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Pundits Try to Fathom Jackson Jury's Frame of Mind

Nearly four months into the molestation trial, the panelists appear to work well together, but their opinions remain hard to gauge, experts say.

June 13, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — As the 12 anonymous people emerged from a courthouse door, more than a dozen uniformed officers barked at bystanders to clear a path.

The throng of Michael Jackson fans and media members moved out of the way, but continued to search the jurors' faces, attire, even how fast they walked out of Santa Barbara County Superior Court, for a sign of what they were thinking.

Few juries have been watched as closely as this group of eight women and four men, who today begin their seventh day in search of a verdict that will be broadcast around the world.

Jackson, 46, is charged with four felony counts of child molestation, one felony count of attempted child molestation, one felony count of conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion, and four felony counts of administering an intoxicating agent. The jury could reduce the latter four counts to misdemeanors of giving alcohol to a minor.

Among the jury's ranks are a retired high school counselor, a horse trainer, a physical therapist and a 79-year-old woman who has talked to a relative about wanting to write a book about the 3 1/2 months she spent considering the pop star's fate.

When they left court Friday afternoon, the jurors' faces revealed little. But that didn't stop pundits and fans from trying to read their expressions. They weren't smiling as they left the courtroom, and some wondered whether that meant they were on the verge of deadlock.

"They may be laughing on the inside. Who the hell knows?" said Steve Corbett, a columnist for the Santa Maria Times. "I can make absolutely no credible assessment of what's going on in their minds."

So who are these people? Some answers can be gleaned from the February voir dire discussions that led to the jury's selection. Attorneys had 10 minutes to question each prospective juror to find out whether he or she had prejudices or predilections that might give prosecutors or defense lawyers an advantage.

Panel members range in age from 20 to 79. Some jurors have high school diplomas; three hold graduate degrees. One of them is an aspiring motor sports journalist who smiled often during the trial and wore a Dodgers jersey to court the day of the season opener. He uses a wheelchair and said he once visited Jackson's Santa Ynez Valley ranch, Neverland, with a cerebral palsy group.

There are three Latinos, one Asian and eight whites on the jury. Eight of them are parents; combined they have 20 children. One juror, a supermarket worker from Solvang, has two sons near the age of Jackson's accuser, who was 13 when he was allegedly molested by the singer in 2003. Two jurors come from families that have experienced molestation.

One of the jurors said she contacted police after a niece told her that she had been molested by a relative. Another juror said that her grandson had been convicted of a sex crime and is a registered sex offender.

A third juror, a 44-year-old social services supervisor, said her best friend is a police detective in San Luis Obispo. Her ex-husband is a Santa Maria police detective and she is friends with several probation officers. During questioning by Jackson's lead defense attorney, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., she said she would not be influenced by her relationships with law enforcement officers.

"They're human beings just like all of us. They make mistakes. Some may tell the truth. Some of them don't," she said.

She said she would not attend social events at the homes of police officers during the trial, in order to avoid attempts to influence her.

Another juror, a 63-year-old retired high school counselor who reportedly was selected as foreman, said he doesn't pay attention to celebrity news and would not be influenced by Jackson's fame when weighing the evidence.

"I'd try not to put him on a pedestal and not look at his background and things he's accomplished in his lifetime," he said. "I'm looking at this as just another person that needs a fair trial."

During 12 weeks of testimony, the jurors appeared attentive. Many filled notebooks with observations of the trial. They appeared to get along. Some of them even carpooled to court.

"As a group, they appeared cohesive. They've experienced something few have, going through a very long, high-profile trial together," said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor who attended the trial as a legal analyst. "That cohesiveness has been tested in the jury room. It's safe to say at this point they've taken votes, and now they're wrestling with whether they can overcome their differences."

During the jury selection process in February, jurors also discussed what they thought of Jackson's music. Most said they had seen newspaper articles and television news broadcasts about the case. All said they had no opinions about Jackson's guilt or innocence.

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