As the Michael Jackson trial awaits two important witnesses today, another battle is brewing that has not yet reached the jury.
Both sides in this wildly strange legal dance are fighting over alleged "unindicted co-conspirator" Vincent Amen.
Amen, I am told, will testify for the defense — if the prosecution agrees that the limited immunity it granted him in December is still active. But that might not be so easy.
Amen's story makes for a compelling subplot in the Jackson case saga. Sort of an innocent bystander, Amen was brought into Jackson's world by his best friend, Frank Tyson, who grew up around Jackson.
Amen, now 25, came West to work on Jackson videos and other projects — and wound up babysitting the Arvizo family. He spent more time with them than anyone.
As this column reported a few days ago, Amen actually gave the prosecution team an interview last December. In exchange, he received limited immunity.
But his two-hour interrogation was not what prosecutors wanted to hear. They decided not to use him as a witness for the government.
Now the defense wants to call Amen and invoke the previously offered immunity. District Attorney Tom Sneddon says the deal is off the table.
But late yesterday, right before court was over for the day, Judge Rodney Melville took up this controversy with the jury out of earshot.
The prosecution argued that Amen's limited "use immunity" would only be good if he had been one of its witnesses.
"But that deal fell through," Assistant District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss told Melville.
Compounding Jackson's problems, Auchincloss told Judge Melville that he could get a declaration from John Fahy, the attorney who brought Amen to the December meeting, saying that the immunity idea was only valid for a day.
Note to Auchincloss: Fahy, who was never Amen's permanent attorney, seems to be off the case. Amen's original attorney, Michael Bachner, is said to be back in charge. And Bachner's take on Amen's off-the-record interview with Auchincloss may be a lot different than Fahy's.
Meantime, today's witnesses should be interesting.
Talk-show host Larry King is due to testify that attorney Larry Feldman told him that Janet Arvizo, Feldman's client, was "crazy and in it for the money."
What King hoped to achieve when he blurted this statement out to defense attorney Tom Mesereau at the tony Grill restaurant in Beverly Hills is anyone's guess. Maybe King thinks testifying in Jackson's defense will get him the first interview if Jackson is acquitted.
King's lunch partner when Feldman "confessed" was former Dove Audio publisher Michael Viner, the second-most-litigious man in Los Angeles after entertainment lawyer Marty Singer.
Viner, once married to actress Deborah Raffin and the loser of a libel suit against Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, thinks he'd be a good witness too.
In his heyday, Viner published books by O.J. Simpson tattletale Faye Resnick and a group of Hollywood professional girlfriends and call girls. More recently, he gave the world Jayson Blair's memoir about deceiving the New York Times.
And those are just the highlights.
But today's very important witness will be Azja Pryor, former fiancée of comic Chris Tucker. Pryor knows more about the Arvizos than anyone. It's rumored that she will tell stories that could re-curl Michael Jackson's hair.
Coming to Michael Jackson's rescue yesterday was a woman whose face you've seen on TV and in films hundreds of times.
Vernee Watson-Johnson is a fine character actress who started her career as a Sweat Hog on "Welcome Back, Kotter," played Will Smith's mom on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and has appeared on almost every major TV series in the last year.
So you can imagine everyone's surprise when Watson-Johnson turned up as a witness for the defense yesterday.
It turns out it was she — and not Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada — who introduced Janet Arvizo's 13-year-old son to Jackson.
Watson-Johnson, who'd been to Neverland, had taught the boy, his brother and sister at the Los Angeles Academy of Fine Arts.
When she heard he had cancer, Vernee made the Jackson connection for him. She lived to regret it.
In her highly effective testimony, Watson-Johnson told the jury that she had tried to set up one of the many fundraisers held for the Arvizo family, but gave up.
"I didn't trust her," she said of Arvizo.
Apparently when she asked Arvizo to set up a trust account at a bank for her son to receive charity funds, the mother balked.
"She said, ‘Don't worry, you can put it in my account.' I had a strong feeling the money would not be used properly," said Watson-Johnson.
And it was worse than that. The actress confessed that, like a lot of celebrities, she'd given the family money. She also let them visit her at home once, something she would not do again.
"They were unruly, very disruptive," she said echoing many other witnesses. "I wouldn't have it [again] after the first time. I couldn't stand the energy."
Backing up testimony from other witnesses that Arvizo coached her kids to get what she wanted, Watson-Johnson hit that nail on its head again and again.
She said that the mother would often have her second son, age 12, call to ask if they could stay with Watson-Johnson. As always, there was a lot of prompting while the child spoke.
Watson-Johnson remembered hearing the mother say in the background. "Tell her you love her!"
The actress' testimony was so devastating to the state's case that prosecutors declined to cross-examine her.
The day's other big witness was Christian Robinson, the videographer who made the Jackson rebuttal videos and also filmed interviews with the Arvizo family and Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe.
He persuasively explained that no "scripts" were given to the subjects of those interviews, and that the questions were written by him. Robinson helped cast further doubt on the state's accusation that there was a conspiracy to hold the Arvizos hostage.
Not as successful, but certainly interesting, was testimony from obscure Jackson relatives: a 16-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy and their grandmother, Michelle Jackson, sister-in-law of Michael's father Joseph Jackson.
The girl said she saw the Arvizo boys drinking at Neverland. The boy claimed he saw the Arvizo boys fondling themselves while watching dirty movies at Neverland.
But his testimony may have backfired. He also recalled being in Jackson's room when the singer ordered a bottle of wine. If only it had been cookies and milk.
If you're in New York on Monday night, you might want to head over to Irving Plaza.
Cyndi Lauper is putting on a show to help raise money for the family of Theresa Brilli Wilson. The popular record company exec died in March after a long battle with cancer. She left behind a husband and a 5-year-old son.
Also on the bill Monday, and confirmed as performers: Natalie Merchant, Sandra Bernhard, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, still-active singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, Dan Baird of The Georgia Satellites and rootsy singer Chris Whitley.
Call the Irving Plaza box office for more info at (212) 777-6800.