Turning Point?

In a dramatic ruling that shifts the balance of the Michael Jackson molestation trial, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled Monday that he will allow jurors to hear evidence of past allegations that the pop star committed sexual improprieties with five young boys. "I am going to permit the testimony with regard to the sexual offenses and the alleged grooming," Melville ruled, referring to the alleged behavior that paves the way for molestation. Two of the five cases involve alleged victims whom Jackson paid multi-million settlements in the 1990s--and one involves actor Macauley Culkin, who has denied being molested. It appears likely that the jury will hear directly from only one of those accusers: a young man whom Jackson paid $2.4 million after the youth and his mother claimed in 1990 that Jackson molested the boy. The jury will also hear from the boy's mother, who once worked as a maid at Jackson's Neverland estate.

The so-called 1108 ruling was a key victory for Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon. He can now assert that the current case is part of what he claims is a long-running pattern of sexual misbehavior by Jackson. Sneddon told Melville on Monday morning that there was nothing "unique about this case," as he argued that the evidence should be heard. "It's precisely like the relationship the defendant had with a number of other children over the years." Trial watchers believe the new evidence may simplify Sneddon's job with the jury by countering problems and inconsistencies with the current accuser and his family. "This is a godsend for Mr. Sneddon," says Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School. "Their victim had not been a particularly effective witness. This will help forgive all those inconsistencies."

If the ruling simplifies Sneddon's case, it complicates that of lead Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. "He's now trying six cases," says Levenson. "It's not one." The good news for Mesereau is that many of the third-party witnesses whose testimony Melville allowed are former Jackson employee whom Mesereau can paint as disgruntled. He has already started doing so. Before Melville's ruling, Mesereau said that "willy-nilly third party witnesses" are "99 percent" of the evidence Sneddon wants to bring in. "The potential for prejudice there is overwhelming." The Jackson lawyer called some of the witnesses "lying [former] plaintiffs" and he suggested that tainted bystanders were no substitutes for actual victims. "How can you allow a parade of third-party characters to come in without any victims?" he said. Mesereau said he would have to conduct a "mini-trial" of each case and would question the credibility of all the past allegations. "You can't stop the defense from putting on a full-blown defense, and I mean just that."

Judge Melville's ruling was also notable for what it left out. Sneddon sought to be allowed to present evidence from seven boys' past allegations, but Melville barred two outright. Three of the instances he did admit involve young men who have denied Jackson ever molested them, including "Home Alone" star Culkin. "Macauley Culkin repeatedly said he was he was a friend of Mr. Jackson and was not molested," Mesereau said as he argued unsuccessfully to bar the testimony. In those three cases, Melville will allow testimony from third parties who claim they witnessed inappropriate behavior of some kind. It appears that the Jackson jury also will not hear from the alleged victim in the 1993-4 case, whom Jackson paid $15 million or more. Instead, the mother of the boy, now in his 20s and living in New York, will testify. Melville will allow the fact that Jackson settled with two boys into evidence, but he declined to allow jurors to hear about the size of the settlements, since that would be prejudicial.

Monday's ruling involved Section 1108 of the California Criminal Code which allows prosecutors to introduce evidence similar past sexual allegations in order to show that the defendant had a "pattern" of similar previous behavior. The provision was added to California law in 1995 when a criminal investigation collapsed after Jackson reached a civil settlement of more than $15 million with the boy in the 1993-94 case. Judges may draw sharp definitions of what constitutes a similar case. In the present Jackson case, Sneddon alleges that Jackson masturbated the alleged victim four times. Accordingly, the case of the past accuser whose testimony Melville will allow involved Jackson's "hand thrust inside the pants of a child," according to Sneddon, who added that the "prior child" can testify to "three separate incidents."

Judges can also exclude testimony if would be unduly prejudicial. Mesereau says nearly all of the past cases fit that bill. The new material "could jeopardize the presumption of [Jackson's] innocence," he said. "The evidence they are trying to introduce [is] of an emotional and high inflammatory nature." Despite the pitfalls, appellate courts have only overturned one case.

Some of that evidence involves the alleged means Jackson used to "groom" the accusers and their families in past alleged instances. Sneddon hopes to show that the accuser's mother in the current case wasn't alone in getting presents and money from the pop star. "It was a rather standard procedure for the defendant to buy the mothers things to keep them preoccupied, to have free rein with their children," Sneddon contended. "This is the way the defendant operates." Mesereau has painted the mother of the current accuser as a grifter who aimed to wring money from Jackson and had a history of leveling false charges. And she hasn't even been called to the stand yet. Now it appears that juror will hear from the mothers of two past accusers before they get the chance.