Jackson Acquitted, Faces Millions in Debt

A jury in Santa Maria, Calif., acquits pop star Michael Jackson of all charges of child molestation. The jury concluded Monday that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to convict the singer. Jackson now has other challenges in front of him, namely, getting his career back on track, so he can settle the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes creditors.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Michael Jackson is facing other challenges despite his court victory here in California. A jury yesterday found the King of Pop not guilty on 10 counts of lewd acts with a child, conspiracy and giving alcohol to a minor. Michael Jackson now has the challenge of getting his career back on track so he can settle the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes creditors. NPR's Luke Burbank reports from Santa Maria, California.

Unidentified Woman #1: We, the jury in the above-entitled case, find the defendant not guilty of a lewd acts upon a minor child...

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

For the court clerk, it was business as usual, but outside the courthouse, just a couple of hundred feet away, it was what fans had been waiting to hear.

Unidentified Woman #2: She said on all the lewd acts, he's not...

Unidentified Woman #3: All the lewd acts, he's not guilty.

Unidentified Woman #4: All the lewd acts, he's not guilty. So far, it's not guilty on everything.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

BURBANK: For Jackson's supporters, hundreds of whom traveled from around the world, it was vindication. Many had given up jobs and maxed out credit cards to stay for months in the small town of Santa Maria. Twenty-one-year-old Sam Davidson(ph) came from London.

Mr. SAM DAVIDSON (Jackson Fan): This is crazy. I've never experienced anything like this. I've met his kids, I've met him, I've met his parents, but this, there's no comparison.

BURBANK: Things couldn't have been much sweeter for Jackson and his fans, or more sour for Santa Barbara County prosecutor Tom Sneddon. Previously, he'd investigated allegations that Jackson molested other young boys, but those cases were settled out of court for large sums of money. Looking grim, Sneddon said his office did the best it could.

Mr. TOM SNEDDON (Santa Barbara County Prosecutor): I'm not going to look back and apologize for anything we've done. We did a very conscientious, thorough job, as did the Sheriff's Department investigating this case.

BURBANK: Some legal analysts question Sneddon's decision to spend much of the trial weaving a complex charge of conspiracy against Jackson, alleging the singer kept the accuser's family hostage at one point.

Ms. SUSAN FILAN (Trial Analyst): Had they just focused on the molestation, a lot of other relevant and important evidence might not have come in.

BURBANK: Susan Filan is a trial analyst and a former Connecticut prosecutor.

Ms. FILAN: But when you bring a conspiracy charge, so much more evidence comes in. Sometimes it helps you, sometimes it hurts you. In this case, it turned out to be lethal.

BURBANK: Jackson's defense strategy was simple: to undermine the credibility of the accuser's mother. And it appeared to work, according to Juror #10.

Unidentified Woman #5: What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen or, you know, just really volunteer your child, you know, to sleep with someone, and not just so much Michael Jackson but any person, for that matter?

BURBANK: Jurors said they had reasonable doubt as to Jackson's guilt. Now that he's been cleared of these charges, what are his career prospects? Not great, says Claudia Perry, who writes about music for The Newark Star-Ledger.

Ms. CLAUDIA PERRY (The Newark Star-Ledger): He has been really in a bit of a career holding pattern up to this point, and you know, the fact that he has essentially been deemed not guilty doesn't really change that. I mean, he's always going to be, I think, a sort of compelling public figure, but the interest in the music? I don't know.

BURBANK: As his record sales have declined, Jackson's been forced to take out large loans to support his free-spending lifestyle. These days, he owes somewhere in the neighborhood of $270 million. His largest asset is his share of a music catalog that includes many hits by The Beatles. However, finances were the furthest thing from fans' minds as they mobbed the singer's Neverland estate. With confetti still in their hair from the celebration at the courthouse, supporters traveled 30 miles south to Jackson's home for more revelry. Mark Wittenberg(ph), a 28-year-old from the Netherlands, scoffed at the idea that Jackson's career is over.

Mr. MARK WITTENBERG (Jackson Fan): When there's a regular person who has a court case, but you see this? I don't think so. Michael's bigger than ever, and Michael will be back.

BURBANK: And for Jackson, there's no time to waste in making that comeback. His creditors are growing impatient and could eventually start collecting the things he's used for collateral, including Neverland itself, the very site of the victory party. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Santa Maria.

MONTAGNE: Additional NPR coverage of the Michael Jackson trial is at npr.org.

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