SANTA MARIA, Calif. - More than a year after stunned fans watched authorities arrest Michael Jackson and charge him with molesting a 13-year-old boy at his Neverland Ranch, prosecution and defense lawyers on Monday finally get to outline their cases to a jury.
Opening statements will preview the essence of the trial - whether Jackson gave wine to the young cancer patient and then touched him inappropriately.
Both sides have compelling stories to tell, but the credibility of the boy, now 15, and his family likely will determine the outcome.
"You will see two different trials in opening statements," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, "the prosecution's case against Michael Jackson and the defense case against the boy's mother."
The prosecution's story depicts a poor family whose stricken son wanted to meet one of his idols. The child's wish was granted, but the prosecution claims it turned into a nightmare of sexual abuse and imprisonment at Jackson's fairy tale home in the coastal mountains 170 miles north of Los Angeles.
The defense narrative casts Jackson as the target of a money-hungry mother who coached her son to spin stories when it looked like their celebrity benefactor would cut them off. The defense will present evidence that the mother has sued others with claims of abuse.
"The bigger the star, the bigger the target," Jackson said during a recent television interview with Geraldo Rivera, suggesting his defense.
Though Jackson's star has waned on stage, his legacy and showmanship still generate a global audience. Jackson's lawyer suggested to jurors that celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Wonder would testify on behalf of the pop star. More than 1,000 members of the media from around the world have credentials to cover the trial.
Ever a performer, Jackson has a hair and makeup artist to prepare him. A wardrobe assistant helps pick his theatrical court attire.
Prosecutors who unsuccessfully pursued Jackson over a decade ago with charges he molested a different boy are investing huge resources to make this set of charges stick. A battalion of deputies raided Jackson's ranch to seize evidence and a cadre of lawyers and investigators have churned out mountains of motions and search warrants.
The face of the prosecution has been Tom Sneddon, the Santa Barbara County district attorney so identified as Jackson's nemesis that the star insulted him in song. Sneddon himself is expected to deliver the prosecution's opening statement on Monday.
Jackson's team headed by Thomas Mesereau Jr. is a buttoned-down operation. Mesereau is a confident, veteran defender known for turning around seemingly hopeless cases.
Silenced outside court thus far by a gag order, Mesereau will go on the offensive against the accuser's family and try to persuade jurors to search for flaws in the prosecution's case.
Prosecutors will cast Jackson as a wicked pedophile, the kind of man who would get a boy drunk and then take advantage of him.
The jury, chosen with unusual speed, is a hometown group of eight women and four men. Most jurors are white, Jackson is black. Several are fans of Jackson's music, four are parents of young children and one woman has a grandson who was convicted of a sexual offense.
Some jurors either have been to Neverland or have friends or relatives who have visited or even worked there. That personal connection is unusual - rarely at trial would jurors have been to a defendant's residence.
Since buying the ranch in 1988, Jackson has invited thousands of people to his theme park of a home, which includes an arcade, trains, rides and a zoo.
One alternate juror, a 26-year-old woman with two young children, said she went to Neverland with a friend several years ago. "I remember the elephants," she said.
For those who haven't been, this may be their chance.
The defense has asked Judge Rodney S. Melville to consider taking the jury on a field trip to Jackson's spread. The judge has yet to decide whether the jury needs to see a place which the prosecution considers a prison and the defense a paradise for children.
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