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The State

Jackson Jury Secrecy Is Challenged

As the grand jury meets in secret again, a media attorney asks appeals court to ease Santa Barbara County D.A.'s restrictions on access to the panel.

March 31, 2004|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — A secret grand jury met again Tuesday to hear evidence in the Michael Jackson molestation case, and media lawyers renewed an appeal to ease "seemingly unprecedented" security measures banning reporters from even seeing witnesses or jurors.

The grand jury met far from Santa Barbara's palatial Spanish-style courthouse at a sheriff's training facility in a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. The road into the area was barricaded; jurors and witnesses left in vans with covered windows.

The grand jury hearing, which is expected to last about two weeks, started Monday with testimony from attorney Larry Feldman and psychologist Stan J. Katz, a source close to the case said.

They and all other grand jury witnesses are barred from discussing their testimony under a "decorum order" issued last week by Judge Clifford R. Anderson III, the presiding Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara County. Anderson modified his order Monday, but media lawyers said he had not softened it enough.

Attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who is representing a coalition of news organizations including The Times, sent a letter Tuesday to Justice Arthur Gilbert, presiding justice of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura, urging the appeals court to issue an emergency order compelling Santa Barbara officials to ease the tight secrecy surrounding the grand jury proceedings.

"County officials have invoked an extraordinary, and seemingly unprecedented, approach to grand jury secrecy that involved moving the grand jury from undisclosed secret location to undisclosed secret location so that the press and public will not know where the grand jury is meeting," Boutrous wrote.

"Public streets and sidewalks have been barricaded to prevent public access," he said. Such secrecy, Boutrous said, "serves only to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system."

Feldman negotiated a multimillion-dollar settlement in 1993 for a boy allegedly molested by Jackson.

The attorney referred the boy and his mother to Katz.

The boy, a cancer patient who appeared with Jackson in a British documentary televised in the United States in February 2003, was 12 at the time of the alleged molestations, officials have said.

Jackson, 45, is charged with seven felony counts of lewd and lascivious behavior and two felony counts of providing an intoxicant to a minor in order to seduce him.

The boy is among the early witnesses who are scheduled to testify, sources have said.

Free on $3 million bail, Jackson has called the charges against him a "big lie" that has been concocted to extort money.

Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon decided on the grand jury rather than a public preliminary hearing partly to keep his case against Jackson secret and to study witness credibility outside public view, legal experts have speculated.

Former Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas, now working as an analyst for NBC on the Jackson case, said Tuesday that he believed that Sneddon had been justified in the unusual secrecy he had imposed to shield the grand jury.

"In most grand jury cases, people don't even know who the defendant is," Thomas said. "This case is probably the most highly publicized case in the world. Because of that, there's been an extra need to keep press coverage from turning into a complete circus."

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