The Jackson Trial Ex Factor

Debbie Rowe in 1996 AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



It is every divorced person's nightmare. With your liberty on the line, your ex-spouse shows up in court holding the keys to your jail cell. She can help convince jurors that you are a relatively decent if troubled man or she can cement into place the perception prosecutors want jurors to have of you as a criminal and a freak. Welcome to Michael Jackson's world tonight, on the eve of the anticipated testimony of his ex-wife, the mercurial Debbie Rowe, who also happens to be the mother of two of Jackson's young children.

No one knows precisely what Rowe will say when she finally testifies under oath in Jackson's molestation and conspiracy trial. She is the last best witness for prosecutors and one of the trial's last great unknowns, a witness whose testimony is genuinely capable of producing an epic moment inside court. She comes to the stand, as prosecutors wind down their case, alternatively described as a human broodmare (for making a deal with Jackson to have and then leave their children) or as yet another victim of Jackson's seemingly insatiable penchant for creepy and poorly-ended relationships.

What will she say? Will she try to testify about her sexual relationship with Jackson while they were married? Will she try to say that she saw Jackson act oddly toward children in a way that is relevant to this trial? When she talks about what prosecutors say they want to focus her upon -- the defendant's pattern of trying to script public perception about his relationship with the alleged victim in the case -- will she play it up or smooth it down? Each word she uses in court will have special resonance. Aside from the alleged victim and his mother, Rowe will and should garner the most attention from jurors when she tells her story.

Prosecutors hope that she will corroborate the testimony of the alleged victim and his family, who told jurors, with varying degrees of reliability, that Jackson and his entourage had engaged in a series of pre- and post-molestation acts that smack of conspiracy and cover-up. For the District Attorney, Rowe is supposed to be an ace-in-the-hole, another vital figure in Jackson's life who comes to the stand and tells jurors that the only pattern they ought to pay attention to here involves Jackson's habit of controlling dissent among the people around him to the point of criminality.

Defense attorneys hope Rowe won't say much at all. They tried to convince Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville to keep her off the witness stand altogether and got from the judge a pledge to limit Rowe's testimony to certain specific areas of the narrative that go to the heart of the conspiracy case against Jackson. Even though Rowe says on videotape that Jackson is a great guy, the defense fears that Rowe's testimony about the making of that videotape, even if it is only remotely relevant to the core allegations against Jackson, will turn jurors irretrievably against him. A mother knows, right?

And Jackson? If you are Jackson tonight you have many reasons to be worried. First, Jackson and Rowe now are engaged in a nasty fight over their children together, the two kids whom Rowe conceived with Jackson, gave birth to, and then left in Jackson's care pursuant to a complex agreement between the couple. Jackson paid her to go away and leave the kids, which she did, until recently, when she quite understandably tried to re-assert her parental and custodial rights.

This ongoing legal battle (even the kids have been given attorneys) gives the defense ammunition to discredit Rowe's motives but it also gives Rowe plenty of reason to try as best she can to stick it to her ex. As CBS News trial analyst and Jackson expert J. Randy Taraborrelli said earlier this week, the lesson here is that you don't want to tick off your ex because you'll never know when you'll need her. It's a lesson that celebrities and commoners alike ought to heed and judges ought to repeat when granting divorce decrees.

Surely Jackson knew or should have known that he would and could use Rowe's help during the course of the trial. This makes it even more mystifying that Jackson would permit another dispute to have flared up between he and his ex. Apparently, Jackson has failed or refused to pay Rowe over $1 million in alimony over the past year. Sure, it is true that the fight gives the defense more impeachment ammunition. But maybe Jackson's lawyers wouldn't need as much impeachment ammunition if Rowe were a happier camper as far as Jackson is concerned. Maybe without all the ongoing legal disputes, Rowe might even have been a defense witness. Imagine how that dynamic might have altered the course of the trial.

Rowe will not make the prosecution's case or break Jackson's defense. But she is a person Jackson selected to bear his children and for that reason alone she will command star attention. Especially from jurors starved for another witness who can cut through the static of slippery information about Jackson's posse and focus instead on the defendant himself. Call it the Ex Factor. Call it the Revenge of the Mom. Call it another day when Jackson's past choices catch up to him.

  • David Hancock

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

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