For Q Magazine, Nov 2003
Michael Jackson Is A Free Man
But doubts remain about his showering with boys, dodgy henchmen and impending financial doom. Q had a ringside seat at the most bizarre trial in history.
The "trial of the century" starring the "King of Pop" appears at first to lack the grandeur of its billing. Instead of a lavish production in New York or Los Angeles, complete with stone pillars and Latin engravings, this piece of celebrity theatre is being staged in Santa Maria, a forgettable farming town in central California. Cramped, squat and dim, without windows, the courtroom nevertheless seems apt for the rather seedy matter at hand, namely, the fine line between tickling and groping, a line that Jackson's attorney, Tom Mesereau, seems determined to smudge.
"You were asked what Mr Jackson did with your penis and you said 'he tickled me there'. Do you remember saying that?" says Mesereau.
"I don't know," shrugs the witness, Jason Francia, a 24 year old auto parts salesman and pastor. In 1994 Jackson paid him over $2 million in an out-of-court settlement. No charges were filed. "I was probably crying at the time."
"If you don't remember," Mesereau shoots back. "How do you know you were crying?"
I'm sitting 3 rows behind Team Jackson, scribbling the penis/tickling quotes along with the 60 or so other press. Behind us are the 40-odd fans who are allotted their seats by public lottery every morning at 6.30am, many of whom are scribbling "penis" too. In fact, the only people not taking notes, not really taking this tickling stuff that seriously seem to be the jury. A few are even sniggering behind their hands, to the bafflement of Francia who sits a few feet away. One of the jury is heard laughing "oh boo-hoo, Michael Jackson tickled me."
Mesereau one - Possibly Molested Witness nil.
According to TV's talking heads, however, this week - the first week of April - is the worst yet for Jackson, right up there with the time he showed up in pajamas or the time the prosecution rifled through his porn stash, showing off magazines like Over 50s, Plumpers and Double Dicking Caroline. What makes this week so bad is that Judge Rodney Melville allowed the prosecutors to bring in as many other accusers as they can find in order to persuade the jury of a pattern of behaviour. In other words, where Jackson once had just the one accuser - Gavin Arvizo, 15, first seen in the Martin Bashir documentary, Living With Michael Jackson - now he has many. Every prior allegation that he has accrued over the years can now come careening into court. Naturally the prosecution is rubbing its hands - after all, the jury has to believe at least one of these accusers, surely? And it's great for us in the audience because at last we're not just getting a verdict on one case or another, but on them all, on the basic question of whether Michael Jackson is or isn't a child molester.
For Jackson, however, the nightmare just got worse. And the stress is beginning to show. He looks awful, even by his own cadaverous standards - Karen Carpenter thin, an effect heightened by his beefy security escort who flank him in and out of court. He's wearing white socks with black sandals and a jacket so crumpled that he might well have woken up in it. His hands are so bony I expect them to clack as they move. Once as he filed slowly past the press rows to his seat, the King of Pop caught me staring at him and he smiled. I had to turn away. His stretched lips were curling back up his talcum face like wallpaper. The sight of his gums made me shiver.
This isn't quite the trial many of us anticipated - the epic denouement of the saddest story in pop. Since the allegations in 1993, when he appeared to pay his way out of trouble, a fog of questions have surrounded Michael Jackson, questions that this trial was supposed to answer once and for all. But it hasn't. It has neither proved beyond question Jackson's guilt or innocence, nor really solved the mystery of the man and made sense of his whole Peter Pan existence. Instead, we now know that he looks at straight porn and yet shares his bed with boys. In some ways, we're more baffled than before.
