I asked him what he thought of the three-ring circus that enveloped the Santa Maria courthouse, but all I got was “I’ll tell you later” and “no comment right now.” That from the so-called King of Pop as he walked in to face multiple charges of child molestation, the only words he would speak to the media all day.
The Michael Jackson (search) case is like nothing you’ll ever see. Jackson is facing years behind bars, or a young boy and his family are lying. On this day, the first of many, the scene felt like someone had just dropped me into the middle of chapter nine of a Grisham novel. Lining the streets outside the courthouse were food vendors, fans from as far away as Norway and Poland, a woman with a portable piano, all sorts of banners, and a U-Haul truck filled with thousands of free T-shirts.
Covering the Michael Jackson case can at times feel like standing outside the only exit to the tent of a three-ring circus, right as the noontime matinee lets out. Santa Maria, a middle-class, central coast town, is rather isolated from big city life and as far away from Hollywood as you can get in California. So bring on Michael Jackson, his massive team, thousands of journalists, fans from all walks of life and the ever-entertaining individuals who themselves ought to be prosecuted for lack of tact. This has become the traveling courtroom road show. With a determined district attorney, the fight to prosecute Jacko has only just begun.
Our crew makes the drive up through the golden afternoon glow that makes January feel more like an April afternoon. Gradually we move from the overpopulated southland into areas that are peppered with valley oaks and lined by acre after acre of dormant grape vines. While nice, the Santa Maria courthouse more resembles an outpost. Satellite trucks from all over the country surround the building and wires blanket beds of ivy as they’re strewn as close to the front door as possible.
Michael arrives late; at least seven helicopters follow his every move from Neverland Ranch (search), about an hour south of the court. The Sheriff’s Department has placed deputies at every corner, and the walkway from the curb into the court is lined with steel barricades and a cyclone fence. Fans climb trees, stand on shoulders. Some reporters climb onto planters and even bring ladders to see over those of us who got there early and grabbed a front-row spot. All to see or report on the spectacle that for the moment has lost some seriousness. The awe factor alone is enough to drive the adrenaline through the body like a Porsche on the autobahn.
After roughly two hours, much longer than a normal California court arraignment, Jackson emerges. His entourage includes dad Joe, brother Jermaine, sister Janet and twenty or so sharply dressed men from the Nation of Islam (search). A pale-faced Jackson stays under an umbrella to protect him from the bright California winter sun. The King of Pop gradually stops and poses for fans, before climbing up his SUV using the same arm he claims was injured by officers just one-month earlier. Almost a decade after O.J., the country has another high-profile legal circus on its hands.