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MJ Trial: Let the Circus Begin

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Jury selection — which could last a month or more — begins today for the Michael Jackson trial on charges of “lewd acts on a child under the age of 14 and conspiring to commit the crimes of abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.”

Jackson released a video-taped statement Sunday, with contents approved by Judge Melville, in response to the leaked grand jury transcript:

    In the last few weeks, a large amount of ugly, malicious information has been released into the media about me. Apparently, this information was leaked through transcripts in a grand jury proceeding where neither my lawyers or I ever appeared. This information is disgusting and false. Years ago, I allowed a family to visit and spend some time at Neverland. Neverland is my home. I allowed this family into my home because they told that their son was ill with cancer and needed my help. Through the years I have helped thousands of children who are ill or in distress. These events have caused a nightmare for my children, my family and me. I never intend to place myself in so vulnerable a position ever again. I love my community and have great faith in our justice system. Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court. I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told. Thank you

The video statement is available at Jackson’s website.

Covering the media circus — over 1000 reporters from all over the world have registered to cover the trial — from within is BBC reporter Peter Bowes, who is keeping a “reporter’s log” (sounds like a blog to me):

    Sunday January 30: 1707 local time (0107 GMT Monday)
    The crowd of fans outside the courtroom is beginning to grow. Probably about 200 now. The mood is quite tense.

    They talk about their passion for supporting Michael and in some cases look suspiciously at reporters seeking a soundbite.

    A few people – including some children – have formed a choir. They sing in support of their idol. “Michael – be courageous and strong – hold on, we are here with you.”

    Sunday January 30: 1630 local time (0030 GMT Monday)
    Members of the media circus are frustrated already. The queue to pick up credentials to access the court complex is moving at a snail’s pace and winding around the building – some reporters have been waiting for a couple of hours to pick up the all important laminated press tag.

    The court assigned only two people to hand them out. I got to the front of the line and found mine wasn’t ready. They gave me a temporary pass, so I’ll still get into court tomorrow – but am not a happy member of the press pack right now.

    Saturday 29 January: 1232 local time (2032 GMT)
    A coffee shop conversation: “Why are so many people moving to Santa Maria?” asked one woman, a local resident.

    “No idea – it must be Michael Jackson,” responded her friend. “There isn’t anything else to do here.”

    It is true – not only are the hotels cashing in, but the local rental market is booming. Many reporters – and fans – are upping sticks to move their entire lives to this otherwise quiet California town.

    One fan told me she had given up her job in LA and would take any work she could get in Santa Maria – probably at a fast food restaurant – to subsidise her stay.

    And there are deals to be had. I checked out one apartment complex offering the first month for a rent of $99 (£53.50).

USA Today also looks at media coverage:

    As jury selection takes place, a pool of only six reporters will be allowed inside; others will watch from an overflow room.

    Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Extra are camped out, as are Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Court TV and Telemundo. When testimony begins in a month, E! will air daily re-enactments.

    CBS, NBC and ABC, and mainstream print outlets such as The New York Times, will be represented, alongside celebrity mags such as People and Us Weekly. Other media are coming from Great Britain, Germany, Asia and Australia.

    Yet as the trial begins, editors and producers are divided over whether Jackson will become water-cooler talk as Simpson and Peterson were. Although some say Jackson’s celebrity status warrants the extensive coverage, others say the subject matter – child molestation – will dampen interest.

    Sunday, producers at CNN’s Larry King Live were trying to decide whether to go with Iraqi elections or Jackson tonight. That is noteworthy because Live loves high-profile cases and fixated on Simpson and Peterson.

    But CNN chief Jon Klein hints that he doesn’t want a repeat of the Simpson trial, which CNN was accused of milking for ratings. “The bar will be to not blend in with the background noise surrounding the case. If we’ve got something unique that takes us beyond the headlines, we’ll do it,” he says, a sentiment seconded by Fox and MSNBC.

    At the other end of the spectrum is producer Linda Bell Blue, who has dispatched “a small army” of 35 staffers from Entertainment Tonight and The Insider to Santa Maria to chart every twist and turn in the trial. (ET has rented a rooftop from a building across from the courthouse to get good camera angles.)