In the OJ Simpson trial of 1994 - the "trial of the decade" at the time - it was clear from the off that Simpson had blood on his hands, whether he was convicted or not. Jackson's case is not so straightforward. This trial has muddied our suspicions not confirmed them. Jackson has been charged with 10 felony counts - 4 of child molestation, 1 of attempted child molestation, 4 of intoxicating minors in order to commit the molestation and 1 of conspiracy (essentially the kidnap and imprisonment of the Arvizo family in the weeks following the airing of the documentary). Without any physical or forensic evidence, however - besides Gavin Arvizo's fingerprint on a pornographic magazine, which might have been tampered with, as the defense has shown - the trial of the millennium is reduced to a monumental he said-he said, and it is unclear who to root for. If this trial has shown us anything - the way Simpson revealed the reality of race in America - it is that everyone is corruptible. Pastors, pop stars, hospice workers, maids, even sick children with cancer are capable of lying for money or otherwise.
Perhaps such a murky trial befits an enigma like Jackson, who remains pop's most grotesque and fantastic story. His is a tale worthy of the Greeks - not one but several myths contorted together, and every one of them a tragedy. Perhaps his mystery isn't meant to be solved. Certainly he gives little away in court. He fidgets with the special pillow for his back or shakes his head now and then. But that's all. Oddly, for such a spectacle of a man, he's seldom the centre of attention.
Rather this court belongs to Tom Mesereau - aka "the Mez", as the press corps call him - a man for whom "victims" are just "liars" he hasn't met yet, be they pastors, children or otherwise. With a wrestler's build and a large head of white hair, the Mez suffers no fools. He pounces on mumblers. Several times today, he approaches the witness stand armed with one of his vast binders to show Francia the transcript of a previous interview - this is how he nails them, with their own words - and every time he passes behind the prosecution's desk, he looks as though he might at any moment grab district attorney Tom Sneddon in a headlock.
(Sneddon, however, inspires more pity than fear. Known as "Mad Dog" when he tried and failed to prosecute Jackson for supposedly molesting Jordie Chandler in 1993, he seems to have lost his bite since then. He's now a mottled, pudgy sexagenarian with thick lenses and a loose tongue. He once publicly referred to Jackson as "Wacko Jacko" and had to effusively apologise.)
Once Jason Francia leaves the stand, Mesereau faces perhaps his greatest challenge of the trial - Jason's mother Bianca, a mild-mannered Hispanic lady and former Jackson maid who cleaned his bedroom at Neverland. She hardly screams "liar". She works as a caregiver to the elderly. Do money-grubbing liars work in hospices? She is quite matter-of-fact when she tells prosecutor Ron Zonen that she once saw Jackson share a shower, naked, with one of his sleepover favourites - the 12 year old Wade Robson, now a successful choreographer, and something of a C-lister himself. Without bitterness she says she saw two figures through a steamy shower door and yes, their underwear was on the bathroom floor - one neon green with Spiderman figures and one plain white (no, Jackson does not wear Spidey pants).
At first Mesereau treads carefully. He has her admit how generous Jackson was to her over the years and he reminds the court that even the harmless Mrs Francia, with her patchy English, can be sullied by money, this time from a tabloid magazine called Hard Copy in 1993. But she's hard to taint. Though she may well have benefited from her son's $2 million windfall, Hard Copy only paid her $20,000 which she split with her friend. And on a maid's meagre salary who can blame her?
So Mesereau retracts his claws, looks up from his file and cracks a mirthless smile. "Do you remember him saying he would let Bubbles stay in his bed?" he says. "Do you remember saying that Bubbles didn't like wearing a diaper?"
The Bubbles card. Rather than argue the issue of Jackson in the shower with boys, Mesereau's trying to simply erase the image from the jury's minds by saying "look! A monkey in diapers! Isn't he cute!" Francia shrugs yes, yes and yes again and then the Judge calls a break.
If Jackson's strategy is to present the star as a regressed, manchild with a child's innocent heart, then Sneddon's is to view him as though through a negative - he recasts all that fans admire about Jackson as tools for evil. So Neverland Ranch becomes Jackson's lair. Its carousel and zoo are bait. Even his child-like manner is a con. A Jackson aide, Rudy Provencio testified to his having two voices - one thin, high and gentle and the other firmer and lower-pitched. To believe the prosecution, his public persona is a concoction, a façade beneath which lurks an inveterate pederast. Don't be fooled.
