SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Recording superstar Michael Jackson returned to his Neverland Ranch a free man yesterday after a jury cleared him of charges that he had plied a 13-year-old cancer patient with alcohol, molested him, then conspired to imprison the boy and his family.
The verdict brought vindication for the embattled performer, whose close relationships with young boys have been questioned for more than a decade. Jackson, 46, had previously paid multimillion-dollar settlements to two accusers, and he had told a British TV interviewer that his sleepovers with children were a "beautiful thing."
Inside the courtroom yesterday, Jackson showed little emotion as the clerk read the verdicts at 2:14 p.m. Pacific time. At one point, he reached for a tissue and dabbed his eyes. His parents and siblings LaToya, Rebbie, Randy and Jackie, sat behind him, holding each other and silently weeping.
Word of the verdicts on all 10 counts generated tears and whoops of joy among the hundreds of Jackson supporters waiting outside the courthouse and at his storybook home nearby. Fans threw confetti into the air, and some shouted, "He's free! He's free!'
Afterward Jackson walked from the courthouse under cover of a black umbrella. He extended his hand from his heart out to the throng of fans, as white doves were released and flew overhead. He then boarded one in a convoy of black SUVs and returned home.
Jackson did not speak to the press, but his fans who had come like pilgrims to this quiet town on the Central California coast reveled in his victory.
"This has been a tremendously draining ordeal." said Najee Ali, from Los Angeles, who had led the crowd in saying the Lord's Prayer before the verdicts were announced.
"People laughed at us and ridiculed us because we believed him. Not only is Michael Jackson redeemed, but so are his fans who put our names on the line for him."
The verdicts, reached after more than 32 hours of deliberations in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, brought to a close a more than four-month trial that featured 140 witnesses - including defense testimony from celebrities Macaulay Culkin, Chris Tucker and Jay Leno.
The trial was marked by odd moments. Jackson danced on the roof of his SUV after his arraignment. Then he invited everyone to picnic at Neverland, where the abuse allegedly took place.
On another occasion, six of Jackson's siblings showed up in court in bright white outfits that matched their famous brother's. Nation of Islam members were briefly a visible part of his entourage. And on the day in March when his accuser testified, Jackson showed up in court wearing blue pajama bottoms.
Prosecutors alleged that on four occasions in 2003, Jackson sexually molested a 13-year-old cancer patient from Los Angeles. Prosecutors said Jackson shared his bed with the boy, showed him pornography, gave him alcohol and told him that boys who don't masturbate grow up to rape women or have sex with animals.
Jurors also heard testimony that Jackson had paid settlements in other cases of alleged molestation - more than $20 million in one case and roughly $2 million in another, though jurors were not told the amounts.
But in interviews yesterday afternoon, jurors said they did not believe testimony from the mother of Jackson's accuser.
Defense lawyers produced testimony that the woman had committed welfare fraud and fabricated evidence to win a settlement in an unrelated case. Jurors found it strange that the woman would let her son spend so much time with Jackson.
"As a parent, you"re constantly protective of what happens to your children." said one juror, who declined to give her name. "What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen - just volunteer your child to sleep with someone?'
Two jurors said they were offended when the mother snapped her fingers at them during testimony. Legal experts said yesterday that Jackson's lawyers succeeded at highlighting elements of reasonable doubt that were abundant in the case, and that most problematic was the mother.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon disputed claims that the accuser's mother hurt the case against Jackson. Sneddon said that his office does not choose its victims or discriminate based on their background.
"Obviously, we"re disappointed in the verdict." he said. 'But we work every day in a system of justice, and we believe in the system of justice. I've been a prosecutor for 37 years. I've never quarreled with a jury's verdict. I'm not going to start today."
Asked whether Jackson's celebrity had anything to do with the outcome of the case, Sned don suggested it might have: 'But maybe we"re looking for explanations in the wrong places."
Jackson had been charged with 10 counts of conspiracy, child molestation, attempted child molestation and administering alcohol in the commission of a felony. He was originally arrested in November 2003, after police raided Neverland, his 2,700-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley. Jackson has been free on $3 million bail since.
"It's hard to convict a celebrity in California." said Paul Bergman, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the intersection of popular culture and the law. "Part of it is just the ability to pay for a defense that typically non-celebrities cannot afford."
And, Bergman said, jurors often set a higher standard in celebrity cases: "There is this notion of beyond a reasonable doubt being taken more seriously. You treat this person as a friend or a relative, or someone you know, and you want to be really sure before you find them guilty of something."
