said the fingerprinting operation was the most voluminous that he has seen in his 16 years of duty. "It was in the thousands of pages ... very time consuming," he testified. "A magazine would take us a full day ... the Sheriff's Department had to bring in extra people."

When court resumes Monday morning, Judge Rodney Melville has said he will rule on what--if any--prior sexual history to allow into testimony. A judicial go-ahead could immediately bring witnesses to the stand that the prosecution hopes will paint Jackson as a serial pedophile. The singer, who has been charged on 10 felony counts, five of them involving molestation, has never been convicted of a sexual crime. But a 1993-94 investigation into similar allegations was called off when the accuser in that case reached a settlement with Jackson estimated at $10 million to $25 million. If Melville allows a major portion of the past cases to be heard, the new material will be a blow to the defense. Also Monday, jurors will hear from comic George Lopez, who was reportedly accused by the family of stealing a wallet containing $300.

Earlier in the week, it was prosecutors who were hit with a setback when Las Vegas police arrested a key upcoming witness, former Jackson bodyguard Chris Carter, 25. The security man was scheduled to offer testimony prosecutors expected would support several points of the accuser's testimony. According to a grand-jury transcript, Carter once found the boy staggering drunk. When Carter questioned him, the boy replied that "Michael said if I can handle it, it's OK. It's part of being a man." Carter reported knowing the family was being taken to Brazil. He also told grand jurors that the accuser and his brother "mainly ... would sleep with Mr. Jackson in Mr. Jackson's room," although he never saw any sexual behavior.

Carter will still testify, but the new charges throws his credibility in doubt. Prosecutors in Las Vegas charged him with a 15-count indictment that includes armed robbery and kidnapping. The indictment alleges that he committed a string of four armed robberies that began in 2003, two months after Carter left Jackson's staff, and ended just last month with a Feb. 2 hold up of a Jack-in-the-Box fast-food outlet that netted him a mere $239. Carter, who was on Jackson's security staff for a year, has pleaded innocent. Now, Jackson's defense team will likely attempt to discredit Carter, though it remains unclear what references to Carter's current legal troubles Judge Melville will allow.

To address worries that the accuser's testimony was vague and sometimes contradictory, Child psychologist Anthony Urquiza testified Monday that sexual-abuse victims often have difficulty remembering dates and specifics of what happened to them. Urquiza outlined "child sexual-assault accommodation syndrome," in which children are ashamed and often hide the facts about what happened to them until details gradually emerge in bits and pieces over time. Urquiza also said it is normal for victims to love and admire their abusers and for them to display behavioral problems that may, at the time, seem unrelated. The jury heard the youth say he considered Jackson a father figure and also that the teen had a terrible school record around the time of the alleged crimes.

But under cross examination, however, Urquiza admitted having little experience with those who make false claims of sexual abuse. The psychologist agreed that even mental-health professionals like himself can have trouble differentiating between those children who are telling the truth and those who are not.

Early in the week, Los Angeles comedian Louise Palanker helped prosecutors by contradicting defense allegations that the accuser's mother used her children to hound celebrities for money. Palanker testified that the mother had never asked her for financial help but that she came forward of her own accord with $10,000 when the accuser became ill with cancer at age 10. Palanker had taught the boy a year earlier, in 1999, at a comedy camp. The comedian said she ultimately gave another $10,000 after the boy's biological father pressed her for more. Palanker said she sent a letter to the accuser's grandparents' home after seeing the television documentary "Living with Michael Jackson" that showed the accuser and Jackson holding hands. At that point, she says, she received a phone call from the boy's mother that convinced her the family was being held against their will. "Don't call me back here. They're listening to everything I say," Palanker reported the mother as whispering fearfully. "These people are evil."

Early in the week, the main drama seemed to take place off the stand when Jackson, with both his parents and two brothers accompanying him, was asked how he felt. He replied that it showed "great love, great bonding." Jackson continued to visibly suffer from back problems, telling fans on the way into court that he was still in "a lot of pain" but that he wanted to "say hello to the people of Santa Maria, my friends and neighbors." Jackson attorney Brian Oxman had to be rushed out of court on a stretcher after collapsing with chest pain. What many feared may be a heart attack turned out to be a lung infection, and he returned to court Friday.

The repetition of the sex and fingerprint evidence apparently wore heavily on Judge Melville. After prosecutors finished entering the last of the 74 sex magazines into evidence late Friday and prepared to turn the witness over to the defense for cross examination, Melville spoke up. "I can't take any more," he said, and gaveled the court day to a close, 20 minutes early.