Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
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Michael Jackson today won the fight of his life when a jury of his neighbors -- but certainly not his peers -- gave him the benefit of the doubt and acquitted him of molestation and conspiracy charges. It's a verdict that tells the world, at least those of you who care, that it is not a crime in America to be just about the biggest freak on the planet.
The reasons for Jackson's acquittal are not a mystery. The so-called King of Pop is free now because his Santa Barbara County jury refused to believe the story offered by his accuser, a young man who seemed on the witness stand to be more like a street punk than a victim.
Jackson is free because there was no physical evidence against him and very little compelling eyewitnesses to his alleged crimes. He is free because his lawyers were much, much better than prosecutors. And he is free because he faced one of the weakest criminal cases I have ever seen.
He is free because ordinary citizens, people the complete opposite of him in uncountable ways, weren't willing to cut prosecutors a break on their duty to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson owes his life to this jury; he owes the rest of his days on this planet to their willingness to refuse to take the easy way out and send him packing out of his palatial Neverland for a dozen years or so. This verdict is a testament to their ability to separate Jackson's lifestyle from the allegations against him in this case; to judge the man and the moment by different standards.
It's a verdict that says to the world that under our justice system a tie goes to the defense; that allegations of monstrous evil aren't enough when the person making them leaves genuine doubt about the sincerity of his story. I'm sure that these jurors feel bad for the young man and his family who leveled charges at Jackson. And I'm also sure that the panel feels little love toward Jackson, who was, at best, a negligent and irresponsible host. But this verdict reaffirms the rule that this type of sympathy or empathy for the accuser, and this type of antipathy for the accused, is simply not enough to convict someone of a felony and doom them to prison (and, for Jackson, probably death).
Jackson is free because Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon backed the wrong stable of horses. Putting his personal reputation on the line in this case, the old-school prosecutor endorsed the testimony of a family that he might have instead sought to indict. Sneddon knew or should have known long before trial that the accuser and his mother had terrible reliability and credibility problems; he knew or should have known that they would come off as shady to jurors; and he knew or should have known that Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau, would skewer them on the witness stand. Why he picked this family, above all the other families whom he believes also were molested by Jackson, is beyond me. If Sneddon just took his last best shot at Jackson it was a feeble volley indeed.
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