Now that the dust has cleared, the camera crews have packed their gear and Michael Jackson has posted $3 million bail and returned to his life, a lengthy legal process is set to begin that will likely see months pass before Jackson and his accusers state their cases in front of a jury.
Following his surrender to Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies on Thursday (see "Michael Jackson Surrenders To Santa Barbara Police"), Jackson was processed (read his rights, told of the allegations against him, finger-printed and posed for a mug shot) and released on bail. He was also given a date of January 9 for his arraignment, a process that will see Jackson enter a plea to the charges before him.
That date will mark the beginning of what will likely be a lengthy and difficult legal battle for the pop icon, according to Stephan DeSales, a criminal defense attorney based in Orange County, California. DeSales — also a former prosecutor for Los Angeles County — has handled many child-molestation cases like the one facing Jackson, and he said the January arraignment date will only mark the start of a lengthy process of discovery and motions from both sides. That process will culminate in a preliminary hearing where a start date for Jackson's trial will finally be slated. As DeSales noted, it could well be May before a start date for Jackson's is inked onto a calendar.
"It's safe to say that the preliminary hearing in this case is going to take awhile to set," DeSales said. "It might come 60, 90, 120 days down the road because it's one of these cases that's going to include some preparation, and both sides are going to want to be ready."
Jackson and his defense team will have a particularly difficult task ahead of them given the nature of the charges levied against the pop star. "Sex offense claims are very, very difficult for the defense because there's an underlying presumption that kids don't lie about this sort of thing," DeSales said. "That puts a different type of burden on the people trying to defend someone against charges like this."
But what exactly are the charges that Jackson faces? Until his arraignment in January, no one will know for sure, but the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office has said that he will be charged under section 288(a) of the California Penal Code, which outlaws "lewd or lascivious acts" against a child under the age of 14. "[The law] requires that there be some touching of the body of the child or the outside part of the clothing of the child by the alleged perpetrator," DeSales explained. "It can include rape, it can include sodomy, it can include oral copulation, things like that. But it does require some touching by the adult with the minor somewhere on his body."
A conviction on such a count would bring a sentence of three to eight years in jail, and prosecutors have said that they are preparing to file multiple charges against Jackson.
While Jackson's defense prepares its case, prosecutors are also attempting to get their arguments in order, collecting evidence — most visibly during a search of the singer's Neverland Ranch. "They probably went in looking for physical evidence that you would see in a show like 'CSI,' " DeSales said. "Semen, sperm, blood samples, saliva — things like that that would tend to bolster or corroborate the statement of the minor who is making the accusation against Mr. Jackson. If he is saying that he did certain things and they found physical evidence consistent with that, that would tend to corroborate the story of the minor. Even pictures or photographs could be looked for too because that would tend to place the minor at the location. Things like that."
It's also likely that investigators from the Department of Child Protective Services will launch their own investigation into the welfare of Jackson's three children. "It's very typical that [they] will become involved at some point to inquire about the question of whether or not any of his children were exposed to any of this, not necessarily as victims, but rather as witnesses," DeSales said. "What they can do is open an investigation into whether or not his home is a fit or unfit place."
DeSales explained that such an investigation can come before any type of ruling is reached in Jackson's criminal case.
Both Jackson and his accusers are far from stating their cases, and DeSales notes that only those arguments — not innuendo or rumor — can determine Jackson's guilt or innocence. "Right now he is presumed innocent and that's the way it should be because that's the system we have. I think that's important to remember," DeSales said.
For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."