SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Prosecutors depicted Michael Jackson yesterday as a cunning pedophile who preyed on a young cancer survivor, but defense attorneys painted a contrasting picture of a naive, childlike musician targeted by a family of con artists.
With each side experiencing its share of highs and lows over three months of testimony, the molestation case against Jackson could come down to which attorney is more persuasive: smooth-talking Jackson lawyer Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. or intense Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ronald Zonen.
Zonen, wearing a dark blue, pinstriped suit and a camouflage tie, started the debate in a courtroom loaded with media from around the world, several dozen Jackson fans and the entertainer's closest relatives, including three brothers who performed with him in the Jackson Five.
"This case is about the exploitation and sexual abuse of a 13-year-old cancer survivor at the hands of an international celebrity," Zonen said.
The prosecutor told the jury of four men and eight women that Jackson has a long history of targeting vulnerable children from broken homes.
Jackson invited his accuser to visit his Neverland ranch near Santa Barbara in February and March of 2003 and allowed the boy and his brother to roam the grounds free of supervision and with unlimited access to carnival rides, all-terrain vehicles, a zoo and all the candy and treats they could stomach. Then he showed him pornography, plied him with enough alcohol to make him groggy and molested him four times, Zonen said.
"They did whatever they wanted during the day, and at night they entered into the world of the forbidden. They entered Michael Jackson's bedroom, which is a veritable fortress," said Zonen, who addressed the jury for nearly three hours.
Mesereau, however, shifted the jury's focus to the boy's mother, who, a witness testified, fabricated evidence to win a lawsuit settlement from J.C. Penney in 1998 and then committed welfare fraud by hiding the $32,000 she pocketed.
He said the mother persuaded her children to falsely accuse Jackson of molesting her oldest son to win money in an eventual lawsuit against the celebrity singer.
Jurors listened intently to both lawyers, many of them scribbling notes throughout the day.
Jackson is charged with 10 felonies: four counts of child molestation, four counts of plying the minor with alcohol in order to molest him, one count of attempted child molestation and one of conspiracy to hold the boy and his family captive at the Neverland ranch. If convicted of all charges, Jackson faces a potential sentence of more than 20 years in prison.
Zonen said Jackson's sexual contacts with boys in the 1990s was evidence he molested the cancer survivor a decade later.
Zonen turned to a projection screen to display Jackson's statements in a 2003 British documentary that he slept chastely with boys: "I have slept in a bed with many children. I slept in a bed with all of them."
Zonen told jurors that Jackson panicked after these statements in the documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, set off a worldwide furor in February 2003. On the video, Jackson was shown holding hands and cuddling with his accuser.
To counter career-threatening publicity about that video, and to make millions, Jackson held the boy and his family hostage at his Neverland ranch to get them to praise him on a rebuttal video that eventually aired on the Fox television network, the prosecutor said.
But Mesereau told jurors that Jackson has long been a target of grifters, in part because of his celebrity.
"When he settled those two cases in the early 1990s he became a real target for people who don't want to work and he still is," Mesereau said.
He pointed out that the case, which did not feature DNA or other forensic evidence, comes down to the word of two teenage boys: the accuser and his brother, who said he witnessed two of Jackson's sexual advances.
Mesereau questioned the prosecution's timeline for the molestation, which allegedly took place after the British documentary drew worldwide media scrutiny.
He said prosecutors couldn't date the molestation any earlier because the boy and his family praised Jackson on the rebuttal video as a loving, father figure. "It's absurd. It's unrealistic. It makes no sense because the whole case makes no sense," Mesereau said.
Three of the five boys prosecutors accused Jackson of molesting in the 1990s, including actor Macaulay Culkin, denied it, Mesereau said.
"They brought in alleged victims from the '90s - three of them came in here and said nothing happened - because they're desperate. They're absolutely desperate," Mesereau said.
Jackson's attorney spent a significant chunk of his argument attacking the accuser's mother, saying her lack of credibility was a fatal flaw in the prosecution case.
"Do you believe the ... family beyond a reasonable doubt? If you don't, Michael Jackson must go free," Mesereau said. Mesereau said it's significant that the boy's family went to a civil lawyer who sued Jackson for alleged child molestation in 1993 before bringing the boy's tale of molestation to sheriff's detectives.
Both lawyers are scheduled to finish their closing arguments today. By afternoon, deliberations could begin, shifting the case focus to the jury.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.