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Jackson Settles Abuse Suit but Insists He Is Innocent : Courts: Singer will reportedly pay $15 million to $24 million to teen-ager. Criminal investigation will proceed.

January 26, 1994|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers for Michael Jackson and a 14-year-old boy who alleged in a lawsuit that the singer sexually molested him announced Tuesday that they have settled the case, abruptly ending one chapter of a scandal that has dogged the internationally renowned pop icon since August.

Although the attorneys declined to discuss any aspect of the settlement, sources close to the negotiations said it was for $15 million to $24 million, with some of the money paid to the boy in cash and the rest funneled into a trust fund. The terms of the settlement were reviewed by a judge who has been appointed to serve as the boy's guardian.

After a brief court hearing Tuesday, Larry R. Feldman, the boy's attorney, said he and his client were "very happy with the resolution of this matter."

Despite the settlement, Jackson's attorneys said their client stands by his assertions of innocence and agreed to the deal so that he could get on with his life.

"The resolution of this case is in no way an admission of guilt by Michael Jackson," said attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of two lawyers representing Jackson in the matter. "In short, he is an innocent man who does not intend to have his career and his life destroyed by rumors and innuendo."

As part of the settlement, however, Jackson publicly recanted his charge that he was the victim of an extortion attempt by the boy's father. That claim, long advanced by Jackson's advisers and by the entertainer, has been the mainstay of his defense since the first days of the case, which erupted in August.

The settlement of the civil case resolves Jackson's most immediate legal troubles and may effectively put an end to a criminal investigation. The boy's lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in March. In preparation for that, a judge had scheduled Jackson to be deposed this week.

Jackson previously had resisted giving a deposition, and had the case not been settled he might have been forced to choose between answering questions and refusing to respond based on his right to not incriminate himself--a common legal maneuver but one that could have had grave public relations implications for the superstar.

Now, those immediate problems have been lifted, and he will avoid the spectacle of a nationally televised civil trial probing the most intimate aspects of his personal life.

But the civil case was only a part of Jackson's legal woes. The longer-term question that the end of the lawsuit raises is whether Jackson might still be prosecuted.

That answer is more complicated. One prosecutor said Tuesday that the investigation will continue, but most legal experts agree that it now appears unlikely that Jackson will be indicted--at least for any alleged abuse of this boy.

Feldman, who waged an aggressive legal effort on behalf of the boy, would not say Tuesday whether his client would testify if prosecutors sought to file criminal charges against Jackson. He emphasized that the civil settlement in no way committed his client to remaining silent, but at the same time Feldman repeatedly suggested that the boy might be better off by getting on with his life.

"He cannot heal, he cannot get better until he puts this matter behind him," said Feldman, whose client has met with psychologists in recent months. "He wants to put this behind him."

In a statement released by his office, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said the criminal investigation will go forward.

"The criminal investigation of singer Michael Jackson is ongoing and will not be affected by the announcement of the civil case settlement," Garcetti said. "The district attorney's office is taking Mr. Feldman at his word that the alleged victim will be allowed to testify and that there has been no agreement in the civil matter that will affect cooperation in the criminal investigation."

Santa Barbara County prosecutors, who also are weighing the possibility of criminal charges against the entertainer, declined to comment on Tuesday's developments.

Although the terms of the settlement were not made public, nothing in the document is likely to prevent the child from cooperating with authorities, lawyers said, because the law prevents anyone from conspiring to obstruct the work of police and prosecutors as they investigate a possible crime.

"There's no way that a civil settlement can somehow keep the prosecution from seeking information in a criminal investigation," said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor. "But the pragmatic reality is that with an uncooperative victim, the prosecution would be unable to secure a criminal conviction."

Arenella and other legal analysts agreed that if the boy and his family determine that it is in his best interest to put the case behind him, there is almost no chance that prosecutors could proceed without him. Under California law, children can and sometimes are forced to testify against their will, but the law does not allow authorities to punish alleged victims of sex crimes who decline to testify.

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