Michael Jackson is being persecuted by police, prosecutors and the media, according to a group of ministers who called a news conference Friday to denounce what they called the "prosecution frenzy" surrounding the investigation of the world-renowned entertainer.
More than a dozen ministers from some of Los Angeles' largest black churches joined in a statement suggesting that authorities are treating Jackson harshly because of his fame. The ministers also suggested that the news coverage has been unduly harsh in part because Jackson is black.
"I would like to think that it's not racially motivated," said William Epps, senior minister of the Second Baptist Church. "It does seem strange, however."
The news conference came as Jackson remains under scrutiny by Los Angeles and Santa Barbara prosecutors. A grand jury has been convened in Santa Barbara and has begun taking sworn testimony to determine whether Jackson should face criminal charges of child molestation.
That grand jury has taken testimony from several current and former employees, and sheriff's deputies are continuing to conduct an investigation. But neither Jackson nor the boy at the center of the case has yet been asked to testify, and there is some question as to whether the 14-year-old alleged victim will choose to take the stand.
Under California law, sex abuse victims cannot be compelled to testify against their will, a statute that Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti has asked the Legislature to amend.
The ministers criticized Garcetti for that move, suggesting that it was motivated by a desire to persecute Jackson.
"Mr. Garcetti is not new to the legal scene," the ministers said in their statement. "Where was his concern for alleged victims of sexual assault before Michael Jackson was accused? Does his degree of concern depend upon the status of the accused?"
But most of the news conference was devoted to the ministers' critique of the media coverage of the case, which has attracted international attention since last summer, when the allegations by the boy, who was then 13, became public.
Although the ministers did not single out news organizations for criticism, they said much of the coverage has insinuated that Jackson is guilty of child molestation. No charges have been filed against the entertainer, and a civil case brought against him by the boy was settled out of court for $15 million to $24 million, according to sources familiar with the deal.
The Rev. Cecil L. Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, urged reporters to use caution in reporting the allegations against Jackson.
"Curbside justice is no worse," Murray said, "than flashbulb justice."