Transcript of “Frozen in Time: A Riveting Behind-the-Scenes View of the Michael Jackson Cases”, Part 1. JUDGE RODNEY MELVILLE
This is Part 1 of the transcript of the “Frozen in Time” seminar that took place on September 15th, 2010 in Los Angeles. It featured defense attorneys Thomas Mesereau and Carl Douglas (and I use the term “defense” very loosely in regard to Douglas!), prosecutor Ron Zonen, civil attorney Larry Feldman, Judge Rodney Melville, and moderator Seth Hufstedler.
In Part 1, we will feature the speech given by Judge Melville, as well as his follow up question and answer session. Here is the video of Judge Melville, Larry Feldman, and Carl Douglas. Part 2 includes Ron Zonen, Tom Mesereau, and the Q & A session, and that video can be seen in Part 4 of this series:
Transcript of Frozen in Time: A Riveting Behind-the-Scenes View of the Michael Jackson Cases
September 15th, 2010
Los Angeles County Bar Association
Michael Jackson was a cultural icon. Known as the King of Pop, the life of this complex man remains a puzzle, even after his untimely death in 2009. In spite of wealth and fame, he was accused of serious misconduct. Jackson settled a civil law suit accusing him of molestation in the early 1990s and in 2005, a jury in Santa Barbara County acquitted him of molesting a thirteen year old boy at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Both cases add to the legal lore.
Attorney Seth Hufstedler will moderate a panel discussion offering an in-depth historical and legal analysis of these highly publicized and very unique California celebrity cases. The panel includes those most closely involved with these cases: the judge, Honorable Rodney Melville (Retired); the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Ronald Zonen; defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau, Jr. who represented Jackson in the Santa Barbara County criminal trial; attorney Larry Feldman who represented the alleged victim in the civil case; and attorney Carl E. Douglas who represented Jackson in the criminal investigation of the civil case.
(I will skip Seth Hufstedler’s introduction of each member of the panel, as well as Rodney Melville’s slideshow description.)
Rodney Melville: Thank you very much. Good evening everyone. Thank you for the invitation to come down and speak to all of you. I appreciate it very much. For those of you who don’t know, Santa Maria is a small town located in the most northern part of Santa Barbara County. The county is divided geographically by a mountain range. Santa Maria is 85 miles north of Santa Barbara, and is generally known for its vegetables, strawberries, and more recently, wine grapes. Highway 101 is the main corridor and doesn’t pass through the town, but merely passes by it. Michael Jackson’s ranch is located in Santa Barbara County, north of that mountain range. For the purposes of filing lawsuits in Santa Barbara County, there is a local rule that is inviolate. That rule is “What happens north of the mountains, stays north of the mountains!” This explains why “People vs. Michael Jackson” was tried in Santa Maria.
The case was assigned to me shortly after the complaint was filed. There has been a lot of speculation about the number of people, both fans and supporters, and reporters, who would show up. Representatives of Michael Jackson at that time estimated there would be 10,000 fans, and news reports said that there would be 300 satellite trucks descending upon our courthouse. Fortunately these estimates were grossly exaggerated. Still, on some days, there were over a thousand fans or public at the courthouse, and even the 10 to 15 satellite trucks that did show up seemed to dwarf our small courthouse. Now the event that really grabbed my attention was the simple filing of the complaint. That was one on December 18th, 2003. Mr. Jackson was not present. His attorneys were not present. The DA filed the complaint and had a short news conference on the courthouse steps. Or I should say on the porch of a mobile home that served as one of our courtrooms. My court administrator, anticipating that there would be a great demand for copies of the complaint, prepared 500 copies so that he could hand them out after the District Attorney made his statements. Well, he was overrun by members of the media. They fought for copies. They nearly crushed him. The police literally had to go in a pull him out and rescue him. It really brought home to me a need to immediately get a handle on this situation and set some rules to guide this trial. So by the time that Mr. Jackson and his attorneys made their first appearance for his arraignment on January 16th, almost a month later, we were better prepared. Now immediately after the complainant’s event that I described to you, where I almost lost my court administrator, I set up a team to handle this case. And the first thing that we did is we sat down and set some goals to guide us on all of our other decisions. We agreed on the following goals. 1) To be sure that not only that justice is done, but that it seems to be done. 2) To set an atmosphere of fairness, both inside the courtroom and outside the courtroom. 3) To conduct all proceedings in a dignified manner. 4) Not to allow the agenda of others to overrun or avert the judicial process.