The prosecution's case, however, is also an affront to common sense. According to Sneddon, Jackson did not abuse the Arvizo boy in the 18 months or so prior to the airing of the Bashir documentary, during which time he showered the Arvizo family with gifts and frequently shared his bed with Gavin. No, he waited until millions of viewers saw him admit that he slept with boys, setting off a worldwide shitstorm of publicity and prompting the Santa Barbara authorities to place him under investigation. In his panic, he had his Neverland co-conspirators - a motley gang including Marc Schaffel, a former gay porn producer, and Dieter Wiesner, the owner of several German sex clubs - hold the family captive and force them to deny on camera acts of molestation that had in fact never happened. Then with this "rebuttal video" in the bag, argues the prosecution, Jackson proceeded to get Gavin and his younger brother Star drunk on wine ("Jesus juice" as the boys claim Jackson calls it), show them internet porn and, hell, molest Gavin anyway by masturbating him in view of his brother, even licking his chemotherapy head in a cat-like manner in view of his mother. That this bizarre timeline was not excoriated by major media long ago is an indictment of the coverage of this trial. But like every other player in this trial, the media emerges somewhat tainted. And even though TV cameras are not permitted in the courtroom itself, the media has been an active participant from the start. Certainly Martin Bashir's stock has plummeted, first when he refused to answer questions about his work, and then when Jackson's own footage of the making of his documentary exposed him as a fawning manipulator, making assurances to Jackson that he knew he would betray in the editing room.
The corruptive influence of paying for stories is a common theme of Jackson's defense. Two seats to my left sits Court TV's reporter Diane Dimond, formerly of Hard Copy, who paid Bianca Francia back in 1994. Dimond is so in with Sneddon's office that she somehow knew when the November 2003 raids on Jackson's Neverland ranch would take place (she was there with a camera crew) and when the grand jury transcripts were leaked before jury selection - all that gruesome detail about Jesus Juice and head licking - it appeared first on Court TV's website, thesmokinggun.com.
A week later, Janet Arvizo, the boy's mother, takes the stand to a rapt courtroom. This might yet be the testimony that buries Jackson. But things aren't quite going to plan. She's not all there. In fact, to be fair, she seems a few llamas short of a petting zoo.
She seems immune to court decorum, often muttering asides to the jury like "He's inaccurate," or "He's mixing up the facts, purposely." She even infuriates the prosecutor, Ron Zonen who tells her, "you'll drive the court reporter nuts!" But Janet can't rein herself in.
Her alleged kidnap, she says, was all about avoiding "the killers", a shadowy cadre which Jackson's aides apparently said were after her family after the documentary came out. It was to appease these "killers" that she agreed to the rebuttal video. "But you know what?" she exclaims to the jury, with high drama. "They ended up being the killers!"
Asked why she didn't call the police during her captivity, she claims she believed that "all this would be resolved by God's miracles". Besides, she tried to drop clues in calls to her elderly mother. "I sneaked in clues, so that one day this puzzle could be figured out," she says mysteriously. Her mother's reply was only "que?" And what of the bikini wax and pedicure she got herself, while supposedly imprisoned, and the steakhouse dinners and the shopping at Banana Republic? "Would it refresh your recollection to look at the receipt?" Mesereau asks.
"I'm telling you, it was only a leg wax. He has the ability to choreograph everything," she says, pointing at Jackson.