The jury of eight women and four men said they believe they treated Jackson like any other citizen. They could not convict, they said, because the prosecution failed to produce a "smoking gun' and because they felt reasonable doubt.
"We expected probably better evidence, something that was more convincing, and it just wasn't there." one woman said.
About 2,200 journalists were credentialed to cover the trial, with the number doubling once the jury began deliberating. The media often clashed with the Jackson fans, who heckled and threw eggs at the reporters.
"Go find some real news to cover!' one man yelled to a reporter from the front seat of a Volvo station wagon outside Neverland on Sunday.
Friday, a restraining order was issued against a fan who had bothered Court TV reporter Diane Diamond; Bobby Joseph Hickman, 18, of Knoxville, Tenn., held a news conference of his own yesterday. He stood on the courthouse lawn in an "I [Heart] Michael Jackson' T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
"The news has said that Diane Diamond has lodged a complaint against me, that I have threatened her." he said. 'I've never threatened her or harmed her in any way, so it's just about time that lie is stopped. Freedom of speech is a great thing in America, and I have never done anything more than express my First Amendment rights."
The case's greatest mystery, said Bergman of UCLA, was not the question of Jackson's guilt - it was the legions of fans who camped outside each day with seemingly no other obligations.
Fans from Europe, Asia and the United States have descended on Santa Maria since the trial began. Many spent all day at the courthouse, sitting outside waving their banners, then driving 25 miles south to Neverland each afternoon.
Jackson fans decorated the Neverland iron gate with paper doves and hearts. One fan, Kate Dillon, stood by the gate Sunday afternoon imploring a Jackson employee to let her see Michael.
"We drove all the way here just to see Michael." said Dillon, 18, of Dayton, Ohio, who was with her mother and best friend. Her grandparents waited in the car. 'I've been a fan since I was 5, and everyone always laughed at me - all my friends - but I've always thought he's innocent."
Melanie Reichert, 23, of Munich, Germany, paid her second visit to Santa Maria yesterday. A lawyer's assistant, she said she has exhausted her vacation time but felt compelled to make the trip. "The whole time, he was there for us." she said. "Now we"re here for him."
After the verdicts, she said, 'I'm speechless. I always knew it, and I'm happy that other people see it also. He is such a beautiful person. Everyone should be like him: innocent and childlike."
Sun staff writer Gail Gibson and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
Michael Jackson trial highlights
Key testimony presented by prosecutors in the Michael Jackson case:
The accuser, a 15-year-old former cancer patient, said he was twice molested by Jackson at the pop star's Neverland ranch. The accuser's brother said he saw Jackson fondle his sleeping brother two times. The boys' mother testified that the family was held by Jackson associates who claimed "killers" were after them.
Several witnesses testified they saw or had been the victim of inappropriate touching by Jackson, a prosecution effort to show Jackson had a history of abusing boys dating to the late 1980s.
The mother of a boy who received a multimillion-dollar settlement from Jackson for dropping molestation allegations said Jackson pleaded with her to let her son sleep with him. The woman said that after she agreed in 1993, she was treated to trips and lavish gifts.
Key testimony presented by the defense:
Jackson never took the stand but the jury heard him on a videotape saying "I'm not a nut" and "I haven't been betrayed or deceived by children. Adults have let me down."
Actor Macaulay Culkin testified that he was not molested during childhood visits to Neverland during which he shared a bed with Jackson. Two other young men said that as boys they repeatedly slept in the singer's bedroom without being touched inappropriately.
Comedians Jay Leno and Chris Tucker testified that they became suspicious of the accuser's motives. Leno said he received many phone messages of praise from the boy in 2000 that sounded scripted.
Several witnesses testified that during the time family members claimed to be captives, they showed no signs of being unhappy at Neverland and were allowed to run up $7,000 in shopping, dining and other bills paid by Jackson.
Details of the charges
Count one: Conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion, including 28 specific acts between Feb. 1 and March 31, 2003.
Counts two through five: Lewd act upon a child under the age of 14, between Feb. 20 and March 12, 2003.
Count six: Attempt to get a child under age 14 to commit a lewd act upon Jackson between Feb. 20 and March 12, 2003.
Counts seven through 10: Administering an intoxicating agent - alcohol - to assist in the commission of child molestation.
Impact: The jury of public opinion is still out on Jackson's legacy. Page 10A
Celebrity: Many entertainers have had careers diminished by criminal charges. Page 8A