Absence of Formal Charges Against Michael Jackson May Point to a Weakening of the Case

New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 3 Two weeks after the arrest of Michael Jackson on felony child molesting charges, the case against him may have hit some snags.

The Santa Barbara County district attorney, Thomas W. Sneddon Jr., has twice delayed filing formal charges against Mr. Jackson, who was showily arrested, booked and set free on $3 million bail on Nov. 20. Mr. Sneddon now says the charges will be made public the week of Dec. 15. Veteran prosecutors say that such a delay is unusual, though not unprecedented, and does not necessarily indicate problems with the case.

But the tip line set up to field anonymous calls from anyone with information about the current case or similar complaints of misconduct by Mr. Jackson has yielded little, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department said. Of 70 calls to the line over the last two weeks, only a handful have produced information relevant to the case against Mr. Jackson, said the spokesman, Sgt. Chris Pappas. And no one has come forward to tell of separate acts of molesting by Mr. Jackson, Sergeant Pappas said.

"At this point in time," he said, "none have clearly identified new cases for independent investigation."

The delay in releasing details of the charges against Mr. Jackson and the lack of new complaints have prompted some in the Jackson camp to say Mr. Sneddon is playing a weak hand based on a single child's shaky testimony. One of Mr. Jackson's lawyers suggested this week that Mr. Sneddon might be forced to drop the prosecution before a trial.

Mark Geragos, Mr. Jackson's lead lawyer, said he would not comment on the case "unless and until there is a charging document." Mr. Geragos said, based on his fragmentary knowledge of the identity of Mr. Jackson's accuser and the accuser's account, "I'm not so sure there's even going to be a charging document."

Mr. Geragos has characterized the accusation against Mr. Jackson as a "big lie."

Mr. Sneddon's office said the prosecutor would not speak to the news media until he made the charges against Mr. Jackson public. In a brief interview with CNN last week, Mr. Sneddon acknowledged that he had mishandled his announcement of the arrest warrant for Mr. Jackson by appearing to make light of the charges. He denied that he was pursuing a vendetta against Mr. Jackson. But he repeated his contention that the case was strong.

"It just doesn't make any sense that the sheriff and I would do something that is doomed in the long run to fail," Mr. Sneddon said. "We have a responsibility. We didn't go looking for this case. It came to us."

One California prosecutor with years of experience handling child molesting cases said it was certain that months of investigation went into the case.

"I imagine they're being very conservative, in light of the high profile of this case," said the prosecutor, Roseanne Froeberg, head of the sex crimes unit of the Orange County district attorney's office. "We have ethical obligations to meet a high threshold before accusing someone of such a heinous charge."

Ms. Froeberg added, however, that a case that turns on the testimony of one child, particularly one with health problems and a complicated relationship with the person accused, can be tough to prove in court.

"A lot can change between the filing of the charge and presentation to a jury," she said.

The accuser in the case is a 13-year-old former cancer patient who was befriended by Mr. Jackson last year and who stayed overnight at Mr. Jackson's ranch, Neverland, outside Santa Barbara, several times last winter. According to those familiar with his account, the boy has a troubled family history and has given several versions of his relationship with Mr. Jackson.

This year, the boy's family approached Lawrence Feldman, the lawyer who handled the case a decade ago of a 13-year-old boy who had said that Mr. Jackson molested him. Mr. Jackson reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the boy, and no charges were brought.

Mr. Feldman referred the boy in the current case to a psychiatrist, who reported the account of abuse to Santa Barbara County authorities this summer.

Mr. Feldman said on Wednesday that he would not discuss the case until the charges become public.

John D. Barnett, a prominent defense lawyer in Southern California, noted that Mr. Sneddon publicly appealed to other potential victims of Mr. Jackson to come forward. He called it "advertising for witnesses" and said it could be taken as a sign of weakness in the prosecution's case.

Mr. Jackson's defenders and relatives contend that the case is groundless, the confluence of a frustrated prosecutor and a greedy mother exploiting her son's onetime friendship with a rich entertainer.

Michael R. Oxman, a lawyer who has represented several members of the Jackson family, said that Mr. Sneddon was "out to get Michael Jackson."

"At the press conference, the district attorney paraded before the world a bunch of uncharged and unsubstantiated claims to poison a jury," Mr. Oxman said. "He conducted a jocular press conference as if it's a Broadway opening. That is just unprofessional conduct."

He also said that he suspected that the victim's family was seeking money, not the conviction and imprisonment of Mr. Jackson.

"The D.A. says this isn't about money and there's no civil suit, like the last time," Mr. Oxman said. "Whenever anyone says it's not about money, it's about money."

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