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Feb. 28: Opening arguments got under way in Santa Maria, Calif., where Michael Jackson is on trial for child molestation. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports from the courthouse.
NBC News and news services
Updated: 10:08 p.m. ET Feb. 28, 2005
Please be advised: The following contains explicit sexual descriptions.
SANTA MARIA, Calif. - As Michael Jackson's molestation trial opened Monday morning, District Attorney Tom Sneddon told jurors the pop star exposed a 13-year-old boy to "strange sexual behavior."
The prosecutor described sexually explicit details of two incidents involving the accuser in Jackson's bed. Sneddon said the accuser and his brother will describe both incidents on the stand.
"It's about how he traded on the boy's obvious and often expressed admiration," Sneddon told jurors.
The entertainer's defense opened its case Monday afternoon, focusing on the credibility of the accuser and his family. Jackson lead attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. told jurors that the accuser's mother had a history of concocting sexual assault charges and repeatedly soliciting celebrities for money, little of which has been accounted for.
“I’m here to tell you these charges are fictitious, they are bogus and they never happened,” Mesereau told the jury.
Mesereau said the mother went to comedian Jay Leno for money and Leno was so suspicious that he called Santa Barbara police to tell them he had been contacted and “something was wrong. They were looking for a mark.”
"Unfortunately for Michael Jackson," Mesereau noted, "he fell for it.”
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Jurors must determine if Jackson gave wine to a young cancer patient at his Neverland Ranch, touched him inappropriately, kept them from leaving and later pressured them into keeping quiet.
"The private world of Michael Jackson reveals that instead of cookies and instead of milk, you can substitute wine, vodka and bourbon," prosecutor Sneddon said.
The prosecution hopes to depict a poor family whose stricken son wanted to meet one of his idols. The child’s wish was granted, but the prosecution claims it turned into a nightmare of sexual abuse and imprisonment at Jackson’s home in the coastal mountains 170 miles north of Los Angeles.
Shortly into its opening statement, prosecutors quoted "Living with Michael Jackson," a 2003 documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir, in which Jackson said sharing his bed with children was a "beautiful thing."
That broadcast, the prosecutor said, was a P.R. disaster for Jackson, one he tried desperately to minimize. He described how Jackson's associates allegedly pressured the accuser's family into cooperating with Jackson's version of events, part of a "desperate attempt" to save the star's career.
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Shortly after the documentary aired, Jackson first molested the boy, the prosecutor said. Sneddon said Jackson told the boy that masturbation was normal, then reached into the boy’s underpants and masturbated the boy and himself.
The second time, Sneddon said, Jackson tried to move the boy’s arm toward his own genitals and the boy resisted.
Sneddon also told jurors they would hear testimony from Neverland employees about children drinking there, including the accuser. One employee asked the accuser why he was intoxicated, Sneddon said, and was informed Jackson told the accuser he had to be a man and drink.
During the family's first visit to Neverland in 2000, the prosecutor alleged, Jackson showed sexually explicit Web sites to the boy, just 10 at the time, and his own son Prince Michael. When an image of a woman with bare breasts came on the screen, Sneddon said, Jackson turned to the group and said: “Got milk?”
Accuser's mother in spotlight
The defense narrative will cast Jackson as the target of a money-hungry mother who coached her son, now 15, to spin stories when it looked like their celebrity benefactor would cut them off.
It will focus on a 2001 case by the accuser's family against JC Penney over their treatment during an alleged shoplifting incident.
Over the weekend, attorneys for both sides interviewed a female paralegal in Los Angeles who helped represent the accuser's family in the 2001 case. The paralegal reportedly said the accuser's mother told her she lied about being abused by a security guard in order to get money from the store.
During the trial, Mesereau will quote the paralegal as saying the mother told her "harm would come to her from the Mexican mafia" if she ever told anyone of the admission of fraud, NBC News learned.
DA admits mother's credibility issues
Sneddon himself acknowledged the mother's credibility problems Monday, saying she had done things that were wrong — lying under oath, getting welfare funds to which she wasn't entitled.
"She's not a person who made the kind of decisions that you would have made," he told jurors, saying his team would explain why she had acted that way.
Though Jackson’s star has waned on stage, his legacy and showmanship still generate a global audience. More than 1,000 members of the media from around the world have credentials for he trial.
The trial will offer a rare glimpse into Jackson’s curious lifestyle. His lawyers have promised to call as witnesses some of the most famous people in America — including Kobe Bryant, Jay Leno and Elizabeth Taylor.
Focus on D.A.
Prosecutors, who unsuccessfully pursued Jackson over a decade ago with charges he molested a different boy, are investing huge resources. A battalion of deputies raided Jackson’s ranch to seize evidence, raising additional questions about Sneddon's motives.
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Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville has not yet decided if prosecutors can present evidence about the 1993 molestation accusations.
Sneddon has become so identified as Jackson’s nemesis that the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” recorded a thinly veiled attack on him. Defense lawyers tried several times to have the veteran prosecutor removed from the case, claiming he was “blinded by zeal” to put Jackson behind bars.
As for Jackson’s team, Mesereau is a confident, veteran defender known for turning around seemingly hopeless cases.
A jury of eight women and four men, including one woman whose sister was raped at the age of 12 and another whose grandson is a registered sex offender, was selected to render a judgment against Jackson.
As a light rain fell Monday morning, a small group of Jackson fans waited outside the Santa Maria courthouse to support the singer or to get one of 47 public seats distributed by lottery.
NBC News' Mike Taibbi, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.