Beyond Michael Jackson: The Jury
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A few weeks before jury selection began in his child molestation trial former pop king Michael Jackson publicly announced that he would invite prospective jurors to visit his Neverland Ranch. It was bold, audacious and preposterous. It could easily be chalked up as yet another image massage ploy by Jackson to convince a doubting, and hostile, public that he's a tender, giving, lover of children, and not the serial pedophile that Santa Barbara County's district attorney claims that he is. Jackson's juror invitation was also recognition that the jury that will convict or acquit the world's highest profile black celebrity defendant of multiple child molestation charges is likely to be all or predominantly white.
Blacks make up about two percent of Santa Barbara County. That number is even less in the more conservative northern part of the county where the bulk of the 4,000 prospective jurors in Jackson's trial were drawn from. The residents there are a hodge-podge mix of ranchers, growers, retired military personnel, and blue-collar suburbanites. In 2003, Santa Barbara county officials were hit with a court order to end alleged bias in the juror selection process that excluded Latinos from jury panels. In the trial of O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and P. Diddy Combs, and near trial of Kobe Bryant, defense attorneys fought titanic battles with prosecutors to get as many blacks on the jury as they could. Their great fear was that if they didn't get them they could not win. Jackson's attorneys are no exception. A juror questionnaire probed prospective jurors on their attitudes toward celebrities, law enforcement and race.
They are scared stiff that the absence of blacks or minorities on his jury will trump his wealth, fame and superstar aura. That is something that not even his A-team legal defense team can overcome. A Harris poll taken shortly after Jackson's arrest in November, 2003 found the same gaping racial divide between blacks and whites in the Jackson trial as Simpson's, and the trials of other black celebrities. Jury selection alone in the Jackson case will eat up weeks of a trial that may last months.
In emotionally charged trials of black defendants, even high profile ones such as Jackson's, the presumption is always that white jurors tilt heavily toward the prosecution. In some instances that's true, in others it's not. Jackson's courtroom scorecard is 50-50 with Santa Barbara County jurors. They found for him in a lawsuit in 1997 and against him in a lawsuit in 2002. Other than a public survey on differences in black-white attitudes toward Jackson, there's no evidence that race will become the compelling issue in the trial.
But Jackson could be convicted even if white jurors don't perceive race as an issue. In two separate studies in 1998 and 2001, the University of Michigan conducted a series of mock trials with black and white jurors. In those situations where the defendant was black and the victim white, the white mock jurors were far more willing to convict the black defendant if race was not a trial issue. That will be the case in Jackson's trial. With the national and international spotlight on the Jackson case, the jurors do not want to be perceived as bigots, but as fair and impartial judges of the evidence. They will be under more intense scrutiny than ever. They will bend over backward to be fair, and will expect the prosecutors to prove their case beyond any standard of doubt.
Then there is Jackson's celebrity allure. It's a double-edged sword for him. Jurors could see him as a victim of a vengeful and jealous legal system bent not on prosecuting him for alleged crimes committed, but on persecuting him because of who he is. But they could also turn Jackson's wealth and fame on its head. They could resent him for being a pampered, spoiled celebrity that has used his wealth and fame to get special treatment and now believes that that puts him above the law.
Prosecutors will do everything possible to insure that race is not a factor in the trial. That it's strictly a case of a rich, powerful, superstar entertainer taking full advantage of his wealth and fame to molest innocent and unsuspecting children. They will argue that he has publicly admitted that he slavishly worships children and that on occasion they have slept in the same bedroom with him at his ranch. The public will be reminded repeatedly of the prior allegations of child abuse against him, and a legion of child abuse experts will testify that Jackson is indeed capable of doing the repulsive acts he's charged with.
This doesn't mean that race could not be a factor in the trial. But if a predominantly or all-white jury in Santa Maria convicts Jackson, it won't necessarily mean that the jurors were out to nail a black, a celebrity or a wealthy eccentric. They will convict because they believed he committed the crimes. One way or another, they will determine whether he can salvage his much damaged, and tarnished reputation, and resume his entertainment career. And Jackson knows that.
The Jackson trial is expected to last 3 to 5 months. This is one of a periodic series of ongoing Hutchinson Reports on the issues of Celebrity, Sex, Wealth and Race in and Beyond The Jackson Trial.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and political analyst. For interview requests contact: 323-296-6331