Now in order to further these goals, I needed to try to anticipate the problems and the solutions necessary to successfully handle this case. The key to handling this case definitely was teamwork. The team that I setup consisted obviously of the court administrator, the lieutenant in the sheriff’s department in charge of security, the supervising research attorney, and my courtroom staff. We met regularly throughout the proceedings, and continued to do that discussing each day what the problems were and how to resolve them. From the first meeting, responsibilities became clear. Daryl Parker, the assistant executive officer I described earlier, was assigned to interact with the media and the public. He had been a clerk in the LA courts during the OJ Simpson trial, and had excellent insight into the challenges of a high profile cases. We contacted other courts who were simultaneously dealing with high profile cases, such as Scott Peterson and Kobe Bryant. They provided us copies of their decorum orders, and we adapted them to deal with the problems that we had specifically at our courthouse. These decorum orders dealt with behavior outside of the courtroom by the public, the media, and they dealt with behavior, some of them attorneys, but anyone who was to touch the case. These decorum orders were subject to the contempt powers of the court.
One of the things that we did immediately was to set up, or ask the media to set up a committee to deal with them, because there were huge numbers of people in every area of the media, and we had to have leadership there that we could start negotiating with, and start deciding what to do. So we asked them to set up a committee, and we called it a steering committee, and they started meeting on a daily basis. Daryl Parker represented the court, and people from the media representing the media. We had people from every type of media: the TV, newspaper, radio, blogs, people who were writing books, photographers, they were all a big group of people that met with us. So by doing this on a daily basis, we were able to deal with problems that arose, and reduce friction between the court and the media. After the initial shock of handing out copies of the complaint, we set up procedures to set up credentials to the media. The process required that each individual present themselves to us, their identification, and proof of their employer and their employer’s phone number. We put all of that, including a picture of them, on a badge, a credential, which they had to wear anytime they were on the court complex. We issued 2,000 credentials with representatives from 32 countries. We not only had a large media contingent, but we had a great number of spectators. The spectators also represented many different countries and interests. On the day of the arraignment, there were definitely way over 1,000 fans in front of the courthouse. There were probably that many media, and there were some interested public just standing further back and watching. What we did was set up a seating situation in the courtroom. This is what we did: we allowed the media to agree to who they were going to let into the courtroom. I dedicated half of the seats to the media, half of the seats to the public, and the front row was a buffer that except either an artist or a guest of one of either parties, but what we wanted was a row where people couldn’t interfere with the attorney’s privacy as they talked to each other. As for the public, we had a lottery every morning for the seats, and the seats in the courtroom, at least at the beginning, were in high demand. We did not allow any phones or cameras into the courtroom. They were checked in at the door, and they were retrieved on the way out. We did set up a media room with a closed circuit, one camera on the witness stand, where overflow media could go and watch the trial. They were allowed to take their phones into that room, but they were not allowed to power them up. However, the advantage there was is if they wanted to go out and make a phone call, they could come and go freely, and they could power their phone on the way out. The reason that they could not power their phone in there was, again, the photographs. We did not allow any photographs. Quite a few of the media actually preferred staying in the media room as opposed to the courtroom because once you were in the courtroom, if you left you couldn’t come back in, and you had to check your phone, so the other room became pretty popular. However I noticed the main media like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, those people were sitting in the rows because they wanted to see not only the reaction of the witness, but they wanted to see the reaction of the attorneys and the judge. You kind of got to know who these people were.
