SANTA MARIA, Calif. – The judge in the Michael Jackson (search) child molestation case has scheduled a pretrial hearing Friday -- a proceeding likely to focus on whether many aspects of the case will be kept from public view.
The majority of 13 items on Friday's calendar concern the secrecy surrounding the case and the sealing of almost all documents.
Prosecutors and Jackson's new defense lawyer have consistently sought to keep documents under seal. A coalition of news media has opposed those efforts, asking for portions of a grand jury transcript, a grand jury indictment and at least 47 sealed search warrants to be made public.
A court-maintained Web site also shows Judge Rodney Melville (search) has been holding private telephone hearings with the parties. The judge is expected to field news media complaints about these secret hearings Friday.
Jackson will not attend. His lawyer has declined to comment on why he wants so many documents sealed, and on a motion to suppress evidence against the singer.
Legal experts suggest the Jackson case is emblematic of a new brand of American justice, especially when trials involve celebrities. In those cases, judges increasingly are trying to keep their proceedings and related documents from the public eye.
"Since the last hearing, the practice has continued to be to file virtually every document under seal. They're keeping the public in the dark," said attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. (search), who represents a coalition of news organizations, including The Associated Press, fighting for greater access.
"The obsession with secrecy appears now to have gone off the deep end," First Amendment lawyer Douglas Mirrell said.
He said the Colorado rape case against basketball star Kobe Bryant is surrounded by secrecy unseen in normal cases, with pretrial hearings held behind closed doors.
In the recent Martha Stewart case, the entire jury selection was closed. Transcripts were released only after an appeals court ruled the closure had been a clear violation of the First Amendment.
"They are making unavailable to the public information and documentation historically available in other cases," Mirrell said of the high-profile cases.
Jackson, 45, has pleaded not guilty to committing a lewd act upon a child, administering alcohol and conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
Key sections of the indictment are blacked out. The names of five alleged coconspirators remain secret, as do 28 specific acts the prosecution alleges in support of the charges.
Both prosecution and defense attorneys are under a court-imposed gag order -- supported by both sides -- that prevents them from commenting on any aspect of the case.