LOS ANGELES - Last fall, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau made a strategic move that may have provided the key to Michael Jackson's court victory yesterday: He hired a new private investigator and told him to focus relentlessly on the accuser's mother.
Scott Ross had worked on the defense of Robert Blake, successfully digging up unsavory items about Blake's slain wife that allowed defense lawyers to argue that someone other than Blake had a motive to kill her. Moreover, the information gave jurors a reason to dislike her.
Mesereau wanted a repeat performance, Ross recalled yesterday. The lawyer gave his investigator a simple, blunt instruction: "I want you to do to [the mother of the alleged victim] what you did to Bonny Lee Bakley."
Mesereau's strategy was triumphant. But it was only possible because of what analysts yesterday called a fundamental miscalculation by Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon.
Rather than file a narrow case against Jackson that would have focused only on the testimony of his youthful accuser, Sneddon gambled that a broader indictment would succeed better.
The indictment included a conspiracy charge centering on claims that Jackson's aides conspired to kidnap the mother and keep her at Neverland.
"The prosecutor went for every strategic advantage. He thought he could broaden the case with the conspiracy charge," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount Law School. "By doing that, he made the mother the focus of the case, and it backfired."
Putting the mother on the stand allowed Mesereau to give the jury the allegations that Ross and his investigators had dug up - that the mother had committed welfare fraud, that she had lied in a previous civil suit against J.C. Penney Co., that she had left Neverland to get her legs waxed at precisely the time she later claimed she was being held at the ranch against her will.
"The mother was the weakest link in the case. She was walking, talking reasonable doubt," Levenson said.
Several analysts agreed that the conspiracy charge was crucial to the acquittal.
"If your case is about an adult male molesting a male child, you put on that case," said Michael Brennan, a former criminal defense lawyer who followed the case. "The conspiracy case was not necessary, and what it did was force the prosecution to put on the mother, who in turn was a disaster," he said.
Nevertheless, lawyers who followed the case closely said the prosecution's gamble might still have paid off if other aspects of its case had held up.
Instead, several witnesses the prosecution had counted on wound up helping Jackson.
Under a California law, prosecutors were able to give the jury testimony about past allegations of molestation. But that victory was undermined.
One alleged victim who won a multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson a decade ago did not testify. Other young men, including the actor Macaulay Culkin, said that Jackson never had molested them.
Prosecutors presented testimony from witnesses who said they had seen Jackson inappropriately touching Culkin. Then Culkin took the stand and denied those claims.
Ted Cassman, a criminal defense attorney, said Culkin's testimony was also central to one of the main tasks the defense succeeded at - making the jury accept that Jackson "was a bizarre person."
The defense did that by not shying away from the fact that Jackson slept with boys. Instead, they presented testimony from boys who swore no molestation had occurred.
"I think it was a brilliant maneuver," Cassman said. The defense convinced jurors that it "is possible to sleep with boys and have nothing sexual happen."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
1993: Jackson faces a child abuse investiga- tion that never results in criminal charges. He reportedly pays a multimillion-dollar settlement while maintaining his innocence.
February 2003: Jackson says in a documentary on ABC that he has shared his bed in a nonsexual way with children.
Dec. 18, 2003: Jackson is charged in a criminal complaint with molestation and giving alcohol to a minor.
Jan. 16, 2004: Jackson is arraigned and pleads not guilty.
April 21, 2004: A grand jury returns an indictment that replaces the original complaint. It alleges four counts of molestation, one count of attempted molestation, one count of conspiracy and four counts of supplying alcohol to a minor.
Feb. 23, 2005: A jury of eight women and four men is chosen to hear Jackson's case.
March 1: Prosecution case begins.
May 5: The defense begins presenting evidence aimed at convincing jurors that the boy and his family had falsely accused Jackson as part of plan to get a financial settlement.
May 25: Defense rests.
June 3: Case goes to jury.
June 13: Jackson is acquitted on all 10 charges.