SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Prosecutors formally charged recording superstar Michael Jackson with seven felony counts of child molestation Thursday, and two claiming that he administered an "intoxicating agent" to a young cancer patient earlier this year in hopes of seducing the boy at his Neverland Ranch.
Traditionally, the filing of charges in criminal cases takes place with little fanfare. However, in an early demonstration of the worldwide interest in the Jackson case, Thursday's filing drew more than 100 reporters from around the globe and was orchestrated with the help of a Hollywood public relations firm.
The event began with photographers and television cameramen following a bailiff and a court clerk as they took the three-page charging document to the criminal court clerk's office. Cameras zoomed in as a court official rubber-stamped the papers.
Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Thomas W. Sneddon Jr. emerged soon after to answer questions about the charges and how the case was being handled.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Tellem Worldwide -- An A1 article on Dec. 19 and a Regarding Media column in Calendar on Dec. 20 about the Michael Jackson child molestation case incorrectly referred to the public relations agency that offered its services to Santa Barbara County prosecutors as a "Hollywood PR firm." The firm, Tellem Worldwide, is based in West Los Angeles.
The molestation charges, if proven, could carry sentences of up to eight years each, but lawyers said there is a cap on the maximum prison term for such crimes of slightly more than 20 years.
Jackson remains free on $3-million bail. Through his lawyer, he denied the charges Thursday and claimed that Sneddon had an "ax to grind."
The 45-year-old entertainer faces seven counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent -- believed to be wine -- "to enable and assist himself to commit ... child molestation."
Five of the counts of lewd and lascivious conduct are alleged to have occurred between Feb. 7 and March 10, beginning one day after Jackson appeared in a British television documentary holding the alleged victim's hand and claiming they had slept together in Jackson's bedroom, although not in the same bed.
The other two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct and the counts of administering intoxicating agents allegedly occurred between Feb. 20 and March 10, according to the documents.
The filing of the charges came one month after authorities arrested Jackson and conducted an extensive search of his vast amusement-park-like compound. The delay in filing, as well as disclosures that the victim denied any abuse to Los Angeles County child welfare investigators, have prompted Jackson's defenders and some legal experts to say the prosecution's case was falling apart.
On Thursday, Sneddon denied that there were problems with the case, and specifically addressed the child welfare interview, which occurred in February.
"It was an interview, not an investigation," Sneddon said. "We're not concerned about it at all in any aspect of our case."
"First, children do not always reveal everything the first go-round," Sneddon added. "Second, it's Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a big place and they have a lot of problems there, and problems in that department."
Sneddon also told reporters that he and defense lawyer Mark Geragos had reached an agreement to allow Jackson to fly to England for one week to fulfill unspecified contractual obligations that would have caused him significant financial harm if he were forced to cancel. His passport will be returned to him temporarily.
Asked if Jackson might choose to stay abroad to avoid being tried, Sneddon responded: "All of us know if he wanted to leave, he could at any time." Jackson's arraignment also is being moved from Jan. 9 to Jan. 16, but Sneddon said that had nothing to do with Jackson's England trip. He said the judges told him the courthouse was scheduled to be closed Jan. 9.
Jackson did not attend the filing in the modest, two-story brick courthouse in this city of 85,000, but in Los Angeles his attorney denounced the allegations.
"Michael Jackson is going to fight these charges with every fiber of his soul," Geragos said in front of the downtown skyscraper where he has his office. "Michael Jackson is ensconced and ready to fight. He is not running. He's not hiding. He is as irate as I am."
Geragos said Santa Barbara County investigators were out to get Jackson and suggested that the victim's family was looking to profit from the star.
"What we have is a shakedown, an intersection of someone looking for money with someone in the investigation with an ax to grind," Geragos said. "There is no truth to the charges.... This is all about money. The family wanting money after the documentary."
Asked about the so-called intoxicating agent Jackson alleged gave to the boy, Geragos said it was "a joke."
The charges refer to the victim only as John Doe, but sources and statements by the prosecution indicate that the victim is the same boy who appeared in the British documentary. The boy was 12 at the time of the alleged crimes.
On Thursday, legal experts discussed whether the prosecution's case would suffer as a result of the child welfare investigation.