A Santa Barbara County Grand Jury will convene next week to begin hearing testimony about whether Michael Jackson sexually molested a boy over a period of several months last year, sources close to the investigation said Friday.
Subpoenas already have been delivered to a number of witnesses, the sources said. They added, however, that neither Jackson nor his young accuser so far has been asked to testify.
The grand jury's actions do not necessarily signal that an indictment is on the horizon. Grand juries often are used to gather evidence, not just to consider indictments.
But the decision to convene the grand jury sends the strongest signal yet that the criminal investigations of the entertainer are continuing despite last month's settlement of a civil case brought against him by his alleged victim.
Lawyers for Jackson and the alleged victim, a 14-year-old boy who filed a lawsuit against the singer last year, announced on Jan. 25 that they had settled the boy's case. Although terms of that settlement were not disclosed, sources familiar with the negotiations said Jackson agreed to pay between $15 million and $24 million.
The resolution of the suit prompted many observers to speculate that the progress of the criminal case might be severely hampered. Legal analysts say that would be true particularly if the boy decided that it was not in his best interests to testify in the criminal case now that the civil matter is concluded.
California law prohibits authorities from punishing sex-abuse victims if they refuse to testify. The boy's testimony in the Jackson case is considered essential for prosecutors to win a conviction.
The boy has not said whether he would agree to take the stand, but authorities clearly are concerned that he might decide against it.
On Thursday, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti announced that his office is sponsoring legislation that would force any sex-abuse victim who filed suit or accepted money as part of a civil settlement to testify in a related criminal proceeding.
"This case would have application in the Michael Jackson investigation should we decide that prosecution is warranted," Garcetti said Thursday. "I want to emphasize we are not at that point."
Larry R. Feldman, the boy's lawyer, has not said whether his client would be willing to testify in a criminal case. Although he has said that "nobody bought anybody's silence" with the civil settlement, he also repeatedly has stressed that psychologists believe the best thing for the boy would be to get on with his life rather than to keep dealing with the allegations.
As the criminal investigations move forward, sources familiar with the case say prosecutors in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara are warily eyeing each other's moves. Garcetti's office has lost several major recent trials, and sources say the district attorney is reluctant to take on another high-profile case unless he believes he has a good chance of winning.
On the other hand, Garcetti could be left in an embarrassing predicament if he passes up a criminal prosecution only to have his Santa Barbara counterpart, Thomas Sneddon Jr., review the same facts and conclude that prosecution is warranted.
The result, according to sources, is a difficult political problem for both of the elected prosecutors: Neither wants to bring a case and lose, but neither wants to pass up the chance of prosecuting and have his counterpart win.
Daniel Davis, a Los Angeles lawyer who handles child-molestation cases and consults on high-profile cases throughout the state, predicted Friday that Garcetti will not prosecute Jackson.
"Garcetti will never file," said Davis, who successfully represented defendants in the McMartin Preschool child-molestation case, which helped bring about the political downfall of Garcetti's predecessor, former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. "(Garcetti) will stall, rationalize, then pass."
But Davis said he believes the Santa Barbara district attorney might be more willing to risk prosecuting Jackson. Many legal experts have said that a Santa Barbara jury could be more inclined to convict Jackson, and they note that Sneddon is considered an aggressive, hands-on litigator.
"I think it's possible that Sneddon will pursue this case," Davis said. "He will not care about Garcetti's reticence."