    “There is worldwide interest,” says Blue, and even if jury selection is fairly dry, there’s always an eccentric Jackson to watch entering and leaving the courthouse. “You never know what to expect when Michael Jackson walks into a courtroom with his family.”

    ….”There are not that many people who can identify with Michael Jackson. You don’t look at him and say, ‘That could be a member of my family,’ ” says Bonnie Fuller, editorial director of American Media, which publishes Star magazine. “He has been a train wreck for so long. The fascination has abated.”

    Us magazine editor Janice Min has a reporter covering Jackson but doubts she’ll run much copy. “The story is a major downer.”

    Rival morning shows NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America- which covered the Simpson and Peterson cases extensively – are staffed to handle every angle of this one. NBC has spared no expense, erecting a two-story scaffold platform outside the courthouse dubbed “Peacock Tower.”

    ….Court TV’s Diane Dimond, who broke the news of the first Jackson molestation case on Hard Copy in 1993, is prepared to stay in Santa Maria through the summer. She brought four suitcases with her and shipped more clothes ahead. “I looked like Imelda Marcos going through the airport.”

And here’s Bowes on the proceedings:

    Mr Jackson will come face-to-face with the first batch of prospective jurors in the first stage of his child molestation trial on Monday.

    Judge Rodney Melville will summon people in groups of 150 over the next three days.

    With the superstar sitting next to his lawyer in the courtroom, the first round of juror questioning will focus on potential hardship issues that may preclude people from sitting on a long trial.

    Judge Melville has said that it is only fair that would-be jurors are told the case will last well into the summer.

    Prosecution lawyers estimate it will take five months from the start of opening statements, which are weeks away.

    Once the jury pool has been whittled down to a group of people that is able to serve for many months, they will be given a seven-page questionnaire about the case.

    The document has been kept secret, but the questions are likely to focus on the potential jurors’ views on Mr Jackson, their existing knowledge of the case and their own personal backgrounds.

    They will return to court on 7 February for a further round of questioning by Judge Melville, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

Meanwhile, the pair most reponsible for the singer’s stunning peculiarity, his parents, are out stumping on his behalf:

    “I know my son, and this is ridiculous,” his mother, Katherine Jackson, said in an interview broadcast on CBS’ “The Early Show.” She said people who believe her son is guilty “don’t know him.”

    Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, said his son was beloved around the world but had trouble in the United States because of racism. He said the accuser’s motives were clear: “It’s about money.” [AP]

And here’s the hometown paper, the Santa Maria Times, on the final pre-trial wrangling wrapped up on Friday:

    The teenage boy accusing Michael Jackson of child molestation must testify in open court during the singer’s upcoming trial, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled on Friday.

    Santa Barbara County prosecutors wanted the courtroom cleared when the accuser, now 15, and his brother, now 14, take the stand. They argued that the stigma of testifying in front of the world’s media would remain with the boys their entire lives.

    Melville denied the request, which was opposed by the defense and media organizations covering the trial.

    The judge will ban sketch artists from the courtroom during the boys’ testimony, and reserved the right to close the courtroom if the audience misbehaves.

    “If there’s any disruption or I sense anything coming from the onlookers, I will re-address (the issue),” Melville said.

    Also Friday, the judge ruled that jurors would be permitted to view “Living with Michael Jackson,” a television program that prosecutors believe is central to the case.

    District Attorney Tom Sneddon argued for the inclusion of the show, which aired in Britain and the U.S. in February 2003.

    The documentary, presented by journalist Martin Bashir, depicted Jackson holding hands with his then-13-year-old accuser and included Jackson’s acknowledgment that he shared a bed with children.

    ….Melville also denied Bashir’s request to dodge a subpoena compelling him to testify in court. Attorneys for Bashir argued that California shield laws protect journalists from having to take the stand.

    Questioning of Bashir would be limited to certain areas, Melville ruled, and his lawyer could object to any questions.

    ….Also on Friday, the judge agreed to permit as evidence racy books, magazines and DVDs seized from Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch during a raid in November 2003, and books and photographs seized during a previous 1993 investigation.

    However, he ruled that the materials must be referred to as “adult” or “sexually explicit” but not as “pornographic” or “obscene.”

I’ll keep that in mind, thanks.

Follow the Jackson trial here.

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