At a very early stage, I granted a motion made by the District Attorney to prohibit parties from making statements, without prior approval of the court, to the media. The District Attorney brought that motion, and I granted that motion. It required that whenever either side wanted to make a statement, they would have to file an Ex Parte’ request, which we could do on short time, and we could even do it over the phone if we wanted. The statement that they wanted to make, we would discuss, and the person who wanted to make that statement would provide both sides copies of that statement, and then we would discuss it. And if the other side wanted to make a statement, they would provide copies. And that is how we handled the statements to the media. I think that is a good way to do it. I didn’t prevent statements to the media, but it did stop what I called “surprise volleys” from each side, suing the press to play your position.
The complaint was filed on December 18th, 2003. The trial convened about one year later on January 31st, and the verdict was returned on June 13th, 2005. In between the arraignment and the verdict a lot happened. There never was a preliminary hearing, as the DA too the case to a grand jury, and Mr. Jackson was indicted on April 22nd 2004. Between the arraignment and the indictment, there were motions filed and hearings primarily relating to discovery issues. But immediately after the indictment, on April 26th, Mr. Mesereau substituted in a place of the previous attorneys, Mr. Geragos and Mr. Brathman. Now California rules of court, Section 243.1, Sealed Records, provides the procedures and requirements for sealing court records. The rule requires that the judge balance the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the public’s right to know. There were a series of pretrial motions filed by both sides, and some motions filed by media organizations. I ordered the motions and accompanying declarations filed under seal. Proposed redactions were required to accompany the motions. The purpose of ordering the documents filed under seal was ultimately to ensure a fair trial to both sides. The alleged victim and other minors involved in this case were entitled to privacy. The jury needed to be isolated from untested information before the actual trial. The case had to be tried in the courtroom where the declarants were subject to cross examination and governed by established rules of evidence. Santa Maria has a small jury pool, and the media coverage, as you know, was very intense. Where could one transfer the case if a change of venue became necessary? I remember seeing a cartoon at that time with two lawyers looking longingly at the moon saying to each other “I wonder if they could get a fair and impartial trial up there?” (NOBODY LAUGHED!!) On another level, we sought help from the judicial counsel. There were huge numbers of motions and declarations through the pretrial hearings. It totaled thousands of pages, and the clerk’s office couldn’t possibly handle the large demand for copies of everything that was filed. So we made application to the judicial counsel to have them amend the rule to already allow access to civil cases. We wanted that changed to allow electronic access to this criminal case and other unusual criminal cases. In a highly debated session, members of the judicial council voted 9-to-9 on this rule. This required the chief justice to break the tie, and he voted to allow us to have this new electronic rule allowing unusual criminal cases to be displayed electronically. Without this rule change, we would have required at least two or three more clerks, and certainly more sophisticated copying information, or support electronics. So to this day, whenever I see the Chief Justice I think him again for breaking that tie vote!
Security measures played a very important role in this case. Everyone who entered the courtroom was searched by electronic screening every time they entered. They were required to check their cell phones at the door and pick them up on the day out. The bailiffs were all over the place. They conducted the screening, and there were always several of them in the courtroom. When the real started, we conducted court from 8am to 2pm. There was no lunch break, but there were several restroom breaks. The media dubbed this the “Melville Diet”, and proffered the opinion from a well-known nutritionist that it wouldn’t cause you to lose weight, it would cause you to gain weight, and he was right. We all gained weight. Under this schedule, from 8am to 2pm, we were able to get in a full 5 hours of testimony and evidence in every day, and those of you who are trial lawyers will recognize that getting a good 5 hours of testimony going the normal hours would be highly unusual. So this really worked for us. And the point of the schedule is really two-fold. One, it allowed only one coming and going, and you have to realize that there is a huge uproar whenever Mr. Jackson and his attorneys arrived at the complex, and another uproar when they left the complex. Those things are time consuming, and by narrowing it this way we only had one coming and going. Another thing is that there is weapon screening. And so if we took a break, the breaks that I told you about for the restroom, nobody left the screened area. So there was no double screening. They went to the restroom, and they came back. But if we broke at noon then we would have to have screening again. So it really saved us a lot of time to run the schedule on that time schedule. It also allowed the attorneys the afternoon to prepare. And I don’t know how they felt about it, but it was really important to me to have those afternoons because the attorneys in this case filed a lot of paperwork, made a lot of motions, and required a lot of time for all of us. The research team was led by Jed Bebbe, who is now a judge on the bench in Santa Maria. And he had an assistant and two interns. We had a lot of applications for interns that year. And they would read everything that the attorneys of the two sides prepared, and in the afternoon we would conference and do further research, and try to get to that motion the next day for oral arguments.
