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Opening Statements in Jacko Trial

SANTA MARIA, Calif. – A prosecutor laid out the child molestation and conspiracy case against Michael Jackson to a jury on Monday, saying the singer exploited a 13-year-old boy and exposed him to ”strange sexual behavior.”

District Attorney Thomas Sneddon referred to the boy by name after telling the court it would be impossible to proceed without using the real names of the child and his family.

Opening statements began after Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville read the indictment to the jury, revealing the names of five unindicted alleged co-conspirators. All are Jackson employees.

The judge also read 28 overt acts allegedly committed in a conspiracy surrounding the alleged molestation of the boy, a cancer patient, at Jackson’s Neverland ranch and a purported attempt to keep his family silent.

Sneddon, Santa Barbara County’s top prosecutor, told the jury that the case was about Jackson’s ”desperate attempt” to salvage his career after the airing of the television documentary ”Living With Michael Jackson,” in which the pop star is seen holding hands with the boy and saying he allows children to sleep in his bed.

Sneddon said that when the documentary aired, ”Jackson’s world was rocked” and that one of the co-conspirators described the airing as ”a train wreck.” Jackson arrived at court on a drizzly morning with a throng of news media watching. But there was no big crowd of fans, just a handful outside and about a dozen in the courtroom. Two people demonstrated outside in support of the prosecution.

Both sides have compelling stories to tell, but the credibility of the boy, now 15, and his family likely will determine the outcome.

”You will see two different trials in opening statements,” said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson.

The prosecution will depict a poor family whose stricken son wanted to meet one of his idols. The child’s wish was granted, but the prosecution claims it turned into a nightmare of sexual abuse and imprisonment at Jackson’s fairytale home in coastal mountains 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

The defense will cast Jackson as the target of a money-hungry mother who coached her son to spin stories when it looked like their celebrity benefactor would cut them off. The defense will present evidence that the mother has sued others in the past claiming abuse. ”The bigger the star, the bigger the target,” Jackson said during a recent television interview with Geraldo Rivera, suggesting his defense.

Though Jackson’s star has waned on stage, his legacy and showmanship still generate a global audience. Jackson’s lawyer suggested to jurors that celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Wonder would testify on behalf of the pop star.

More than 1,000 members of the media have credentials to cover the trial, including correspondents from Europe and Asia. For the first day of jury selection, fans from around the world descended on this small community.

Ever a performer, Jackson has a hair and makeup artist to prepare him. A wardrobe assistant helps pick his theatrical court attire.

Prosecutors who unsuccessfully pursued Jackson over a decade ago on charges he molested a different boy are investing huge resources to make this set of charges stick. A battalion of deputies raided Jackson’s ranch to seize evidence and a cadre of lawyers and investigators have churned out mountains of motions and search warrants.

The jury, chosen with unusual speed, is a hometown group of eight women and four men. Most jurors are white, Jackson is black. The panel includes several fans of Jackson’s music, four parents of young children and one woman whose grandson was convicted of a sexual offense.

Some jurors either have been to Neverland or have friends or family who have visited or even worked there. Since buying the ranch in 1988, Jackson has invited thousands of people to his theme park of a home, which includes an arcade, trains, rides and a zoo.

And for those who haven’t been, this may be their chance.

The defense has asked the judge to consider taking the entire crew of 12 jurors and eight alternates on a field trip to Jackson’s spread. The judge has yet to decide whether the jury needs to see a place which the prosecution considers a prison and the defense a paradise for children.



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