Days before his next court date, Michael Jackson has replaced his high-profile legal team in his child molestation case because "my life is at stake."
The singer said he had made the decision, not the attorneys nor any of his associates or managers.
Attorneys Mark Geragos and Benjamin Brafman "decided to step down" from representing the pop star, Brafman said Sunday. He would not reveal exactly what prompted the move.
"The decision to withdraw is complicated and it relates to a number of complicated issues that are inappropriate to discuss at this time," he told CBS Radio News.
Jackson, however, said he had fired the attorneys.
"I have terminated the services of Attorneys Mark Geragos, Esquire, and Benjamin Brafman, Esquire, effective immediately," he said in a statement issued by spokeswoman Raymone K. Bain.
"I have hired Thomas Mesereau, a well-regarded Criminal Defense attorney, as lead counsel. Mr. Mesereau will work together with my longtime attorney, Steve Cochran. Prominent Santa Barbara attorney, Robert Sanger, will also remain on the team. Let me make it clear, I have not replaced my Defense team, I have replaced the lead attorneys. And, contrary to reports, this is a decision that I have personally made."
Sanger, of Santa Barbara, has represented Jackson in lawsuits in the county where his Neverland ranch is located.
"It is imperative that I have the full attention of those who are representing me. My life is at stake. Therefore, I must feel confident that my interests are of the highest priority. I am innocent of these false charges, and will aggressively seek to clear my name. I feel very confident that when I am able to defend myself, I will be exonerated by a jury of my peers."
"I would like to thank Messrs. Geragos and Brafman for the work they have done, and I wish them well."
Mesereau represented actor Robert Blake in his murder case until February, when he quit - the third lawyer to do so, citing, as did his predecessors, irreconcilable differences with Blake.
"He didn't have much success controlling Robert Blake. I'm not certain he'll have the same kind of success controlling Michael Jackson and that really will be the drama in this case as we proceed along the way," said CBS News Consultant Trent Copeland, an attorney who handles celebrity cases.
If Jackson's legal shakeup signals anything, it's that the singer clearly is focused on his plight and now has placed his fate with Mesereau.
"There's only one captain of this ship and it's going to be Thomas Mesereau. And if Michael Jackson and those closest to him don't understand that, they may be left looking for yet a third attorney," warned Copeland.
Mesereau is a well known advocate whose work on behalf of the downtrodden and minorities was a selling point for the superstar who has been involved in fund raising for numerous causes.
The change comes less than a week before Jackson is due in Santa Maria Superior Court for arraignment on a grand jury indictment.
From his statement, it appeared that Jackson broke with Geragos because of the famed attorney's representation of Scott Peterson on charges that Peterson murdered his wife, Laci, and their unborn child.
Jackson felt that Geragos' involvement in that trial, which is in jury selection, was taking up too much of his time.
"It is imperative that I have the full attention of those who are representing me. My life is at stake," Jackson said. "Therefore, I must feel confident that my interests are of the highest priority. I am innocent of these false charges, and will aggressively seek to clear my name.
"I feel very confident that when I am able to defend myself, I will be exonerated by a jury of my peers," Jackson said.
Jackson, 45, is free on $3 million bail. He was originally charged with seven counts of lewd or lascivious conduct involving a child under 14 and with administering an intoxicant, reportedly wine, to a child under 14.
In a hearing Monday afternoon by conference call, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville approved the substitution of lead counsel.
Behind the scenes, sources said that yet another attorney had been directing the negotiations that led to the dismissal of Geragos and Brafman.
Brian Oxman, a Jackson family attorney who has been close to Jackson's brother, Randy, was described as having been "at the highest level in the negotiations."
Oxman had worked with Mesereau and knew of Jackson's desire to have him as his attorney. An earlier approach to Mesereau was rejected because he was still representing Blake.
With the return of a grand jury indictment last week, Jackson began to re-evaluate his team.
"This is a new case now, a new proceeding," said Oxman. "This is totally Michael's decision. He's concerned with everything. He's very passionate about this. He is a smart man, a good man. He is innocent and he's going to show he's innocent."
"Clearly there was tension. There was friction in the Jackson camp," said Copeland.