Michael Jackson Pleads Not Guilty To Child-Molestation Charges

Singer arrives late for arraignment, is admonished by judge.

SANTA MARIA, California — On paper, it was a small preliminary hearing in case number 1133603.

In reality, it was the first opportunity for the world's most famous pop star to have his day in court.

Michael Jackson was arraigned Friday morning (January 16) in Santa Maria Superior Court, where — after arriving late — he greeted his fans, danced on top of an SUV, passed out invitations to a party at his Neverland Ranch and somewhere along the way pleaded not guilty to child-molestation charges.

Jackson surrendered to authorities in November and was later charged with nine felony counts: seven counts of lewd acts upon a child under the age of 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent to a child (in this case liquor) for the purpose of committing a crime (see "Michael Jackson Formally Charged With Molestation"). If found guilty on all counts, Jackson could face 21 years behind bars.

Jackson denies the allegations and pleaded not guilty to all nine charges.

After the bus in which he was traveling broke down on the trip from his Neverland Ranch to the courthouse, Jackson climbed into a black SUV and eventually arrived (waving a peace sign to the crowd) roughly 15 minutes after his arraignment was scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. PT. Once there, Jackson entered through a small fenced-off path that split the sea of reporters and onlookers who surrounded the courthouse, stopping along the way to shake hands and wave to his supporters.

He was joined in the courtroom by his lawyer Mark Geragos and his new co-counsel, Benjamin Brafman (an experienced defense attorney whose past clients include Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, nightclub owner Peter Gatien and alleged Mafia figures Vincent Gigante and Carmine Agnello).


Click for photos from the arraignment

Jackson's father, Joe; his mother, Katherine; his sister Janet; his brothers Jermaine, Tito and Randy; and comedian Eddie Griffin were also on hand for the proceedings. Once Jackson and his entourage were in the courtroom, the arraignment lasted a mere five minutes.

Judge Rodney Melville admonished Jackson for being late, calling his tardiness "an insult to the court."

"Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot with me," Judge Melville said. "From now on, you must be on time. Consider this a polite warning." The judge then accepted Jackson's plea and concluded the arraignment.

For the most part, Jackson remained very still throughout the proceedings, focusing his attention on Melville.

However, Jackson later inspired more harsh words from the judge when the singer had himself excused near the end of the proceedings to use the rest room. Jackson's exit brought a bit of a stampede of reporters and fans, prompting Melville to warn Jackson's legal team, "Did you see the disruption that caused? Perhaps you should address his liquid intake."

Jackson's next court date in the case has been set for February 13.

Melville also granted the prosecution's request for a gag order. While it was Geragos' bold public statements that seemed to inspire the prosecution's request for a gag order, Geragos told the court that he almost convinced himself that he would want a gag order given the number of calls he's received from reporters (noting that he received so many pages last night that his pager broke). However, Geragos still objected to the protective order, which prohibits the defendant, attorneys, assistants and potential witnesses from making public comments about the case.

Jackson left the courthouse the same way he arrived, flanked by family and his legal team (as well as his own private film crew), and pausing often to greet fans. However, he made his boldest move of the day (and supplied what will likely be the day's enduring image) when he reached his SUV, climbed on top of it and began dancing and waving to fans. He then pulled two of his personal cameramen up with him and began to direct them as they filmed the crowd of supporters outside the courthouse. Brafman called the display "a spontaneous display of love."

After the arraignment, invitations were distributed to Jackson's fans outside the courthouse encouraging them to join the star at his Neverland Ranch for a few hours on Friday afternoon "in the spirit of love and togetherness."

The Jackson spectacle turned the small town of Santa Maria (with a population near 80,000) into a major media center overnight, with more than 600 journalists, producers and various television-crew workers setting up camp. Only 68 of them actually made it into the courtroom for the arraignment, however, with an additional 48 funneled into an overflow room where the proceedings were piped in via closed-circuit TV.

The numbers dwarf those of America's last legal blowout: the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles. Simpson's arraignment in July of 1994 in Los Angeles Superior Court attracted approximately 200 journalists from around the world.

Jackson's arraignment also drew its share of onlookers and Jackson supporters. Hundreds gathered outside the courthouse, many carrying signs and shouting messages of encouragement for their troubled hero.

For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."

[This story was updated on 01.16.04 at 2:30 p.m. ET]