Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Michael Jackson walked free from a California court on Monday, cleared of child molestation and conspiracy charges, after a bitter four-month trial.

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for seven days before acquitting the 46-year-old, a former child star who released the best selling pop album of all time in “Thriller”. They had to consider testimony by 140 witnesses and some 600 items of evidence.

The prosecution’s case rested heavily on Mr Jackson’s accuser - a now 15-year-old high school student who testified under oath that the pop icon molested him at least twice after nights of heavy drinking at Jackson’s Neverland estate.

Defence attorneys argued that the boy had invented the molestation at the urging of his mother - who they portrayed as a grifter who targeted celebrities.

Conviction on all 10 counts could have sent the pop star to prison for nearly 20 years.

An estimated 2,000 journalists from more than 30 countries outnumbered fans and spectators gathered to learn the fate of the self-described “King of Pop.”

They represented the hundreds of star-studded glossy magazines, newspapers, television programmes, websites and chat rooms that provide the basics to satisfy America's huge appetite for daily news and trivia about the rich and famous.

But, as Mr Jackson's trial confirmed, it is the US criminal courts system that provides the nation and the world with the circuses to supplement the bread.

The concept of the modern-day celebrity trial as a multi-media cultural spectacle was established a decade ago by the trial for murder of former sports hero OJ Simpson.

In that case, the circus parade including judge Lance Ito, whose clownish interventions included treating his jury to a flight in a dirigible, a theatre outing and a boat trip, and sinisters such as Mark Fuhrman, the allegedly racist cop was broadcast worldwide from inside the court.

Grandstanding lawyers and witnesses hijacked the mantle of celebrity in full view of the world and developed new post-trial careers as writers, broadcasters and “legal experts”. The “star” of the show was to fade away to an obscure existence on a Florida golf course.

Learning their lesson, judges have strictly limited camera access since, especially in high-profile cases involving serious charges.

Rodney Melville, who presided over Mr Jackson's trial, held the line.

Participants were gagged. Most of the media and all the cameras found themselves corralled outside his tiny courtroom in rural Santa Maria, some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, jostling in uneasy proximity to the gawkers and increasingly antagonistic Jackson fans.

Starved of spin from lawyers, early reporting dutifully recorded events in the courtroom.

One cable channel, with a Jackson impersonator in the lead role, livened things up with aired re-enactments of each day's proceedings and readings from the transcript.

The potential for controversy over the incendiary topic of race, so prominent in the OJ Simpson trial, was never realised, even though Mr Jackson, briefly freed of his gag, presented his plight in the light of the legal travails of Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, allegedly pursued by the law because of their colour.

Some of the more detailed testimony provided salacious tidbits for talk radio to titter over, but the titillation increased as the trial progressed, as a trickle and then a stream of more contentious material started running through the interstices of the internet.

The conventional media struggled for popular attention against a maelstrom of theories, fantasies, fabrications and facts disseminated over the web by bloggers and site operators of every stripe.

In the end the internet upstarts barely in the picture 10 years ago when Mr Simpson was on trial emerged as formidable opponents for newspapers and broadcasters constrained by common decency and the rules of their trade.

One site scored a substantial “scoop” with an alleged child's drawing of Mr Jackson's genitalia; ruled out of court because of its prejudicial nature, it generated thousands of hits and raucous radio commentary.

Anything and everything became newsworthy: an apparent intimate moment between media people in a TV satellite van one day, a fan's placard adorned with a plastic bag of excrement the next.

Friction mounted between the fans and reporters accused of persecuting and pre-judging Mr Jackson.

One group set off its car alarms to disrupt live newscasts. A reporter was granted an injunction to prevent further harassment by a particularly aggressive camp follower and police confiscated pine cones and bags of rocks deemed potential missiles.

And, day after day, the pictures of Mr Jackson, appearing progressively thinner and more strained, marked the start and end ofproceedings as he came and went.

By the finish of the trial his cowed demeanour was a far cry from that of the agile song and dance man who, more than a year earlier, had moon-walked atop his SUV.

As a display of bravado and a rousing moment for his supporters it was oddly reminiscent of the low-speed freeway chase when fans crowded the roadsides to cheer on Mr Simpson.

And even as the trial wound to a close, the next celebrity to face the courts, Phil Spector, put on a show of his own at an early hearing.

The 65-year-old whose “wall of sound” transformed pop music turned up in high-heeled boots and an extravagant blonde “afro” hairdo to face charges of murder.

Perhaps, as intended, the widespread publication of the pictures showed a defendant confident of his case, although one hairdresser critic told the LA Daily News: “He must be going for the insanity defence.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article