How the Prosecution Lost

How the Prosecution Lost

by Robert Shapiro, December 2009

In the case of the People versus Michael Jackson, the credit really should go to the jury. After wading through months of tedious testimony and analyzing hundreds of pages of complicated jury instructions, the twelve jurors were able to render a unanimous verdict on all counts. Most pundits predicted they'd fail, and they were wrong.

So how is it possible that Jackson walked away from all counts? The prosecution, led by Thomas Sneddon, made a crucial mistake. They took the focus off the central molestation charge by indicting Jackson on the additional crimes of conspiracy and kidnapping. Not only were these charges harder to prove, they required an army of witnesses, each of whom opened the door for error. For the defense it was target practice. And under Thomas Mesereau's skillful cross-examination, the prosecution's witnesses were all sitting ducks.

Among other critical errors, the prosecution mistakenly vouched for the mother's integrity, knowing she had lied during a previous case against JC Penney.

Of all the witnesses called to testify, the accuser's mother was by far the state's biggest liability—in fact, the entire case hinged on her credibility. In order to accept the prosecution's argument, the jury not only had to buy the boy's allegations, they also had to accept his mother's tale of conspiracy and kidnapping. This meant all eyes naturally fell on the credibility of the accuser's mother, a person bound to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. She was the prosecution's weakest link and the defense expertly painted her as a liar, fraud and con artist. This in turn cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the entire family.

Among other critical errors, the prosecution mistakenly vouched for the mother's integrity, knowing she had lied during a previous case against JC Penney. She later went on to defraud the government by concealing the sizeable settlement she received in order to collect welfare checks. Such past acts suggested a pattern of questionable behavior.

It also did not help the state's case that the mother and her children appeared to target celebrities, including comedian Chris Tucker. Tucker's testimony, in fact, dealt a huge blow to the prosecution's case. His prior warning to Jackson served as yet another sign that this family was not to be trusted.

Then there was the question of poor parenting. The jury was not particularly sympathetic to a mother who would allow her young, sick child to sleep with a grown man. The ensuing gifts, extravagant vacations and money only served to bolster the defense's theory about the accuser's mother.

But the final nail in the coffin was the mother's decision to hire attorney Larry Feldman for a civil suit before heading to the police with information about the molestation. Interviewing a famous personal injury attorney who had helped get Jackson's 1993 accuser millions prior to contacting the police sent a clear message to the jury that money—not justice—was the true motive behind the mother's charges. In the end, the jury didn't buy her story and the prosecution shouldn't have either.

Out of all of factors in the case, the jury was actually the least surprising. They did what most juries do. They looked at the witnesses for the prosecution and decided whether they were likeable and whether the victims were sympathetic. Of course the boy was sympathetic-he was recovering from cancer. It was the accuser's mother that proved the Achilles heel of the prosecution's case. And without sufficient confidence in the state's key witness, jurors had little choice but to clear Jackson on all counts.

At its heart, this was a case was about whether or not a young boy was molested by Michael Jackson. Proving molestation alone would have taken weeks, and diverting attention to the other crimes only served to obscure the molestation charge. The fact that this jury hails from a very conservative part of California—and was by all indications pro-prosecution—further shows the state's failure.

In a news conference shortly after the verdict was announced, Thomas Sneddon commented, "we learned a lot from this case." A trial with people's lives at stake and the attention of the entire media world is not a place to be learning. This is not law school. This is the real world. More than anything, the unanimous verdict communicates loud and clear that the case should never have been tried in the first place.