Leaks thwart secrecy in Jackson's case


Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 11:10 p.m.
LOS ANGELES - Michael Jackson's child molestation trial begins this week with participants and observers sharply divided over whether there has been too much secrecy imposed by the judge - or not enough secrecy because of media leaks.
Graphic details of the testimony that led a grand jury to indict the entertainer leaked in mid-January, months later than the same information might have become public in a less sensational case.
Some legal experts say the exceptional secrecy imposed by Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville to try to ensure a fair trial may have backfired by fueling demand for the material.
To the dismay of news reporters and advocates of the public's right to know, Melville sealed many documents in the case, including dozens of search warrants and even portions of the indictment - items that normally would have been made public even in high-profile trials. Materials that were released had been heavily censored.
Melville also refused to release the grand jury transcript, which normally is allowed in California, but extensive excerpts were posted on a Web site and a full report on the 1,900 pages of testimony aired on ABC's ''Primetime Live.''
The source of the leaks remains the subject of speculation. Jackson's attorney was quick to condemn the leak.
Court employees can be tempted by money or the love of telling juicy details, and even if TV news directors and newspaper editors choose not to use the documents a keystroke can release them worldwide on the Internet, said Justin Brooks, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.
''In any high-profile case, it's becoming nearly impossible to get a totally fair trial,'' Brooks said.
Advocates for press access said it would have been better to have an official release so the public would know the source and accuracy of the information. University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelman said courts have safeguards against publicity influencing potential jurors.
, such as questioning them intensely about what they have heard.
He said the leaks might not have all that much effect.
''We're learning that jurors are not idiots who believe everything they see in the media,'' said Uelman, who was part of O.J. Simpson's defense team.
''What the media does with this material in advance of the trial, I think, seldom illuminates any issues and ultimately it will make the trial of the case more difficult,'' Uelman added.
Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr., whose ability to comment is restricted by a gag order, got court approval to issue a statement noting that the transcript basically told only the prosecution's side of the story.
''By law, no judge or defense lawyer was allowed to be present in the grand jury room,'' Mesereau said. ''Furthermore, the defense had no opportunity to call its own witnesses to refute or criticize this one-sided proceeding.''
The judge also permitted Jackson to comment on the release. Fox News confirmed that Jackson taped an interview, unrelated to the trial, with talk-show host Geraldo Rivera during which he read a statement about the leaks. The interview has not yet been broadcast.
The prosecution has not commented on the leaks but Santa Barbara County sheriff's investigators have denied they were the source and said they were investigating them as a violation of law.
In California, the rule is that grand jury transcripts become public 10 days after a defendant is served with a copy. In rare cases, the defense moves to seal the transcript, but usually only for a certain period of time.
In Jackson's case, however, the judge sealed them without a time limit.
By comparison, more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of grand jury hearings in the Phil Spector murder case were made public even thought the defense argued that the documents were ''full of lies.'' Spector, a rock music producer, is charged with murdering an actress in 2003.
Jeffrey W. Schneider, vice president of ABC News, issued a statement supporting the broadcast of the Jackson transcript excerpts, saying producers verified their authenticity.
''We reviewed and reported on this testimony because of its inherent news value. Our job is to report the facts, in a balanced manner and in proper context,'' he said.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top