There’s one other thing at this point that I want to say and that is that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the attorneys in this case. Both sides were represented by the most skillful and ethical advocates. If not for their professionalism, this case would have had a considerably different face. Thank you.
Seth Hufstedler : Ok, thank you judge, that’s most interesting, and it answers one of the questions that I’m going to ask later on, and that is: in the course of all of this, did we learn anything? And it’s pretty apparent, that having a careful judge, thoughtful staff, cooperative lawyers who really work at it; that you really can learn and did learn a great deal on how to handle a complex case like this, and how to do it the next time. Learning what had gone on before and what was done here, and now you have quite a bit of material that you can work with, you have a great resource here in the judge on how to handle these various problems. I have one question, Judge: How many seats were there in the courtroom for the public?
Rodney Melville: I don’t really know, roughly 35-40?
Seth Hufstedler: I don’t hear any dissent? Lawyers usually don’t dissent.
Rodney Melville: And the media had an equal amount.
Seth Hufstedler: And in addition, you had a media room? How large was the media room?
Rodney Melville: It was a, um, our court’s like a mobile home, it was a large mobile home and it had all of the media representatives that wanted to be in that room. There was no one turned away from that room. I had some pictures of that but in deference to them I didn’t want to show you how they looked when they relaxed!
Seth Hufstedler: Or what they were drinking! (Laughter!) Any other members of the panel have a question?
Larry Feldman: Judge, when you muzzle the lawyers in a high profile case like this……
Rodney Melville: I resent that word! (Laughter!)
Larry Feldman: Well, we had the same issue in the first Jackson case, and the judge went the other way on it. If the concern from a lawyer’s standpoint in a high profile case, if you’re against the celebrity, if they have, like, the Rev. Jackson, all these spokespersons out there, who get on the news media and talk about things they really don’t know what they’re talking about. But they do talk about it. How did you come out, and you said you muzzled them, but did anyone raise that, and what were your thoughts about it?
Rodney Melville: You said I muzzled them, here’s how it happened; the district attorney, who had been the first to fire volleys having press conferences, and I use the word volley just to say that they’re out there in the public making statements. And the second, also, was the side that brought the motion to control the press releases, so to speak. Mr. Geragos was the attorney of record at that time, and is an “expert”, if he’s here I use that word kindly, he’s an expert at using the press to his advantage. He’s known, and I saw it very well. He opposed my motion; in fact, he may have even appealed to do that. The thing that I want to say to you is this: that when they made application, they got access to me immediately. On every occasion the statements were allowed, there was never an occasion that the statement was not allowed. But what happened was, it was discussed, I think, and it came out as a more professional statement and the other side was also allowed to present a statement then, so my view of it is, it serves as a more civil way of handling……
Seth Hufstedler: No doubt you’re doing that. The material submitted would have been self-censored beforehand, so that would be much better.
Rodney Melville: There’s one thing I want to say: at no time, I served on the bench for 22-23 years; at no other time in my career did I issue an order of that sort. So this case, I think, called for it.
Seth Hufstedler: Any other questions?
Carl Douglas: Given my experience with the OJ Simpson case, I wonder was there ever an effort by either side, or by the defense primarily I would assume, to have this trial televised? Was it ever discussed pretrial?
Rodney Melville: The media asked to televise the trial.
Carl Douglas: Did any of the parties have an interest in doing that?
Rodney Melville: No.
Carl Douglas: I’m not surprised by it. (Laughter!)
Rodney Melville: And why aren’t you surprised?
Carl Douglas: Well, it’s been my experience that after nine months of a televised trial, few lawyers, and probably fewer judges, would want to duplicate that experience again in their professional lives. I don’t want to do it again! (Laughter!)
