SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Michael Jackson, one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, was acquitted Monday on all counts in his child-molestation and conspiracy trial, a sweeping repudiation of the prosecution case that alleged Jackson had sexually abused a then-13-year old cancer patient.
Jackson, 46, who in the public eye grew from a beloved child singer to a groundbreaking artist to an increasingly reclusive and eccentric man, began dabbing his eyes with a tissue when the seventh of 10 not-guilty verdicts was read.
Although at least one juror, Raymond C. Hultman, 62, said he thought Jackson probably had molested children -- "somebody somewhere along the line" -- the panel unanimously said the case in front of them included too much doubt to justify a conviction.
During a post-verdicts news conference, attended by all 12 jurors, many expressed a strong distaste for the mother of the accuser. They said they were offended when she snapped her fingers at them, doubted the values she had taught her children, and, especially, disapproved of her decision to allow her son to share Jackson's bed.
Asked how they reached their decisions in a case that featured 140 witnesses -- including defense testimony from celebrities Macaulay Culkin, Chris Tucker and Jay Leno -- many jurors described a prosecution case they found thin on evidence.
"I think in a case like this, you're hoping that maybe you can find a smoking gun or something you can grab onto," Hultman said.
"We all had to remind ourselves that we had a closetful of evidence that made us come back to the same thing: that it was not enough," said Pauline Coccoz, a 45-year-old Santa Maria woman who worked in a supermarket.
After about 32 hours of deliberations over seven days, the jurors notified Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville shortly after 12:30 p.m. that they had reached verdicts in the 14-week trial.
Jackson had rushed the 35 miles from his Neverland ranch to the Santa Maria courthouse in a convoy of dark SUVs filled with his family members and aides. News helicopters hovered, broadcasting live feeds of the procession. At the courthouse, fans rushed to gather, holding signs and pressing against a chain-link fence keeping them back. Jackson emerged from his vehicle to screams of adulation and support, making his way through the metal detectors, his face nearly expressionless.
Inside the courtroom, the scene was tense. The 120 available seats were filled with members of the media, public and Jackson's family. As jurors solemnly filed in, none looked Jackson's way. Seated behind him in the front row were his sisters, LaToya and Rebbie, and his brother, Randy. In the second row were his parents, Joe and Katherine, and his brother, Tito. His brother, Jermaine, and pop star sister, Janet, were in the courthouse, but not in the courtroom.
As everyone waited for the reading of the verdicts, two jurors asked for tissues. Jackson's fans wept and prayed. Melville was handed a sealed manila envelope containing all forms, silently looking them over for several minutes.
As the clerk began reading the not-guilty verdicts, defense attorney Susan Yu sobbed quietly. Admonished by Melville against emotional outbursts, the courtroom remained nearly silent, except for the clerk's voice and an audible intake of breath as each not-guilty verdict was read.
There was little reaction from Jackson or his family. Outside, hundreds of fans whooped and cheered.
Jackson walked out of court a free man, looking weak and strained. He moved stiffly the short distance from the courthouse doors to a waiting SUV, with his father's hand resting on his back in support. Sheltered from the blistering sun by an oversized umbrella, Jackson raised his hand to his fans and then placed it over his heart. As he got into the back seat, Jackson blew a kiss to the crowd.
Lead defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., returning briefly to the courtroom to retrieve some belongings, said only: "Justice was done."
Jackson had faced more than 18 years in prison if convicted.
After the verdicts were all read, Melville thanked the jurors for their service. Then he turned to Jackson and said: "Your bail is exonerated and you are released."
The jurors as a group stressed that they had carefully examined the evidence and testimony, referring frequently to the 98 pages of jury instructions as they made their decisions. The strain of the media attention and lengthy service wore on some. Jury foreman Paul Rodriguez, 63, said he had grown "acquainted with Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol."
The case against Jackson hinged on irreconcilable portrayals of his character and behavior: Prosecutors described a cunning sexual predator who targeted young boys from troubled backgrounds; the defense depicted a childlike innocent who was an easy mark for a family of liars and con artists.