Mesereau then points out Janet's prior history of fraud - the $150,000 payout from a department store whose security guards she claims manhandled her; the local newspaper she persuaded to organise a fundraising campaign for Gavin's chemotherapy treatment, even though the treatment was covered by their insurance. At one point she insists that Jackson might have used a hot air balloon to make the family "disappear". Janet Arvizo isn't the only prosecution witness to backfire. The flight attendant on Jackson's plane testified that Gavin Arvizo was rude and unruly and that yes, she served Jackson wine on the flight, but that it was her idea to serve it in a Diet Coke can. Debbie Rowe the mother of Jackson's children describes him as "generous" and "a wonderful father" and a good "friend".
Admittedly, these cases are always harder for prosecutors, who shoulder the burden of proof - all Mesereau need do is spread doubt - but if Jackson is guilty of abusing scores of children over the years, as Sneddon wants us to believe, then why not try to convict him on a stronger case, one without such an improbable timeline, a sketchy family and questionable witnesses?
Yet again, it is proving notoriously difficult to stick Jackson with a paedophilia charge, and yet again, there has been an enormous effort to do so. In 1993, it took some 49 lawyers, a dozen investigators, 200 possible witnesses, $15 million in settlement fees and two years of hysterical front pages to decide that there was no case against Michael Jackson as a child molester. This time around, the prosecution's case alone has taken 45 days, over 600 pieces of evidence and 87 witnesses, only four of whom actually talk about Michael molesting the accuser. And the ugly fact remains - of the three kids who claim they were molested, two won millions of dollars stemming from their accusations and the third is from a family with a history of deception for money.
This trial reeks of the corruptive power of money. Money to keep you quiet, like the $100 bills Jackson gave Jason Francia after a tickle, and money to make you talk, like the cheques from tabloid magazines and newspapers. It is often argued that this case is different - that it is about truth because the Arvizos are pursuing a criminal case not a civil settlement. But Gavin Arvizo has until he's 20 to file a civil suit and he has already secured the civil representation of Larry Feldman, the lawyer who won $20 million for Jordie Chandler in 1993. (In testimony heard by the court, but not the jury, the talk show host Larry King said that Feldman himself told him that Janet Arvizo was in it for the money). Clearly if the Arvizos succeed in criminal court, a victory in civil court, where the standards of proof are lower, is more or less guaranteed. And yet again, Feldman stands to make a windfall from Jackson.
But the tide has ebbed steadily away from Feldman, Sneddon and the Arvizos. Should the verdict follow the run of play, given the overabundance of reasonable doubt, Jackson will be found not guilty of all charges. Not innocent, just not guilty, which means that he might still be a child molester, in the minds of the public if nothing else. He is certainly obsessed with children in a way that few 46-year -old men can understand. And there are reasons to believe all is not as advertised at Neverland where the staff are borderline criminals, and the owner claims to have had only a couple of nose jobs and then only to help his breathing.
Given the enduring mystery of Michael Jackson, and the paucity of proof, Sneddon has tried to explain away Jackson as a standard issue paedophile. Mesereau on the other hand has embraced Jackson's peculiarity. Rather than shy away from Jackson's fondness for sleeping with boys, he is arguing that Jackson loves sleepovers because he's actually a child and all children love sleepovers. And of course there's nothing dirty going on because as any ten year old will tell you - that would be icky.
So as May rolls round and the Defense begins its case, Mesereau calls as his first witnesses a roll call of young men who often slept with Jackson back when they were young boys. First up is Wade Robson, whom Bianca Francia says she saw showering naked with Jackson. Now a well-adjusted 22 year old who comes to court accompanied by a babe of a fiancée - sleeping with Jackson hasn't caused any obvious damage - Robson says categorically that nothing inappropriate ever happened, echoing the next two "boys", Brett Barnes and former child star McCauley Culkin.
Robson also denies that he ever showered with Michael. Which leaves us with the kind of choice that epitomises this trial, the very choice that the jury will have to deliberate after closing statements - either he's lying or the mild-mannered hospice worker, Bianca Francia is. Now it's possible that he might be ashamed of what happened, or even afraid of Jackson in some way. But he hasn't been corrupted by tabloid money. Jackson sits rock still looking straight ahead. Your call.