Seth Hufstedler: We’ll accept that as live testimony! Let’s move on now to a little more general background about the two cases, and Mr. Feldman will tell us about that.
We will begin Part 2 with Larry Feldman’s analysis. But first, let’s scrutinize part 1:
1. “People who were writing books”: This comment stuck out to me because in a recent interview, @ 3:53 William Wagener said that there were “five or six books already written before the jury verdict, based on a guilty verdict, and all those books went into the shredder with the Not Guilty verdicts.” And he’s absolutely right; NONE of those books were ever released!
(The attorney in the video made a slight error: when Zonen said that it was a “shakedown”, he was referring to the defenses’ theory, and he immediately said that the prosecution “disagreed with that theory”. You can read it for yourself later on in this series.)
Ironically, there were over a dozen books released about the OJ Simpson trial, despite the fact that he was acquitted. And why is that? It’s because there was solid, irrefutable evidence proving that OJ Simpson was guilty, and the book publishers knew that there was money to be made because the general public (who watched the trial everyday on television, and were given serious, objective analysis) knew what the evidence was, and felt he was guilty BECAUSE of that evidence!
However, in the Michael Jackson case, the general public did not feel that he was guilty because of the evidence – actually, they felt he was guilty IN SPITE of the lack of evidence – but because he was “weird” and “creepy”, which is what the media conditioned them to believe! That is why those “authors” (and I use that term very loosely!) couldn’t release their books! Those books wouldn’t have been worth the paper they were printed on, because they couldn’t possibly PROVE that MJ was truly guilty, only INSINUATE that he was guilty, and there is a colossal difference between the two. (Anyone who has read Dimond’s book knows what I mean!) But if MJ had been convicted, they would have had to completely skim over the testimony of the accusers, and just cherry pick certain statements that were made throughout the trial (mostly the direct examination of the prosecution’s witnesses).
At the 118 minute mark of this radio interview, you can hear Wagener describing in detail the books that were cancelled, including one from Eleanor Cooke, who subsequently chose to accept blood money to write a book saying the MJ was guilty, which was scrapped when she was caught plagiarizing Maureen Orth’s Vanity Fair articles. Ironically, Cooke was excited about the possibility of serving on the jury because she didn’t like MJ’s dance moves and crotch grabbing, and went into the trial with a guilty verdict in mind, a feeling she conveniently denied during jury selection. (Jurors are supposed to be neutral, and prosecutors and defense attorneys can have a potential juror dismissed if they are deemed to be too prejudicial, one way or another. For example, Sneddon successfully dismissed many blacks from the jury pool, for fear that they would be more sympathetic to MJ, and as a result only one black alternate juror was selected. Talk about playing the race card! We’ll discuss jury selection in more detail later on in this series.)
2. “We wanted that changed to allow electronic access to this criminal case and other unusual criminal cases.” Thanks to Judge Melville’s foresight, he was able to take the initiative to ask for the court records to be stored online, where enquiring minds could have 24/7 access to any document they wanted to research, as opposed to having to harass the court for copies. MJ’s trial, known as “The People of the State of California vs Michael Jackson”, was deemed “extraordinary” under California Rule of Court 2073, and as a result of the high profile nature of the trial, a special website was set up to provide the public with up to date information about court procedures, documents, transcripts, etc. Rule of Court 2073 requires the courts to adopt uniform rules for the granting of public access to their records, to the extent feasible, on a case-by-case basis. By storing all of the court documents in a common web-based database, it drastically reduced the number of requests from the media and general public for access to these documents.
3. “Both sides were represented by the most skillful and ethical advocates.” Well, that statement is only half correct! Yes, Tom Mesereau and Susan Yu truly are some of the most skillful and ethical advocates practicing law today! Mesereau and Yu’s exemplary records speak for themselves. Mesereau consistently does pro bono work for poor death row defendants in the Deep South, and provides free legal clinics to the underprivileged citizens of South Central Los Angeles. He was so dedicated to MJ’s innocence that when the church that he attended stopped allowing their children to visit Neverland after MJ was arrested, he QUIT the church, and brought his free legal clinic to another church! Read this article for more information.
