SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Testimony in the Michael Jackson trial came to a dramatic conclusion Friday after jurors watched a video in which a sullen and soft-spoken cancer survivor for the first time told detectives that Jackson repeatedly molested him.
The video, played in a darkened, silent courtroom, appeared to mark a significant turnaround for prosecutors. Slouching and speaking barely above a whisper, the boy detailed the alleged molestations only under repeated questioning from detectives. The defense, for three weeks, had hammered on a theme that the boy was coached by his mother to come forward and falsely accuse Jackson so they could sue the entertainer.
When the interview ended, the boy asked detectives not to tell his mother about the abuse, again seemingly undercutting the defense theory.
After the tape was played, the prosecution rested, and Jackson's lawyers, who had threatened to call the boy back to the witness stand, announced that they would not call any additional witnesses. The surprise announcement sets up closing arguments for next week.
"The evidence to end this case could not have been better for the prosecution," said Craig Smith, a former Santa Barbara County prosecutor who has followed the trial as a legal analyst.
From the outset of the trial, Jackson's lawyers have sought to portray the boy and his family as con artists who fabricated the story of molestation in order to support a potentially lucrative lawsuit against the pop star.
The boy had already testified in the trial. But Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon was allowed to present the video of the boy's interview, the first time he accused Jackson, to rebut defense allegations.
Dressed in denim shorts and an untucked, short-sleeved dress shirt, the boy did not appear eager to meet with detectives during the July 6, 2003, interview in Santa Barbara.
"How long is it going to take?" were his first words.
The first half-hour of the conversation was fairly routine. The boy discussed his struggles in school, his cancer treatment and the day Jackson surprised him by calling his hospital room and inviting him to visit his Neverland ranch.
After the initial exchanges, Sgt. Steve Robel asked whether Jackson had ever touched him inappropriately, "in a way that made you feel embarrassed."
The boy slumped back against the couch and sat silently for 16 seconds, his left elbow slung casually on an armrest.
"He [Jackson] started telling me you always have to masturbate because if you don't, you go crazy," the boy told investigators, then paused again.
"I guarantee you will feel much better once you get it off your chest," Robel said. "I know there's stuff in there that's built up inside."
The boy exhaled, then wiped his eyes.
"Something else happened, didn't it?" the investigator asked.
The boy paused 30 more seconds, then started to describe the night he said Jackson first molested him. It happened in Jackson's bedroom. They were both in their pajamas, he said.
"He said he wanted to show me how to masturbate. I said no. He said he would do it for me."
"Did he do it for you?"
The boy paused again, then said, "He grabbed me in my private area.... He started masturbating me. I told him I didn't want to do that. He kept on doing it."
He said the molestation happened in early 2003 after he and his family returned from a trip to Miami. Jackson molested him about five times, he said, "every night that my little brother wasn't there."
Before the interview ended, Robel praised the boy for discussing the allegations and said, "What he's done to you is wrong. We will try our best to investigate it.... I don't care who Michael Jackson is. Michael Jackson has done wrong."
As the tape played, Jackson sat impassively between lawyers Robert Sanger and Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. He left the courtroom with a haggard look on his face, declining to answer reporters' questions. A gag order prevents all parties from discussing the case.
Several legal analysts said the tape was particularly powerful for the prosecution, as jurors will have at least five days to think about it before they return to court for closing arguments, which are expected to begin Wednesday or Thursday.
They said the boy appeared more childlike and sympathetic than during his sometimes confrontational turn on the witness stand, in part because he was two years younger at the time.
"On the tape he's a hesitant, reserved, reluctant little boy. In court, he was a 15-year-old adolescent who was surly at times," said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco County deputy district attorney who is following the trial as a legal analyst. "This certainly brought the case back to where it belongs: whether the jury believes the boy."
Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor also following the trial, said he thought the most powerful part of the tape was when the boy asked detectives not to repeat what he said to his mother or siblings.