SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The child molestation case against Michael Jackson is finally ready for a trial that promises to be like no other.
Jury selection begins Monday, with Jackson expected to appear, in a case that has become a symbol of the American obsession with celebrity. Early Sunday, Jackson issued a court-approved video statement on his Web site, calling recent media leaks in the case "disgusting and false" and predicting he would be acquitted.
"Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court," Jackson said, looking directly into the camera. "I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told."
The uphill task of finding jurors who haven't prejudged the case is a mere prelude to a courtroom contest that will include testimony from the boy who accuses the pop icon of molesting him.
On the defense side of court sits a glittering superstar who appears in makeup and theatrical outfits and has millions of fans worldwide who don't believe he could be a pedophile. Jackson, 46, is charged with molesting the cancer patient - then age 13, now 15 - after plying him with alcohol.
On the prosecution side is Jackson's longtime nemesis, a balding, mustachioed Santa Barbara County district attorney. For more than a decade Tom Sneddon has pursued Jackson and what happens at his Neverland Ranch. Jackson has derided him in song as a "cold man" with a vendetta and likened the case to persecution.
Sneddon, 61, recently asked the judge to stop attacks on his motives. If the defense continues to call the case a crude attempt to "take down a major celebrity," the prosecution wrote, Sneddon will reveal "everything he knows about this defendant."
Prosecutors have complained that defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau Jr. uses courtroom invective not only to hammer his opponents but also to brand the child witnesses - the accuser and his brother - as liars manipulated by their greedy mother. Mesereau is a tall, imposing man with a mane of white hair, known for winning seemingly hopeless death penalty cases in the South.
The referee is Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville, 63, a veteran of the bench who has refused to tolerate tardiness or even, in one case, a bathroom break for the defendant.
At the final pretrial hearing Friday, Melville made it clear that a gag order stands and he won't abide lawyers attacking each other.
"I expect and know that you will, all, on both sides, carry the burden of showing the world what a fine system we have," Melville said.
From the start Melville has tried to clamp an extraordinary lid of secrecy on information. His decisions to withhold many documents - and heavily edit those he does release - have triggered protests from the news media, whose lawyers assert Melville is violating First Amendment guarantees of public access to court information.
As jury selection neared, competition for a scoop undermined Melville's efforts. The 1,900-page transcript of the case prosecutors presented to the grand jury that indicted Jackson was leaked this month to thesmokinggun.com and ABC News.
Among other things, the transcript included the accuser's testimony that Jackson closed his eyes tightly while molesting him on a bed, and that the pop star ignored the child's warnings that he shouldn't drink alcohol because of his medical condition.
It was the latest flurry in a media blitz that has only intensified since last January, when Jackson danced atop an SUV outside the courtroom and was swarmed by fans as he tried to leave.
The challenge facing the court is not to find jurors ignorant of the case. Instead, it's to find those who say they can put aside everything they have heard and look at what the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt.
Another challenge is finding jurors who can serve on a case that could last up to half a year.
The judge planned to call an initial pool of 750 prospective jurors; the entire process could take a month or longer.
When the case against Jackson was launched in November 2003, Sneddon drew criticism for welcoming the media with the line: "I hope that you all stay long and spend lots of money because we need your sales tax to support our offices."
More than 1,000 news representatives have applied for credentials, including reporters from Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and Mexico.
Unlike the O.J. Simpson trial, cameras have been forbidden in the courtroom, but E! Entertainment Television plans to use actors to create daily re-enactments.
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