SANTA MARIA, Calif. – Before each searing cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses in Michael Jackson's trial, the imposing lawyer with the shock of white hair told them, "My name is Tom Mesereau and I speak for Mr. Jackson."
The mantra, meaning "I'm on his side, not yours," was stated firmly to Jackson's teenage accuser and his mother, to accusers from cases now decades old and to celebrities such as Jay Leno (search).
Often witnesses found themselves on the defensive. The accuser's mother would turn to the jury, point a finger at Mesereau and declare, "He's wrong!"
One witness, a former Jackson security guard, finally whimpered, "I want to go home."
Jamie Masada (search), a comedy club owner, tried comic gibes to spar with Mesereau.
"Me and you, we can have a comedy team," he told the lawyer at one point. And when there were questions about another comic's talents, Masada snapped, "I find you more funny than she is."
Mesereau replied acerbically: "Maybe I'm in the wrong profession."
The irony was not lost in a courtroom where Mesereau had emerged as the dominant legal personality — and where he won acquittal on all counts for Jackson on Monday.
"He is probably the best cross-examiner I've ever seen in a courtroom," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson (search), who sat in on the trial.
"He is tenacious and he knows the evidence regarding the witness he is questioning better than anyone else in the courtroom."
Attorney Dana Cole, who was Mesereau's classmate at Hastings College of Law in Berkeley, Calif., remembers "the Mez" as a good student, but not top of the class, being more interested in hanging out at local cafes and meeting people. "That's how he learned to read people."
Mesereau, 54, was born in West Point, N.Y. His father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was a close aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was on the battleship Missouri with him when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. His father left the military in the 1950s to work in his in-laws' family business, Mama Leone's, a landmark New York Italian restaurant.
Mesereau did his undergraduate work at Harvard and was an amateur boxer, studied international relations at the London School of Economics and received his law degree from Hastings. He had settled into a practice in corporate business law when he suddenly changed course.
Cole remembers a career-altering lunch with Mesereau 15 years ago.
"He talked about transitioning to criminal law, which he thought was more interesting," Cole said. "He told me he was going to read every book on criminal lawyers and he was going to become a great criminal lawyer."
He quickly scored an enviable record of winning acquittals in a wide array of jury trials on accusations ranging from securities fraud to sex crimes, gang violence and murder.
Once a year, he travels to Alabama to defend a death penalty case at his own expense and prides himself on saving downtrodden defendants from execution.
He also volunteers free legal services at First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, where he was has been honored for his contributions to the African-American community.
In early 2003, he was tapped to defend Robert Blake against murder charges. He succeeded in winning dismissal of a conspiracy charge and obtained the actor's release on bail before the two parted company over undisclosed personal differences.
It wasn't long before Mesereau had a new high-profile client, when Jackson decided in April 2004 that he couldn't abide Mark Geragos dividing his time between his case and that of Scott Peterson.
Mesereau cleared his calendar and has represented no one else since he took on the Jackson case.
While his performance in court drew high marks, observers noted that he promised too much in opening statements, allowing prosecutor Ron Zonen to attack him in closing arguments for what he did not deliver, including a list of entertainment luminaries and Jackson on the witness stand.
And near the end of the trial, Mesereau didn't put up much of a legal fight against a decision that let prosecutors show a damaging video of the accuser telling detectives he was molested.
"If he prevails in this case," Cole predicted before the acquittal, "he will certainly be the top criminal defense lawyer in this country. If he loses, he will be devastated because he absolutely believes in his client's innocence."