Credibility Crux Of Jackson Case

Pop star Michael Jackson arrives for the first day of his child molestation trial at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court Monday, Feb. 28, 2005, in Santa Maria, Calif. The prosecution and defense teams were presenting their opening statements to the judge and jury . (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant) AP

The credibility of a 15-year-old boy and his family will be a key element in the outcome of Michael Jackson's molestation trial, observers say.

Opening statements Monday will preview the essence of the trial — whether Jackson gave wine to a then-13-year-old cancer patient at his Neverland Ranch and then touched him inappropriately.

"You will see two different trials in opening statements," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, "the prosecution's case against Michael Jackson and the defense case against the boy's mother."

"I think both sides have to be careful about using too much hyperbole in their opening statements," warns . "It's easy and tempting to resort in a big case like this to grand language but I think the jurors are going to be looking for no-nonsense facts and theories."

The prosecution's story depicts a poor family whose stricken son wanted to meet one of his idols. The child's wish was granted, but the prosecution claims it turned into a nightmare of sexual abuse and imprisonment at Jackson's fairy tale home in the coastal mountains 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

District Attorney Tom Sneddon presents his overview to the jury first, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales. He tried to prosecute Jackson in the past for the same type of accusation, and some observers think his zealousness might work against him.

"If it becomes about Tom Sneddon, he's in trouble, because I'm not sure the jurors will appreciate how emotionally invested he seems to be," Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, told CBS News.

For the defense, Mesereau will make the argument that children lie, and that the mother of the accuser has a history of making her children lie.

"The bigger the star, the bigger the target," Jackson said during a recent television interview with Geraldo Rivera, suggesting his defense.

"Blaming mothers in child sex abuse cases is a kind of a sick sport in this country," said CBS News Legal Analyst Wendy Murphy. "I don't think it will stick here."

Still, Mesereau, who has a reputation for winning tough cases, has to fight the perception his client is an odd man who seems to have an unnatural fondness for little boys.

"I think Tom Mesereau is the right attorney for Michael Jackson. That doesn't mean he automatically wins. He's not a magician; he's a lawyer," said Levenson.

CBS News has learned attorney Gary Dunlap has joined the defense as a lawyer. He himself was prosecuted by Sneddon two years ago for perjury and filing false documents, but was acquitted. Now he's suing Sneddon for $10 million for malicious prosecution.

"I think he's going to bring a venomous passion to the defense. He knows Sneddon inside and out," said CBS News Legal Consultant J. Randy Taraborrelli, a Jackson biographer.

"I think they're going to say this is a prosecution is out of control, that Tom Sneddon and his people are on a mission from God," agreed CBS News Legal Analyst Mickey Sherman, a defense lawyer, on CBS News' The Early Show.

Prospective jurors were told to expect a trial of half a year or more, but then the jury selection went more quickly than expected.

"If the judge is as quick with the trial as he was with jury selection there is no way this trial will last six months," said Cohen. "Even though it's a conspiracy case, it's not a complex case, and it's not a case with a ton of physical or medical testimony, which also ought to help speed things along."

Though Jackson's star has waned on stage, his legacy and showmanship still generate a global audience. Jackson's lawyer suggested to jurors that celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Wonder would testify on behalf of the pop star. More than 1,000 members of the media from around the world have credentials to cover the trial.

Ever a performer, Jackson has a hair and makeup artist to prepare him. A wardrobe assistant helps pick his theatrical court attire.
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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