For months I avoided reading anything about the Michael Jackson case. It's the kind of story I try to avoid on principle: salacious, celebrity-focused, with little long-term significance. So I was surprised at my own reaction when the verdict in his molestation trial came down: acquitted on all counts. I was furious. How could he get off on all charges, I fumed. Suddenly, the story millions of Americans had been obsessing about since Jackson's April 2004 indictment ensnared me, too.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, I tuned in to the jurors' press conference -- which was a little like watching paint dry. Not much information there. I read the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today coverage. I probably would have tuned over to FOX News Channel to see what Greta Van Susteren and guests had to say if my husband hadn't intervened. "Who cares?" he pleaded as I ate dinner glued to the TV.
And I wondered that myself. Why do we care? Michael Jackson has become a one-man freak show. He's disfigured his face, emaciated his body and squandered his considerable talent. The man is so desperate for attention that he'll dangle his own child from a hotel window. He pretends to be childlike and innocent, but he's a middle-aged man who admits he likes sleeping with little boys. In short, he's disgusting. But the U.S. legal system requires more than suspected deviancy to put a man behind bars. And here, apparently, the prosecution in the Michael Jackson trial came up short.
The Santa Barbara County, Calif., prosecutors' case rested almost exclusively on witness testimony as opposed to forensic evidence. And the prosecution's chief witnesses were badly flawed. The alleged victim's mother turned everybody off. The defense demonstrated that she had a penchant for rip-off schemes, and when she took the stand early in the case, she provided MJ with his get-out-of-jail-free card. Who lets their 13-year-old boy sleep in the bed with an adult male, much less one as weird as Michael Jackson? The mother's motives were suspect, and, by default, her son's accusations became suspect as well.
Does that mean the jurors believed that nothing happened when Jackson invited the cancer victim into his lair? Probably not. No person in his or her right mind can imagine that the pop star's penchant for surrounding himself with underage boys is harmless. It's not as if the purported victim in this case was the first boy to cry foul. Jackson has spent millions buying the silence of other accusers. But the prosecution wasn't able to turn the accusations of others into its trump card in this case.
As Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, points out in his commentary on the Jackson verdict in National Review Online: "The law says a person cannot be convicted because of his propensity to do evil." McCarthy notes that the law does allow evidence of past, uncharged crimes to be admitted at the trial as evidence of motive, opportunity or other factors that bear on the case being tried. In the Jackson trial, some of the witnesses who testified about other alleged instances of abuse by Jackson actually may have weakened the case -- not because the jury didn't believe them, but because their testimony made the case involving this alleged victim look even less compelling.
The verdict won't help Michael Jackson regain his deservedly sullied reputation or boost his career, but he will remain free. Unfortunately, that may mean he can continue to prey on children -- with their greedy parents' consent. Maybe the next prosecution ought to be against any parent who lets his or her child within 100 yards of this man.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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