Jackson pleads not guilty to molestation
With a nod of his head, Michael Jackson pleaded not guilty Friday to a grand jury indictment that expanded the child molestation case against him to include a conspiracy count involving allegations of child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
"Is that your plea?" Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville asked Jackson after the pop star's lawyer stood and said he was entering the plea on his client's behalf.
Jackson, sitting quietly, nodded in agreement.
His mood appeared subdued as he entered court dressed in a relatively conservative outfit of a dark jacket with a gold crest on its pocket, a red armband, a red tie and dark trousers with gold stripes on each side. Fans filling half the courtroom obeyed an edict to remain quiet.
The judge softly and methodically read the counts of the indictment, which supersedes charges filed by Santa Barbara County prosecutors late last year.
The first one was a dramatic new count — conspiracy, alleging 28 individual overt acts involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. The indictment was released with the names of alleged coconspirators deleted. It also said there were "other uncharged coconspirators and coconspirators whose identities are unknown."
Counts two to five alleged Jackson committed a lewd act upon a child. Count six alleged Jackson attempted to have the child commit a lewd or lascivious act upon him. Counts seven to 10 alleged the administering of intoxicating agents to assist in the commission of a felony.
Melville said there were also two "special allegations" that relate to possible sentencing but he did not specify what they were.
Jackson was originally charged with seven counts of lewd or lascivious conduct involving a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicant, reportedly wine, to a child under 14.
Jackson, with his parents and two brothers, and his lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, made brief statements as they left court.
"I would like to thank the fans around the world for your love and support from every corner of the Earth," said Jackson, adding that he loved Santa Maria and its people.
Mesereau praised the judge and community and pledged a dignified defense.
"This case is about one thing only," he said. "It's about the dignity, the integrity, the decency, the honor, the charity, the innocence and the complete vindication of a wonderful human being named Michael Jackson."
The conspiracy count adds a new dimension to the case, since much less has to be proved compared to proving the crime itself — but the resulting punishment can be just as severe, said Dan Simon, an associate professor of law at the University of Southern California.
"If he's found guilty of conspiracy, then he can be punished with the punishment of the entire crime, even if the crime itself has not been fully proved. So it's a powerful tool in the hands of prosecutors, because all you have to prove is an agreement was made to perform the crime," Simon said.
In addition, any coconspirators could strike a deal with prosecutors to testify against Jackson, Simon added.
Simon cautioned that the added charges could backfire if jurors interpret them as signs of excessive zeal on the part of the prosecution.
The crimes allegedly occurred between Feb. 1 and March 31, 2003.
The alleged victim was identified as "John Doe" and a witness to some alleged molestation was identified as "James Doe."
The allegations are believed to involve a boy who appeared on national TV in a British documentary holding hands with Jackson, who said the two had slept in the same bedroom but not the same bed. Jackson defended his sleepovers with children, describing the practice as sweet and innocent.
Jackson co-counsel Steve Cochran said he could not comment on who the alleged coconspirator or coconspirators were because the indictment was sealed and he was under the gag order in the case.
"We have a lot to say and we're going to do our talking in court," he said.
Earlier this month, an attorney representing two former Jackson employees said there was speculation that his clients would be charged with intimidation of witnesses in the case.
Attorney Joseph Tacopina said his clients, Vincent Amen and Frank Tyson, denied the allegations. He did not allow them to testify before the grand jury that indicted Jackson.
Tyson, who was Jackson's personal assistant, has been accused of threatening to kill the younger brother of Jackson's alleged victim if he revealed to authorities that Jackson had given the boy alcohol, Tacopina said.
Amen, who worked for Jackson's production company, was accused of holding the family at Jackson's Neverland estate against its will, he said.
The attorney said the accusations were false.
Tacopina's law office did not immediately respond to a call for comment Friday.
Before the indictment was publicly released, the judge agreed to a prosecution request to delete portions dealing with the conspiracy count. He also agreed with a defense request that parts of three lines be removed.
The judge said the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings would be turned over to attorneys Monday but will remain under seal. He said he will hold a hearing on the sealing May 28.
With an indictment, prosecutors don't have to put on a preliminary hearing in front of the judge to show there is enough evidence to put Jackson on trial.
Santa Maria had taken precautions to prevent a repeat of the scene at Jackson's original arraignment on Jan. 16, when he danced on an SUV as he left in a throng of 3,000 fans. On Friday, the courthouse resembled a fortress with chain-link fences and metal barricades. More than 90 police officers and sheriff's deputies were assigned there.
Jackson, who was scolded by the judge for being late to the January appearance, arrived 40 minutes early on Friday. He waved to several hundred fans as he entered the courtroom under an umbrella.
The size of the crowd was smaller than at his first arraignment, and there was no sign of the Nation of Islam bodyguards who accompanied him then.
When Jackson left the court in an SUV, he rolled down a window several times and blew a kiss to fans. He also flashed a victory sign and a thumbs-up sign. Some fans tried to chase the SUV.
Jackson later released a statement through a spokeswoman, saying "I am completely innocent of these false charges, and I am ready to fight for my innocence. I have complete confidence in my defense team, and believe that at the end of these legal proceedings, I will be fully exonerated by a jury of my peers."
A Web site for Jackson fans encouraged them to show up. A hotel in nearby Solvang gave fans a special rate.
In Los Angeles, about 75 fans boarded a bus for Santa Maria early Friday. They waved signs reading "Caravan for Justice" and "Return of the King," and chanted "What time is it? Jackson time!"
"I'm showing my grandsons there is a way to protest, a way to show your love and a way to show your support," fan Cathy Youngblood said.