Justice Served?

Posted: Jun 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Michael Jackson was acquitted on all counts of molesting a former cancer patient who he had befriended, despite lingering questions in jurors minds of whether Jackson had sexually abused other children. Three members of the jury told reporters that they were troubled by the fact that Jackson regularly shared his bed with children, but that they lacked sufficient evidence to convict Jackson of molesting this particular accuser.

"I feel that Michael Jackson probably has molested boys," said jury foreman Raymond Hultman, following the verdict.  I cannot believe that . . . this man could sleep in the same bedroom for 365 straight days and not do something more than just watch television and eat popcorn. I mean, that doesn't make sense to me. But that doesn't make him guilty of the charges that were presented in this case, and that's where we had to make our decision." Another jury member, Eleanor Cook, expressed similar suspicions, but added, “We couldn't judge on that because it wasn't what we were there to do.”

Jackson had been accused of ten charges—four counts of committing lewd acts with a child, four counts of plying the child with alcohol, and one count of holding the boy and his family against their will. The charges carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.

The security manager of Jackson's Neverland Ranch, Terry Anderson, responded to news of the acquittal by proclaiming, “Justice was served.” Maybe he’s right. A source close to the prosecution’s team told me that once the allegation was made, they expected children to come out of the woodwork with stories of how Jackson had used his superstar status to prey upon them. That never happened. Meanwhile, the defense successfully demonstrated that the accuser’s mother had lied in a previous suit against J.C. Penney and had a history of welfare fraud—twin facts that allowed the defense to paint Jackson’s accusers as con artists trying to capitalize on Jackson’s notoriety. 

In the end, the prosecution’s gamble that other accusers would come forward proved the death knell. "In a case like this, you are looking for a smoking gun -- something you can grab on to. We had trouble finding that," said Hultman. Other jury members stressed that they treated Jackson like any other citizen and refused to be swayed by his celebrity. Unlike with the O.J. trial, this was not about making up for past abuses. The defense did not try to turn Jackson into a touchstone for everyday injustices. This was not about race. (Of course, one wonders precisely which race card—black or white--the defense would have used had they chosen  to go that route.) This was not about the shortcomings of the police department. It was simply about the merits of the case. Having closely scrutinized the evidence, the jurors could not convict Jackson for this particular crime. Or, as one juror recalled, "We actually challenged one another in the deliberation room. We challenged the issues, and we came to the decision that pointed to reasonable doubt."

This is justice. Child molestation is a horrible fact of our society. The heinous nature of the crime plays to our instincts for vengeance. It is all too human to want to use the law to tear down anyone accused of such an act—to give order to the tragedy by finding a perpetrator. But because the law dictates the most severe punishments that our society can exact, it must be tempered by order and consistency. When the law becomes an instrument of our vengeful whims, it fails to provide the public with fair warning of what will constitute a crime, and unwisely broadens government discretion in determining when an individual has violated the law. 

In effect, what the jurors in the Jackson trial were saying was that we must only punish the guilty, and we must never punish based upon the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. Regardless of what other justifications might exist for sending Jackson to jail-such as the suspicion that he may have molested other children—finding him guilty here on the basis of suspicion and a thirst for vengeance would have been at odds with a fair and consistent rule of law.