- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

SANTA MARIA (AP) — Pop star Michael Jackson yesterday stood before the first group of prospective jurors who could decide his fate on charges that he molested a teenage cancer patient and plied the boy with alcohol at his Neverland Ranch.

The singer, accompanied by four attorneys and dressed in a bright white suit and a jewel-trimmed vest and belt, stood and smiled as he faced prospective jurors for the start of jury selection in what could become the most sensational celebrity trial the world has seen.

He greeted the clerk with a handshake at the courthouse in this small city in central California about 15 miles from the coast.

Outside, fans from around the world pressed against a chain-link fence and shouted words of encouragement, holding signs that read, “Dear God, Please Give Michael Justice” and “France Supports and Loves MJ.”

Fans danced and sang a Jackson song attacking District Attorney Tom Sneddon and jeered a woman who held a sign backing the accuser.

Mr. Jackson, 46, is charged with molesting a 13-year-old boy and plying him with alcohol.

Judge Rodney Melville told prospective jurors that they might have to serve for about six months, but that it was an important duty. Jury selection could last a month or longer.

“Most of us have relatives who have fought and died to protect this service,” Judge Melville said. “Freedom is not free. Jury duty is part of the cost of freedom.”

Three hundred prospective jurors came to court yesterday in two groups. Another 300 were to be processed today, followed by 150 tomorrow.

By day’s end, Judge Melville had listened to 138 persons ask to be excused, but the only person he dismissed immediately was a woman who was eight months pregnant.

Those not excused will fill out questionnaires and then will be questioned individually by the attorneys. The judge wants eight alternates in addition to the 12 jurors.

One woman said she worked at an elementary school where she dealt with “people that need counseling for molestation.”

Other prospective jurors said they had to care for sick relatives or had too many job responsibilities. One woman said that at 75, she was “just too old.”

“You don’t look a day over 60,” the judge replied.

Another prospect said he is chief launch coordinator at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. He said he has two launches in the near future and cannot take time off to be a juror.

One man said he couldn’t serve because his employer wouldn’t pay him while he was on jury duty.

“Your employer doesn’t pay jury service?” Judge Melville asked.

“He’s an attorney, no sir,” the man said.

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