Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
If Debbie Rowe doesn't still have strong positive feelings for her ex-husband, Michael Jackson, she is the best actress ever likely to testify in this trial of ersatz Hollywood sleaze. Rowe testified for only 40 minutes Wednesday in Jackson's molestation and conspiracy trial. But she gave the clear impression to jurors that despite their bizarre relationship, she still has Jackson's back and wants to protect him from the world.
That is surely not what prosecutors wanted the panel to hear from Rowe. You can be sure that Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon and his crew are scrambling trying to figure out both what happened and how (and whether) they can fix it in time.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, are probably rushing to the local convenience store to buy lottery tickets figuring that today is their lucky day. For them, Rowe's time on the witness stand Wednesday was a 40-minute gift that just may keep on giving.
We were led to believe in the grand buildup to her testimony that Rowe would tell jurors that she was treated by Jackson's entourage the same way that prosecutors say those creepy men treated the alleged victim in the case and his family. Instead, we heard a shaken and weepy Rowe tell the jury that when the defendant called and asked her for help she raced to his aid "very upset" that he was in trouble. We heard her say that she was not paid for that help, or promised anything for it; that there was no quid pro quo between her and the Jackson camp along the lines of what prosecutors had suggested. And we heard more.
We heard Rowe tell jurors that she had "promised" Jackson that she would "always be there for him" and that she was not told to rehearse or script her answers to the question she consented to be asked for the famous "rebuttal videotape" that has become such a centerpiece at this trial.
Prosecutors say that Jackson conspired with his entourage to threaten the alleged victim in the case, and his mother, to say nice things about the King of Pop after his unflattering portrayal on a network documentary. Prosecutors want jurors seeing a pattern of behavior by Jackson, a pattern established by the accuser's family and buttressed by people like Rowe.
But on Wednesday, at least, Rowe clearly wasn't willing or able to play along.
Rowe's story may have special resonance with jurors because it is such a terribly sad and odd one. She is a lady who told jurors that she gave up her children to a man she describes as "friend." She is an ex-wife who told jurors that she never lived in the same house as her ex-husband. She is a divorced woman who continues to help her ex-spouse even though he has treated her shabbily in recent years. She is a mother who was allowed to see her children for only eight hours every 45 days and who gave up even those slender rights because she believed the brief and infrequent visits didn't allow her to have a "quality relationship" with her kids.
In many ways, Rowe is as odd as Jackson is and her story is as sad as is the story of Jackson's fall from creative grace and professional reputation regardless of how this trial ends. They deserved each other then and, as Rowe suggested on the witness stand, they deserve each other now.
One courtroom observer said that Rowe was still crying in the courtroom for a short time even after court had adjourned for the day. Whether she was crying over Jackson, or over her own fate, or over how their long-term friendship could have reached such a bizarre turning point we'll probably never know.
But she's not done. At the end of the court day, Rowe was just about to tell jurors the ways in which she says she "lied" in some of the remarks she had made about Jackson's parenting skills in the rebuttal videotape. This is potentially explosive testimony, especially if those lies are relevant to the conduct Jackson is accused of in this case.
And even if Rowe doesn't cop to anything major -- even if the "lies" end up being more tortilla than cheese -- the fact that she lied at all on the video will allow prosecutors (or defense attorneys, for that matter) to subsequently attack her credibility whenever they feel they need to.
Rowe may not believe this, but the worst may still be ahead of her here in Santa Maria. Surely, she will say things under oath that will hurt Jackson. And surely she will face a fierce, if brief, cross-examination by lead defense attorney Thomas Mesereau, who was as focused with his objections during the direct examination as I have seen him during this trial.
Right now, Debbie Rowe is a clear-cut winner for Jackson. I'm not convinced she'll fit into that category when her time in the sun here is finally over. The problem for prosecutors, of course, is that a "tie" on Rowe isn't enough, not nearly enough, to win the case.
Michael Jackson will go to sleep tonight thanking his lucky stars that he has such a benevolent and forgiving ex-wife. The question for Thursday is whether the King of Pop's luck will hold out.