There isn’t much more that I need to say about Mesereau that you don’t already know, so I’ll end it here with his interview with Barbara Walters’ for her “Most Fascinating People of 2005” TV special:
On the other hand, Tom Sneddon will go down in history as one of the most corrupt and unprofessional prosecutors in the history of the United States! Unlike Mesereau, there is a LOT more that I could say about him that you don’t already know, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers right now, so in the meantime I’ll just recommend that you read The Veritas Project’s analysis of his background. I will write more on Sneddon’s 10-year vendetta in a future article called “Tom Sneddon’s Malicious Persecution –Not Prosecution – Of Michael Jackson”. You guys won’t believe how crooked he really is! (Actually, you guys WILL believe it, because it’s Sneddon!)
4. “All these spokespersons out there, who get on the news media and talk about things they really don’t know what they’re talking about.” Well, I think this statement is pretty self-explanatory, and is entirely indicative of 99.99% of all of the legal “analysts” on TV. Now you would expect that Larry Feldman would appreciate these analysts, since most of them are pro-prosecution, but in 1993 the vast majority (66%) of the public believed in MJ’s innocence, and the mainstream media –and not the tabloids! – was much more fair and balanced in their coverage. A perfect example of this is the way that the Today Show’s Katie Couric used professional skepticism in her December 1993 interview with Latoya Jackson on the day after her infamous press conference. Couric asked Latoya if she had anything beyond her mere suspicion of “hush money” checks that could prove that MJ was guilty, and of course Latoya was speechless!
On a side note, Feldman used what’s called an “ad populum” argument when he referred to the fact that 66% of people who were polled believed MJ was innocent. Obviously MJ was innocent, but not because some populatarity contest, but because of the evidence. Whenever you’re defending MJ, never ever use this type of fallacious argument! That poll nearly flip-flopped after the settlement, because many people mistakenly believed that the settlement was a sign of guilt, a myth that was totally destroyed in this article.
5. “The district attorney, who had been the first to fire volleys having press conferences” I think that this statement is very indicative of Sneddon’s character, or lack thereof, because he knew that he had the media on his side, due to their years of biased reporting on MJ. So it was to his advantage to “fire volleys” at MJ and his legal team by having press conferences, inviting a certain media friend to accompany him on his raid of Neverland (and we all know who she is), having his staff provide false information to that same media friend (such as the “love letters” from MJ to Gavin), leaking confidential documents (such as the Grand Jury transcripts), etc. Could it be possible that some members of the prosecution and media were more than “just friends”? We’ll find out later on in this series.
MJ’s original lawyer, Mark Geragos, wanted to fight Melville’s gag order in order to allow himself the opportunity to use the media to defend MJ by also “firing volleys”. Conversely, as we’ll learn later on in this series, Mesereau disagreed with Geragos’ strategy because he was smart enough to know that cases are won and lost in the courtroom, and there was no way that he and his team could refute every negative story that was reported in the media.
6. “The media asked to televise the trial.” Well, I think that this is also self-explanatory. Of course the media wanted to televise the trial because it would have been like watching a modern day freak show! (To them, and to the general public, but obviously not to the fans!) The ratings would have been through the roof! Personally, I’m glad it wasn’t televised because more harm than good would have come from it. Sure, the public would have seen all of Sneddon’s witnesses getting obliterated under cross examination, but the media would have twisted the coverage by focusing on MJ’s appearance and mocking him, rather than providing objective coverage, as they did during the OJ Simpson murder trial. The reason that the OJ Simpson trial was covered more seriously is because there were two actual murder victims, and there is no denying that they were slaughtered. (The only question was “Did OJ or somebody else do it?”) There was a serious tone to the coverage, while the MJ trial was seen as a joke because of the “washed up, has-been freakazoid pop star who bleached his skin”. There is no better indication of this then when “Pajama Day” happened; instead of reporting about Gavin’s complete collapse under cross-examination (like saying “I don’t know” over 90 times on Day 11 of the trial!), we were subjected to endless footage of MJ going in and out of the courtroom.
What a shame.
To be continued……………..