Trial Turned Upside Down

Pop star Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Thursday, March 24, 2005 in Santa Maria, Calif. for another day of testimony in his trial on charges of child molestation.
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

It's probably just as well that Michael Jackson wasn't in court Monday morning when the judge presiding over his molestation and conspiracy trial issued a vital evidence ruling that the "King of Pop" likely will never be able to overcome.

The defendant's bad back and ailing lung surely feel worse now in the wake of a decision that ought to have Jackson acknowledging, perhaps for the first time, that there is a very realistic possibility he'll be spending the next decade or two of his life in a California state prison.

The ruling by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville, announced in simple, sparse words to a hushed courtroom, allows prosecutors to parade before jurors in the present case a litany of past allegations of sexual misconduct by Jackson with pre-teen boys. It turns the case on its head and in an instant changes the dynamic of a trial that so far has been a disaster for prosecutors.

It gives District Attorney Tom Sneddon a prime opportunity to bolster the credibility of the alleged victim in the case. It complicates by an order of magnitude the job for defense attorneys. It automatically becomes Exhibit A in the appeal of a conviction. It is the bombshell that some trials have and that most don't.

It wasn't hard to discern that the judge wasn't crazy about ruling the way he did. Earlier in the case he had warned prosecutors that he would not rescue a weak case by allowing jurors to hear old stories about Jackson's past behavior that did not generate charges when it allegedly occurred. And earlier in his career, not too long ago, he had allowed jurors to hear similar evidence in a case that ultimately was reversed on appeal. If there were ever a judge situated to give the defense a victory on an issue like this, it was Melville. That's why "Team Jackson" had so much reason to be optimistic going into Monday's hearing.

So why and how did Melville hand prosecutors such a sweeping victory instead?

Because California law is weighed so heavily in favor of the introduction of this evidence - it was the specific intent of the state legislature when it enacted the new law a decade ago to skew cases like this in favor of prosecutors and against sex assault defendants. Why else? Because there simply are too many similarities between what jurors in this case have heard about Jackson's conduct and the new allegations that prosecutors want them to hear. In a battle in which prosecutors had the law on their side and the defense had good facts on their side, the judge gave the nod to prosecutors and, apparently, will rely upon jurors to sort out the facts.

What good facts?

Thomas Mesereau, Jackson's lead attorney, offered plenty when he tried to convince the judge early Monday not to allow in the testimony. First, many of Jackson's alleged "old" victims apparently are not prepared to testify that Jackson molested them or otherwise did anything sinister. This means that prosecutors are going to rely upon third parties whom defense attorneys say all have "an axe to grind," and many of whom have the same credibility issues that plague the accuser and his family in this case. Moreover, Mesereau argued, when a case is as weak as this one, the "unduly prejudicial" impact of this sort of old testimony rises to unconstitutional levels. That makes sense but sense and the law are not always interchangeable. In any event, if Jackson is convicted I'm sure the California appellate courts will sort it out for us all.