The judge in Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial said yesterday he would allow prosecutors to introduce evidence relating to five previous incidents of alleged abuse by the pop star, a major defeat for his defence team.
Under the ruling, jurors will be allowed to hear testimony that the pop star molested or had designs on five other boys, including actor Macaulay Culkin and two youngsters who reached multimillion-dollar settlements with the singer.
District Attorney Tom Sneddon said Mr. Jackson's inappropriate activities with these boys included kissing, hugging and inserting his hands into their pants. He also said there was a pattern of "grooming," or preparing the boys for molestation, but did not elaborate.
In most criminal cases, evidence of past behaviour is not admissible against a defendant. However, the California legislature changed that in 1995, specifically in cases of child molestation and domestic violence.
The incidents allegedly occurred 12 to 15 years ago, and the prosecutor acknowledged that only one of the five boys has agreed to testify at Mr. Jackson's trial. Other testimony would come from the mothers of the two boys with whom Mr. Jackson reached settlements.
Defence lawyers had strenuously objected to that testimony, arguing that prosecutors were "desperate" and that their case against Mr. Jackson had fallen apart in court.
Mr. Jackson, 46, is accused in a 10-count indictment of plying a then 13-year-old boy with alcohol and molesting him while the youngster and his family were staying at the entertainer's Neverland Valley Ranch in early 2003.
Mr. Jackson was never charged in connection with the past accusations. However, prosecutors want to convince jurors that the self-proclaimed King of Pop has a pattern of behaviour toward young boys, evidence legal experts say could be devastating to his defence.
After about 90 minutes of sometimes-impassioned arguments on both sides, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville sided with prosecutors.
The issue is "of great importance in this case to both sides," he said. "I'm going to permit testimony with regard to sexual offences."
With jurors out of the courtroom, defence lawyers sought to block such testimony, arguing that prosecutors were trying to bring in a parade of witnesses with grudges against Mr. Jackson.
Defence lawyer Thomas Mesereau said a grand jury never returned an indictment against Mr. Jackson in the 1993 case and that only one of the alleged prior victims has agreed to take the witness stand.
"You have what is in effect a very problematic case, and I submit the prosecution knows that," Mr. Mesereau said.
Mr. Mesereau said the allegations come from third parties, many of whom were after Mr. Jackson's money. The reference was to former Jackson employees who sued the singer in the past and lost, and then were ordered to pay the singer $1-million in damages.
And, Mr. Mesereau said, Mr. Culkin, a frequent visitor to Neverland, "has repeatedly said he was never molested."
Mr. Culkin's publicist, Michelle Bega, said yesterday that the Home Alone star "is presently not involved with the proceedings and we do not expect that to change."
Mr. Mesereau told the judge that he would put on a "mini-trial" on each allegation that the jury is allowed to hear. "You can't stop the defence from putting on a full-blown defence and I mean just that," he warned.
Mr. Jackson was not present during the arguments but arrived later to cheers from fans.
Mr. Jackson's accuser in the current case, along with the boy's brother and sister, had "lied repeatedly," Mr. Mesereau said, adding that the inconsistencies in their testimony would worsen once their mother took the stand.
Mr. Sneddon shot back that Mr. Jackson's accuser had never wavered under cross-examination.
Mr. Mesereau, he said, had been "as abusive, as mean-spirited and obnoxious as you can be to a child witness, and I think it was a remarkable job this kid did. He was never once tripped up about the central fact of the case, that he was molested."
Mr. Jackson, who faces more than 20 years in prison if convicted on all of the counts against him, has pleaded not guilty and repeated in a radio interview on Sunday that the charges against him were "totally fabricated."
His lawyers have argued that the mother of Mr. Jackson's now 15-year-old accuser invented the abuse claims after latching on to the entertainer in a bid to get money from him.
They also have painted Mr. Sneddon as an overzealous prosecutor, intent on taking down Mr. Jackson at all costs, especially after his attempt to bring charges a decade earlier failed.