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Big Loss Stings for Jackson Prosecutor

D.A. Tom Sneddon says he thought he would win. But since hearing jurors' comments, he feels the high bar they set doomed the case.

June 15, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — A day after the biggest legal defeat of his career, Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon was still smarting.

"In the end, I don't think there's anything we could have done short of a videotaped confession," he said Tuesday of his failed prosecution of pop star Michael Jackson on child molestation and related charges.

After hearing jurors speak on morning talk shows, Sneddon said in a lengthy interview that he was disappointed at the way evidence was considered. He said jurors set such a high bar that his case was doomed from the start.

"Given what I'm hearing, I don't think anything would have made a difference," he said.

Sneddon said he was surprised to hear that some jurors weren't impressed with what he perceived as significant evidence implicating Jackson. Some jurors said, for instance, that they did not believe the testimony of a 24-year-old former youth pastor who said Jackson molested him during the late 1980s and early '90s.

"This guy was a youth pastor. He never asked for a penny. He lived in their community. He was one of them," Sneddon said. "If you went to a shelf and said I'm going to pick out somebody who's lily white, you'd get this guy."

The prosecutor dismissed speculation that his case was damaged by the refusal of another alleged victim to testify. Jackson paid the boy's family more than $20 million to settle a 1993 lawsuit accusing the entertainer of molesting him.

"I just don't think it would have made a bit of difference with this jury," Sneddon said. "Maybe another."

He said he was also surprised that the jury apparently took issue with the fact that Jackson's accuser was unsure of the dates he was molested.

"I don't know what these people would expect if they had a son or daughter that age with that kind of" cross-examination, he said.

Sneddon said it made little difference to him that Jackson's fans were celebrating the district attorney's defeat.

"I hurt for [the alleged victim] whether they're partying or not," he said. "For whatever reason, they believe in Michael Jackson. I don't have a problem with that."

Sneddon said he called the alleged victim Monday afternoon and discussed the jury's decision with him.

"He was very discouraged, as you would expect, that they didn't believe him," Sneddon said. "He asked me a couple of times, 'What happened? Why didn't they believe me?' I told him, 'This is a chapter of your life that's closed. Go back to school. Play your sports. Do something with your life.' And he will."

Jackson's supporters have characterized Sneddon as having a vendetta against the singer. They contend that he brought the latest charges because he was upset that the 1993 case collapsed when that alleged victim took Jackson's payout and stopped cooperating with authorities.

Sneddon has "led a really sad life if the only thing he's done is go after Michael," said Sara Arnejo of Spain, who later celebrated with dozens of Jackson fans into the early hours Tuesday at a local country music bar, dancing and singing to the pop star's music.

The fans shrieked loudest when "D.S.," Jackson's thinly disguised musical swipe at Sneddon, played inside the crowded Maverick Saloon and Grill, a couple of blocks from the courthouse where a jury acquitted Jackson of 10 charges, including the alleged molestation of the 13-year-old boy.

"Tom Sneddon is a cold man. Tom Sneddon is a cold man," the fans repeated loudly and gleefully, although published lyrics give the name of the person in the song as Dom Sheldon.

Those who know Sneddon best recoil at suggestions that he blindly targeted Jackson or prosecuted him as part of a vendetta. They acknowledge that the district attorney hates to lose -- he once tried a murder case three times to get a conviction -- but they say his drive comes from a sense of justice.

"He prosecuted the case because he believed the kid, and so Jackson wouldn't be able to hurt more kids. Period. And it would have been the same were it Michael Smith or Michael Jackson," said former Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas.

"He's been misrepresented sometimes because he comes across as gruff. He really, really cares about kids, about their well-being," said Penny Jenkins, director of Santa Barbara's Fighting Back, a youth alcoholism and drug addiction group on whose board Sneddon sits.

Speaking in his office near the Santa Barbara County courthouse, Sneddon said he filed the case because he thought the alleged victim was telling the truth and because he believed he could prove it to a jury.

"This whole revenge thing" is nonsense, he said. "Since '93 or '94, I haven't given this guy a passing thought."

Sneddon has spent more than three decades as a prosecutor and has been Santa Barbara County's elected district attorney since 1983. He has 18 months left in what he has long said will be his final term in office.

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