In blow to Jackson, judge allows alleged history of bad behavior
By Harriet Ryan
SANTA MARIA, California (Court TV) -- Testimony about Michael Jackson's alleged history of bad behavior with young boys is fair game, a judge ruled Monday in the King of Pop's child-molestation trial.
The decision, a major setback to Jackson's defense, means that jurors will hear testimony from at least nine witnesses who claim they saw Jackson engage in inappropriate physical conduct with five different boys between the ages of 10 and 13, including then-child actor Macaulay Culkin.
One of the boys, the son of a former maid whose family reached a settlement of more than $2 million with Jackson in 1994, is expected to take the stand to describe alleged incidents in which Jackson put his hand up the boy's pants to touch his skin, and another time touched his genitalia.
Other witnesses are expected to testify that Jackson was seen licking the head of a boy during a trans-Atlantic flight and that he was observed in bed with a child while his and the child's underpants were lying next to the bed.
Calling the prosecution's case weak and desperate, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau said that the witnesses expected to testify about prior bad acts were a "gang" of liars and called them "third-party witnesses with an ax to grind."
Mesereau also argued that the prosecution was unable to compel any of the other alleged victims to take the stand, in part because many have denied any sexual abuse, including actor Culkin who says Jackson was always a friend to him.
Jackson was never charged in any of the alleged incidents, but Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville ruled admissible testimony that demonstrates what prosecutors claim is Jackson's pattern of behavior with his alleged victims.
Prosecutors contend that Jackson grooms his victims and their families, lavishing them with gifts and attention, as a prelude to engaging the boys in lewd acts.
The 15-year-old boy whose allegations of molestation in 2003 landed the world's most famous defendant in a Santa Maria court is a cancer survivor whom Jackson befriended, opening up his Neverland Ranch home to him and his family.
Jackson allegedly gave the boy's mother jewelry from Cartier, paid for family trips to Monaco, and bought them a new truck, among other presents.
"This was a rather standard procedure for the defendant to buy gifts and to do things for the mothers in those cases to keep them preoccupied so the defendant would have free rein with the child involved," District Attorney Tom Sneddon said during a motion hearing Monday morning, outside the presence of jurors.
"He also has spent millions on children with AIDS," defense attorney Mesereau countered. "We can drown them with examples of where Mr. Jackson has been so benevolent, so generous, so charitable, so giving for good causes, that it will make their theory look silly."
The judge also allowed in details, but no dollar amount, regarding a widely reported 1993 settlement with an accuser who claimed Jackson molested him.
According to Court TV's Diane Dimond, Jackson began paying that accuser installments on the more-than-$20 million settlement beginning in January 1994. Now in his 20s, that accuser does not wish to testify.
Jackson did not attend Monday morning's hearing, instead arriving afterward in a black SUV with tinted windows to hear testimony from Monday's first witness, comedian George Lopez.
The dapper Jackson wore a red armband and matching red vest Monday.
Outside the courthouse, he gave the victory sign to cheering fans, one of whom held a sign reading, "Leave the man alone." The sentiment was a reference to Jackson's hit 1989 song, "Leave Me Alone."
When asked by a reporter if he was disappointed about the judge's decision, Jackson smiled and waved, saying only, "A little bit."
Tales of extortion
Comedian and TV actor Lopez described his short, troubled relationship with the current accuser's family.
Lopez told jurors he visited the boy in the hospital in late 1999 when he was "in dire condition" and "just clinging to life." Lopez and his wife, Ann, who also testified, said they continued the friendship with the child after he went into remission and also bought him gifts of toy cars and race-car tracks.
But Lopez said he was suspicious of the boy's father, who continually hit him up for handouts.
"Every time we spoke, it was always really about money," Lopez said, adding that he gave the father about $400 in cash, in amounts of $40 or $30 at a time.
"You gave him the little amounts you had in your pocket at the time?" Mesereau asked during cross-examination.
"I only had little amounts at that time," Lopez quipped, eliciting a laugh from the courtroom audience.
Mesereau questioned Lopez about the accuser's mother, but the comedian maintained that she never asked him for money or discussed the family's financial situation. Nonetheless, the comedian said he finally severed ties with the boy and his family in May 2000 because of the father's increasingly aggressive pitches for money.
The comedian, who has an eponymous show on ABC, said he was just a struggling Latino radio personality in the fall of 1999 when he first met the accuser at a comedy camp for underprivileged youth.
He described the boy as "a great kid. He had a lot of spirit and was fearless."
But two incidents involving the child's father soured Lopez and his wife.
The comedian told jurors that the father, who has been divorced from the accuser's mother since 2001, approached Lopez to organize a fundraiser to help pay the family's bills.
"It seemed to me at the time that he was more interested about the money than he was about his son," Lopez said, adding that he would receive constant calls from the father, urging him to speed up the planning and continually asking how much they could raise.
Lopez's wife, TV producer Ann Lopez, told jurors that she decided to test the father, "to make sure his intentions were honorable."
Her test was simple: she called the father, gave him a false date for the fundraiser and said that she would need contact information for all of the family's bills, so she could set up paperwork to have them paid.
"What do you mean? Aren't I just going to get the cash?" Lopez said the accuser's father asked her. She said he became increasingly agitated about the arrangement, finally cursing at her on the line.
"He called me a f---ing bitch, and a motherf---ing whore and that's when I hung up the phone," Lopez said. "I was shaking."
Shortly before that call, the couple testified, the father accused them of stealing $300 from the boy's wallet after it had been left at the comedian's home during a visit.
The confluence of events, Lopez said, led him to end the relationship and suspend plans for a fundraiser. He and the father had a final confrontation on May 5, 2000, outside a Mexican restaurant where the comedian had just finished a show.
"What am I supposed to tell [the boy]?" Lopez testified the father asked him. "I said, 'Tell him his father's an extortionist.'"
Michael Jackson, 46, is charged with nine felony counts, including committing lewd acts on the boy in 2003 and plying him with alcohol with the intent of enabling the alleged molestation.
If convicted, Jackson faces up to 20 years in prison.