Originally created 01/17/04

Jackson pleads innocent to child molestation charges



SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Arriving to a sea of cameras and fans, Michael Jackson pleaded innocent Friday to child-molestation charges that could send him to prison - and was scolded by the judge for being 21 minutes late for his first court appearance.

"Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot here. ... I want to advise you that I will not put up with that. It's an insult to the court," Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville.

Minutes earlier hundreds of cheering and chanting fans had greeted Jackson's arrival, pushing in along with television crews as he stepped from a black sport utility vehicle and into the shade of a black umbrella.

Wearing a dark suit, glittery shoes and big sunglasses, Jackson shook hands with fans and waved as he slowly made his way into the courthouse accompanied by his attorney, Mark Geragos. Inside, security ran a metal detector wand over the singer before allowing him into the courtroom. His parents and siblings were also there.

The arraignment drew a horde of news media and Jackson fans to the usually quiet Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, where the pop star is alleged to have committed the crimes at his Neverland Ranch.

Hundreds of fans were bused in from Los Angeles and Las Vegas in what was dubbed a "Caravan of Love." Some sang and waved signs that read "Stay Strong Michael" and "We Believe In Michael Jackson. Leave Him Alone" as they waited for Jackson to arrive.

"There's strength in numbers," said supporter Amber McCrary, 26, who boarded a bus in a suburban Los Angeles Kmart parking lot with her two little children to be at the courthouse.

Jackson, 45, was charged with seven counts of lewd acts with a child under 14 and two counts of giving the child an "intoxicating agent," reportedly wine, between Feb. 7 and March 10, 2003.

Authorities did not identify the alleged victim, but sources close to those involved have said he is a now-teenage cancer patient who appeared in a documentary broadcast in February that showed Jackson talking about sleepovers with children at Neverland and holding the boy's hand.

Jackson defended the sleepovers in a recent interview on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"People think sex," Jackson said. "They're thinking sex. My mind doesn't run that way. When I see children, I see the face of God. That's why I love them so much."

The documentary, "Living With Michael Jackson," raised anew questions about the sleepovers that had lingered since molestation allegations against Jackson were investigated in 1993. No charges were filed in that case but Jackson reportedly paid a multimillion-dollar settlement to a boy's family.

Jackson said in the documentary that his practice of allowing children to sleep in his bed was non-sexual.

Jackson had been introduced to the boy by Jamie Masada, a comedy club owner who runs a kids camp. Masada told the singer that a child hospitalized with cancer wanted to meet him, and Jackson obliged, forming a relationship with the boy and his mother.

What happened to that relationship in the past year has remained in dispute.

Sources close to Jackson's defense have alleged that it soured when the mother demanded a fee for her son's appearance in the documentary and Jackson refused. But those close to the mother claim there was no demand, rather that Jackson began acting strangely and barred them from Neverland.

Ultimately, both Jackson and the mother obtained lawyers. The mother went to the same attorney who was involved in the 1993 allegations against Jackson and told him she thought her son had been molested and had been given wine by the pop star, sources have said.

The lawyer advised her to have the boy see a psychologist, who went to authorities under a legal requirement to report any claims of child molestation, sources said.

Separately, the documentary prompted a school administrator to complain to a hot line, triggering a Feb. 14-27 probe of Jackson's relationship with the boy by Los Angeles County child welfare officials. A leaked memo said the boy, his siblings and mother told those officials nothing inappropriate occurred. Santa Barbara County's top prosecutor dismissed that probe as "interviews, not an investigation."