Will Other Accusers Testify?

Former Neverland maid Kiki Fournier told jurors that she sometimes saw Michael Jackson entertaining young boys who were "intoxicated." Her testimony Thursday afternoon helped lend credence to Jackson's 15-year-old accuser's testimony that the pop star routinely got him drunk. She followed a Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department detective who buttressed the accuser's claim that he'd been shown by Jackson a sex magazine in his bedroom; the magazines that investigators found during a Neverland search "matched the description exactly" of the one given to them by the accuser and his brother. And earlier, a TV weatherman who'd given money and presents to the accuser when he was ill with cancer helped the prosecutor counter contentions that the boy and his family are just shakedown artists. "I found them personable and polite and charismatic," Fritz Coleman reported. They never tried to shake him down.

Think of it as the Jackson trial's rehabilitation phase. With the press section half empty now that the accuser and his siblings have left the witness stand, Prosecutor Thomas Sneddon and his assistants set about the hard work of making their case seem solid and believable. Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., meanwhile, spent days painting the family as unreliable, greedy, poorly behaved--and outright liars. Sneddon's job now is to bring on as many cops, Neverland employees and expert witnesses as it takes to make sure that jurors believe that, despite some mistakes, the boy and his siblings were essentially telling the truth. "It's damage control," says Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "Part of the prosecutor's strategy from day one has been to put the boy's testimony out there and then back it up, so that if he did fall on his face--which he partly did--they can recover."

Rehabilitation could soon come from another source, too. On Friday, Judge Rodney Melville agreed to schedule a so-called 1108 hearing on March 28 to consider whether to allow evidence of Jackson's alleged prior molestations of other teenage boys. The prosecutor says he has a list of alleged prior victims, including two with whom Jackson reportedly made civil settlements. The most important is a young man who was a Los Angeles teenager in 1994 when Jackson paid him a multimillion-dollar settlement after the boy said Jackson had sex with him in 1993. Sneddon's best-case scenario: he's allowed to have the young man testify about the alleged abuse.

Under a California law written in response to the collapse of the earlier Jackson case, prosecutors are broadly permitted to bring in evidence of prior sexual acts to show a pattern of behavior. "I think this could be the linchpin in the prosecutor's case," says University of Southern California law professor Tom Lyon, an expert on sex-abuse cases. If jurors see the current case as part of a longstanding pattern, they may forgive the current family a lot. Testimony from alleged past victims would "blow the lid off this. It will make all the criticism we've made of [the accuser] moot," says Levenson. The defense will have to fight another trial, as well."

Count on the defense to battle to exclude any mention of past allegations. Jackson's lawyers have a few solid arguments. Judges can exclude or severely limit material from prior cases if the material is too old, and many of these allegations date back 10 years or more. And the judge can bar mention of past cases if they would prejudice the jury so much that they would, in effect, convict the accused based on allegations with which he isn't charged, rather than the ones for which he's actually being tried. And Judge Melville has already told the lawyers he had a bad experience in another trial by allowing evidence of past crimes to be introduced. If he does decide to allow the past material in this case, witnesses from the past could start testifying soon after the March 28 hearing.

This week, Sneddon has come in for criticism for putting the family on the stand so early in the case and for failing to prop them up. The 15-year-old boy's testimony had particular problems. Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, described it as "a grab bag of everything that can go wrong with a witness." One especially damaging moment for the prosecution came during Mesereau's cross examination. The boy acknowledged he had told a school dean who confronted him after the airing of the "Living with Michael Jackson" TV special that "Michael didn't do anything to me."

Sneddon tried to recover quickly. Questioning the boy during redirect, he asked about the circumstances. The boy explained that after the TV special aired, junior-high-school classmates taunted him, saying the pop singer had raped him. To avoid humiliation, he lied to the dean. "All the kids were already making fun of me in school, and I didn't want them to think it happened," he told jurors.

With the boy off the stand, Sneddon began the slow work of shoring up his testimony. The alleged victim and his brother are the only eyewitnesses to the four counts of sexual molestation (and one attempted molestation) that are at the heart of the Jackson case, so jurors have to believe the accuser and his brother if they are to convict. Jackson employees and others will testify that they saw Jackson take part in the other alleged crimes: feeding the boy alcohol in furtherance of a crime and conspiring to hold the family against its will, according to grand jury testimony.

Legal experts caution against drawing too many conclusions about the strength or weakness of the prosecution's case. The early phases of long and complex prosecutions often look sloppy, they say, but don't necessarily forecast an acquittal. Remember Scott Peterson, says Jean Rosenbluth, who also teaches law at USC. "In early months, all the pundits were saying how poorly the prosecutors were doing and how Scott Peterson was going to walk," says Rosenbluth. He was convicted in the end. "Until you get to closing arguments, it's hard for prosecutors to put everything in order and really tell a story."