- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — A jury acquitted Michael Jackson yesterday of molesting a 13-year-old cancer survivor at his Neverland ranch — exonerating the pop star who insisted that he was the victim of mother-and-son con artists and a prosecutor with a vendetta.

Jurors also unanimously acquitted Mr. Jackson of giving the boy alcohol and of conspiring to imprison his accuser and the boy’s family at the storybook estate. Mr. Jackson had faced nearly 20 years in prison.

“Justice is done. The man’s innocent. He always was,” said his chief lawyer, Thomas Mesereau Jr.

The verdict was a total legal victory, but one that may do little to improve the bizarre image of a one-time, chart-topping star who recorded his first hit — “I Want You Back” — as an 11-year-old singing with his brothers in the Jackson Five.

The courtroom was deathly still as the verdicts were read. Mr. Jackson dabbed at his eyes with a tissue and later stood and was embraced by Mr. Mesereau. Some of the women in the jury also wept and passed around a box of tissues.

As he left court, Mr. Jackson held his hand to his heart and blew kisses to the screaming crowd, but had no public comment. When he later arrived in a sport utility vehicle at Neverland, applauding fans ran after his caravan as it disappeared behind the gates.

Jackson supporters hailed the verdict as a complete vindication of the singer who became one of the first superstars of the MTV era with 1980s hits such as “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”

“I would never have married a pedophile. And the system works,” Mr. Jackson’s ex-wife Debbie Rowe told “Entertainment Tonight.”

Fans outside the courthouse screamed with joy as they learned of the verdict. A woman in the crowd released one white dove as each acquittal was announced.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon sat with his head in his hands.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed in the verdict … but we believe in the system of justice,” Mr. Sneddon told reporters.

“We don’t select victims of crimes, and we don’t select the family,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to look back and apologize for anything that we’ve done.”

The verdict — reached after about 30 hours of deliberations over seven days — ended a four-month trial that presented jurors with vastly different portraits of Mr. Jackson.

Prosecutors portrayed the 46-year-old star as a “predator” who seduced boys with wine and pornography; the defense showed him as the victim of a frame-up by mother-and-son shakedown artists.

During the trial, defense lawyers described Mr. Jackson as a humanitarian who wanted to protect children. The accuser had asked to meet the star when he thought he was dying of cancer.

The defense said the family exploited the boy’s illness to shake down celebrities, then concocted the charges after realizing that Mr. Jackson was cutting them off from a jet-set lifestyle that included limo rides and stays at luxurious resorts.

The prosecution, in closing arguments, branded Mr. Jackson a “predator with money, reputation and celebrity,” who lured boys “into the world of the forbidden.”

Mr. Jackson was cleared of 10 charges in all, including four counts that he molested the boy in early 2003. Mr. Jackson also had been charged with providing the boy with wine and conspiring with aides to hold the accuser and his family captive to get them to rebut a damaging documentary.

In the “Living With Michael Jackson” documentary made by a British journalist, Mr. Jackson held hands with the boy and acknowledged sharing his bed with children, a practice he described as sweet and not at all sexual.

His lawyers said Mr. Jackson took part in the documentary because he hoped that it would help his image after years of eccentric behavior.

A juror said in a CNN interview last night that testimony about Mr. Jackson sleeping with boys made him believe Mr. Jackson probably was a molester, but it wasn’t proven in this case.

“I feel that Michael Jackson probably has molested boys,” Raymond Hultman said. “I cannot believe that … this man could sleep in the same bedroom for 365 straight days and not do something more than just watch television and eat popcorn. … But that doesn’t make him guilty of the charges that were presented in this case.”

After scoring a string of hits in the 1980s, with sensational dance videos that made him one of the world’s most recognizable performers, Mr. Jackson’s success waned in the 1990s. The self-styled King of Pop’s bizarre lifestyle — such as a 2002 incident in which Mr. Jackson dangled his infant son over a fourth-floor hotel balcony in Berlin — alienated some fans, and recent reports have described the singer as nearly bankrupt.

The airing of the British documentary in February 2003 triggered press scrutiny of Mr. Jackson’s relationship with the boy, as well as calls for investigations. Authorities interviewed the boy, and Mr. Jackson was charged before year’s end.

The boy, now 15, testified that Mr. Jackson twice fondled him while they were under the covers in the singer’s bedroom. The boy’s brother testified that he twice witnessed the molestations.

Prosecutors showed jurors pornography found in Mr. Jackson’s home, saying the singer showed boys the material to arouse them.

The defense relentlessly attacked the credibility of the accuser and his family. In his closing argument, Mr. Mesereau called the accuser’s family a pack of scam artists trying to pull off the “the biggest con of their careers.”

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