February 10, 2005
VENTURA, Calif. - An appeals court considering whether to lift some of the secrecy in the Michael Jackson child molestation case questioned lawyers about how to balance the pop singer's right to a fair trial with the public's right to know.
The three-judge panel of the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal focused Wednesday on whether releasing details of a criminal case involving a high-profile defendant could poison the jury pool, and on how to release some information while withholding such details as the name of the accuser, who is a minor.
Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a 13-year-old former cancer patient and giving the boy alcohol and conspiring to hold him and his family captive.
Key documents in the case - including a November 2003 search warrant for Jackson's Neverland ranch, transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to his indictment, and the indictment itself - have not been released.
The documents that have been released were heavily edited, rendering them incomprehensible, said attorney Theodore J. Boutrous, who represents The Associated Press and other news organizations covering the case.
Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville has said he is keeping some information secret to avoid influencing prospective jurors and to ensure Jackson a fair trial. He said he will release the indictment and grand jury transcripts once a jury is selected, a process expected to take several weeks.
Attorneys are scheduled to begin questioning prospective jurors Monday.
During questioning, Associate Justice Arthur Gilbert noted that any information about Jackson would spread worldwide.
"If he clears his throat, it's going to make the front page of the Karachi Times," Gilbert said.
Justice Steven Z. Perren said Melville tried "heroically, I think" to balance the release of documents with Jackson's right to a fair trial.
Boutrous said close screening of prospective jurors would ensure that no one with strong biases would make the jury. He also argued the public had a right to follow the allegations and Jackson's responses to them to gauge whether prosecutors and defense attorneys were acting properly and making valid arguments.
Robert Sanger, an attorney for Jackson, said the superstar didn't want special treatment, but was entitled to a fair trial. Sanger said he was worried about the jury pool being contaminated if some of the information was released before a jury is seated.
Santa Barbara County attorney Steve Underwood, defending Melville, said the judge released as many documents as possible while trying to preserve the integrity of the jury pool and the accuser's right to privacy.