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Private Eye Is on the Celebrity Case

They are now seen as essential in high-profile cases. Michael Jackson paid $350,000 for his.

June 15, 2005|Megan Garvey and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Michael Jackson spent millions on his defense against child-molestation charges.

But a day after he was acquitted on all counts, attorneys and legal experts said Tuesday that it was the more than $350,000 he reportedly paid for private investigators that may well have made the crucial difference.

The funds allowed Jackson to do what wealthy defendants in many high-profile cases have done: conduct a parallel investigation with the same care and thoroughness of a law enforcement agency.

So while Santa Barbara County prosecutors and sheriff's detectives focused considerable resources on Jackson, the pop star's private investigators were able to commission an exhaustive examination of the mother of Jackson's accuser.

The private eyes dug up embarrassing details about the mother's past that jurors on Monday said damaged her credibility and harmed the prosecution's case.

Far from a luxury, many defense attorneys now consider investigators crucial partners, so much so that some lawyers have been known to dip into their own fees to pay them.

"They can make or break you," said attorney Mark Geragos, whose high-profile cases have included Scott Peterson, Winona Ryder and, briefly, Jackson.

"When they talk about the best defense that money can buy, they talk about that in a disparaging way," added Donald Re, one of the lead defense attorneys in the late John DeLorean's 1984 acquittal on federal drug-trafficking charges, "but what that really means is having good experts and good investigators and a good attorney."

Re said the best investigators turn up leads and witnesses so quickly, he has been taken aback. In one case, he recalled that it took a private investigator only three hours to track down a potential witness with only the name of the street he supposedly lived on and that he worked at an auto body shop. The man became a key defense witness, Re said.

But even investigators on a "run-of-the-mill" criminal case, Re said, would probably bill between $5,000 and $10,000.

The money to hire top-notch investigators -- who can bill more than $100 an hour-- clears attorneys to focus on the law. But it also highlights inequities in the justice system. Superior Court capital cases, for example, allocate $28 an hour for investigators. Although public defenders have access to staff investigators, there are not enough to work on every case.

Robert Kalunian, Los Angeles County's chief deputy public defender, said his office has 7,500 attorneys and 75 investigators. The office handles about 400,000 cases a year, most of which never go to trial. Still, Kalunian said he believes all the cases that warranted the attention were investigated.

"Oftentimes," he said, "someone with unlimited resources is in a similar situation to someone who is indigent -- in the sense that on any given case we do have significant resources. It's the person in between [rich and poor] who really can be in trouble."

Re said poorer defendants' lack of access to detective work puts them in a "hole they often can't get out of."

In contrast, Jackson's defense team hired at least two investigators, who developed their own leads and chased down tabloid and mainstream media reports.

The top priority of the defense investigation, said veteran private detective Scott Ross, was finding out everything possible about the family of the boy accusing Jackson of molestation. That meant scrubbing the boy's mother.

In criminal files, they found a record of an arrest. In civil files, they found two lawsuits. They subpoenaed records from law enforcement agencies in area's where she had lived -- turning up 911 calls. They talked to her bosses, got copies of personnel files. They spoke to her children's teachers, interviewed her ex-husband. They traced back calls to celebrities who became defense witness, testifying about suspicions they had about the family's intentions and the mother's character.

"One thing just leads to another," said Ross, "and sometimes it leads to dead ends and sometimes it leads to gold."

The payoff this time: a portrait of a mother, and family, so devastating that jurors said they couldn't convict.

Ross said he was able to persuade comedian Chris Tucker to testify that the family had tried to scam him. Private investigator Eric Mason, who preceded Ross on the case, looked into the mother's $150,000 settlement with J.C. Penney Co. after she claimed she had been roughed up and sexually assaulted by security guards. That inquiry led to a defense witness, paralegal Mary Holzer, who testified the mother had confided that she had lied under oath about the incident and then threatened to kill Holzer and her 9-year-old daughter if Holzer told.

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