Unanimously acquitted on all counts. Exactly ten years ago today, on June 13, 2005, this was the conclusion of the 12-member jury in the high-profile case against Michael Jackson. The charges of child abuse were unfounded and Jackson left the courtroom as a free man. Innocent. But that was not the image the public was left with. Before, during and after the trial, public opinion was blatantly played to the detriment of Jackson, who was portrayed as a predator. Ten years later, it’s time for a different view on Jackson’s case.
Around the courthouse
The inhabitants of Santa Maria, where Jackson’s trial starts on January 31, 2005, witness something extraordinary. The town is overrun by more than 2,000 accredited journalists who pounce on the case. Hundreds of Jackson fans from around the world come to show their support. Security is increased around the courthouse. And then of course there is Jackson himself who, supported by his family, makes his daily appearance in the courtroom.
For four months, Jackson’s personal life is chewed up. It doesn’t look good for him. At least, that is the daily picture the press paints around noon. After the public prosecutor has had his say in the morning, it is time to broadcast the news or to send it to the editors. The world is hungry for an update of the trial and the media rarely wait for what Jackson’s legal team argues in defence in the afternoon.
It pays off to have Jackson declared guilty. News about the unworldly King of Pop sells, especially when it concerns his expected downfall. Already during the trial, news reports are prepared about Jackson’s expected jail time, the loss of his children, his depressions, and his inevitable suicide.
Jackson’s nightmare starts in May 1992, when his car breaks down on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. David Schwartz, the owner of the nearby car rental company Rent-A-Wreck, offers a free rental car if Jackson promises to keep in touch with his 13-year-old stepson, Jordan Chandler. It is the beginning of a friendship that Jackson will long remember.
Jackson feels at home with the Chandlers. Every now and then he visits the family in their home in Santa Monica. He helps Jordan with his homework, has dinner with the family, and plays video games with Jordan and his sister Lily. There is no problem whatsoever, until Jordan’s biological father Evan Chandler comes into the picture. Initially, Chandler is delighted with Jackson’s friendship. But this changes when Jackson refuses to finance an addition onto Chandler’s house. Chandler becomes further displeased when he notes that Jordan prefers to spend time with Jackson at his Neverland ranch rather than to spend time with his father.
Shortly after, Chandler claims that Jackson has sexually abused his son. Instead of going to the police, he demands 20 million dollars from Jackson in order to finance a film for a screenplay that he has written. If Jackson refuses to pay, Chandler will make his accusations public. When Jackson gives him the cold shoulder, Chandler starts a civil lawsuit in which he cranks up his claim to 30 million dollars in damages.
Chandler appears to have prepared his case well. But then he makes a major blunder. He contacts Jordan’s stepfather David Schwartz. Schwartz, who does not trust Chandler’s motives, tapes the telephone conversation. When these recordings surface, they show that Chandler wants to kill two birds with one stone: gaining custody of Jordan and taking revenge on Jackson.
“If I go through with this, I win big time. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again. Michael’s career will be over. This man is gonna be humiliated beyond belief. He will not believe what’s going to happen to him. Beyond his worst nightmares. He will not sell one more record”, Chandler brags to Schwartz.
As if the sky isn’t dark enough for Jackson, district attorney Tom Sneddon starts a criminal investigation. Sneddon, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’, sinks his teeth into the case like a pitbull. While Jackson is on tour in Asia, Sneddon uses a search warrant to turn Neverland upside down. Yet he doesn’t find a single piece of evidence to support Chandler’s allegations.
The accusations hit Jackson like a brick. When good friend Elizabeth Taylor notices that Jackson increasingly depends on painkillers, she books him into a London rehab. Here Jackson receives treatment for eight weeks. On return to America, however, he has physically gained strength but is mentally unprepared for what will follow.
Sneddon, convinced of his case, has issued a warrant which forces Jackson to be viewed and photographed naked, including his genitals. Refusal will be seen as an indication of guilt. Left with no choice, Jackson submits to the strip search which he – clearly devastated – describes in a television statement soon after as “the most humiliating ordeal of my life; one that no person should ever have to suffer.”
The photographs of Jackson’s naked body do not provide any evidence to support the allegations. But this makes no difference for the tabloids. Jackson’s downfall, they reason, is his own fault. Any grown man who repeatedly and openly shows his affection for young children the way Jackson does, is asking for trouble. And now Jackson has a plate full of it.
Although it becomes increasingly clear that Chandler is trying to extort Jackson, Jackson’s business advisors insist that he settles the case. Jackson hesitates. Frank Cascio, who as a child spent many years with Jackson, recalls in his book My Friend Michael: “He wanted to fight. But things weren’t quite that simple. The fact was that Michael was a money machine, and nobody wanted him to stop being one. If he took time off from his career for a two- to three-year trial, he would stop producing the billions of dollars worldwide that made him an industry.”
Nevertheless, Jackson agrees to settle the civil suit, but under noted protest. The Chandlers and their lawyer receive an estimated 23 million dollars, of which 15.3 million dollars is put in a trust fund for Jordan. When eventually the criminal investigations implode as well, Jackson reboots his career. But the door has been left open for other characters looking for easy money.
Living with Michael Jackson
In 2002, Jackson closes an exclusive deal with British journalist Martin Bashir. Bashir is allowed to film Jackson at home for eight months. The documentary is sold worldwide and is broadcasted one year later as Living With Michael Jackson. The deal turns out to be a huge error of judgement by Jackson. Bashir creates a suggestive documentary that labels Jackson as an eccentric, a child molester, and an inept father. In addition, when 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo – a cancer patient whom Jackson has taken under his wing – tells Bashir guilelessly that he has slept in Jackson’s bed, the ‘evidence’ is clear: Jackson is a paedophile.
What initially saves Jackson is the footage that his own cameraman films while Bashir follows Jackson around Neverland. It shows how Bashir flatters his way into Jackson’s life and then manipulates his information and footage to form a case against Jackson. It is a modus operandi that the New York Times, after Jackson’s death in 2009, sums up as “callous self-interest, masked as sympathy.”
Still, all hell breaks loose for Jackson. At first, the Arvizo family defends Jackson and adamantly declares that nothing inappropriate has taken place. But when the family visits district attorney Sneddon, who personally invites them for an interview, they suddenly change their tune.
Losing his temper
In November 2003, when Jackson is at work in Las Vegas, a warrant for his arrest is issued. Neverland is searched again for 14 hours. When the usually placid Jackson hears of this, he loses his temper. “In his hotel suite, he picked up plates of food from the room service trolley and hurled them at the walls, swiped two lamps, pushed over a sculpture, turned over a coffee table and sent all sorts of objects flying from table tops”, brother Jermaine writes in the biography You Are Not Alone, Michael Through a Brother’s Eyes.
Again, no evidence is found. Equally fruitless is Sneddon’s appeal to ‘everyone’ who might possibly be abused by Jackson. No one comes forward, except the Arvizos. But this doesn’t prevent Sneddon from officially charging Jackson on 14 counts. He is accused of sexual abuse, kidnapping, and administering alcohol to a minor.
Jackson’s case is widely reported in the media, including ‘pyjama day’ which takes place halfway through the trial. Although Jackson is usually impeccably dressed when appearing in court, one morning he arrives at the Santa Maria courthouse dressed in pyjama bottoms and slippers. It is grist to the mill of his opponents: Wacko Jacko must be guilty. Little credibility is given to fact that Jackson, after a sleepless night, had fallen and was brought to hospital with a serious back injury. The judge nevertheless compels Jackson to make his appearance in the courtroom within one hour – a time frame which doesn’t allow Jackson to go back home and change his attire.
Jackson’s attorneys – Thomas Mesereau, Susan Yu and Robert Sanger – pay no attention to any of the commotion. They focus on the case, which bears fruit. The Arvizos appear to have a history of vandalism, shoplifting, fraud and extortion. District attorney Sneddon doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either when Jackson’s legal team proves that he has acted unlawfully during his search of Neverland and that he has manipulated evidence.
Finally, on June 13, 2005, the long-awaited verdict is read. Jackson is unanimously acquitted of all charges. Outside the courtroom the world listens with astonishment. Jackson himself seems stunned after his acquittal. Visibly weakened, he thanks his legal team for their assistance, waves to his fans, and then drives back to Neverland.
In the Jackson biography Untouchable, Mesereau says: “He had told Martin Bashir that he would rather die than hurt a child, and I believed him. But he knew that many people – most of the people in the media – didn‘t believe him. I really think that by the time the trial was over, Michael wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore.”
Mesereau advises Jackson to leave Neverland. So he does. Shortly after the not guilty verdict, Jackson leaves the ranch, never to return. He spends time in the Middle East and Ireland where he and his three young children try to refind their balance. When Jackson returns to the USA at the end of 2006, his final period of life starts until his untimely death three years later.
How did the other players fare? Jordan Chandler, who was at the centre of the 1993 case, broke off all contact with his parents two years after the settlement. Father Evan Chandler committed suicide five months after Jackson’s death in 2009. The Arvizo family went home empty handed in 2005. ‘Mad Dog’ Tom Sneddon went down in history as the man who lost twice to Jackson. He retired in 2010 and died of cancer four years later.
Martin Bashir, whose documentary led to the 2005 trial, made a rapid television career at ABC and MSNBC. He was asked to resign from the latter network after he made inappropriate comments in an interview with a female politician.
Media that had set their hopes on Jackson being sentenced, questioned the jury’s verdict. Just one day after the trial, the Washington Post concluded that Jackson’s acquittal “doesn’t clear his name; it only muddies the waters.” In the same line of thought, the Chicago Tribune stated that: “the jury sided with the predatory star”; two of countless media that appeared to have thrown their objectivity out of the window.
Aphrodite Jones, a crime reporter who wrote a detailed book about the case (Michael Jackson Conspiracy, 2012) states: “The exoneration of Jackson didn’t seem to matter, certainly not to the mainstream media. For over a decade, the media had built an industry around the ‘freaky life’ of Michael Jackson, and because the Bashir documentary affirmed everyone’s suspicions, there was little effort to question the objectivity of the Bashir piece. It seemed most of the media had a vested interest in reporting trash about the pop icon.”
Yet no one looked back at the public mess that had been made of Jackson’s life and career. No one cared for Jackson’s traumatic experience, and no one was willing to take responsibility. It was not until Jackson’s death, four years later, that some media began to reflect on what had happened in 2005. The Huffington Post, for instance, reviewed the trial as “one of the most shameful episodes in journalistic history” in which “the sheer amount of propaganda, bias, distortion and misinformation is almost beyond comprehension.”
No wonder that the story doesn’t end here. Even after death, Jackson remains a sitting duck with the ultimate trophy being his multi-million dollar legacy. The first candidates have already applied. Wade Robson, who in 2005 steadfastly proclaimed Jackson’s innocence when he was put on the stand, suddenly ‘remembers’ that he was abused by Jackson. His first attempt to file his case in court was rejected last month.
Jackson of course is no longer here to defend himself. This task now lies in the hands of the Michael Jackson Estate, the fund that manages his inheritance. Jackson’s family can only hope that the proverb that kept Jackson on his feet for many years will become a reality: “Lies run sprints, but the truth runs marathons”.
© Annemarie Latour