Saturday, January 25, 2014

This Day in Pop Music History (Jackson Settles Sex-Abuse Suit for $15 Million)

January 25, 1994—Facing screaming tabloid headlines, beset by growing physical and mental instability, Michael Jackson signed a multimillion-dollar agreement to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a 13-year-old boy who alleged he had been molested at the singer’s Neverland estate two years before. The settlement was a mixed blessing, however: while the 31-page agreement went a long way toward assuring that no criminal indictment would be filed based on any testimony in the civil case and it explicitly stated that Jackson denied any wrongdoing, it raised the question of why, if the charges were untrue, he had not fought harder to save his reputation.

At very least, the allegations made millions of fans question the judgment of the 35-year-old entertainer. These questions would only multiply in the 15 remaining years of his life, as the self-styled “King of Pop” endured further legal troubles and lived out a private life that could only be regarded as bizarre.

For most of his early career, the public had a different view of the star: as the high-voiced child star of Motown’s Jackson 5 who had grown up to become the high-voiced solo act who had created the top-selling album of all time, Thriller and, with the release of “We Are the World,” had earned an equally exalted perch as a philanthropist and advocate on behalf of hunger relief in Africa.

More recently, however, Jackson had told Oprah Winfrey in a televised interview, after years of speculation about his changing appearance, that he suffered from a skin condition and that he had been emotionally abused by his father as a child.

The more recent allegations raised the specter of a troubled star to an entirely different level. Beginning in May 1992, when Jackson met the plaintiff’s stepfather at the car rental business where he worked, the boy had become a regular visitor at the 2,700-acre Neverland Ranch. What had started out as playing video games, riding in golf carts and taking family vacations with the singer had evolved into Jackson inviting him to sharing his bed and open-mouth kissing, fondling and oral sex, according to the allegations. A civil suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in September 1993, asked for unspecified damages for sexual battery, seduction, willful misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence against Jackson.

The Jackson camp, alarmed by the legal threat, engaged the services of Johnnie Cochran, who, though not yet famous for representing O.J. Simpson, had already become the go-to guy for stars in jeopardy, having gotten off football legend Jim Brown on a rape charge and former Different Strokes actor Todd Bridges on an attempted murder rap. Yet with Jackson, Cochran and chief assistant Carl Douglas decided not to take the case to trial.

Discussing the case after Jackson’s death (seen here in this post from the Web site “Vindicate MJ”), Douglas, without specifically addressing the reasons for the settlement, noted key events surrounding the singer in the weeks preceding the deal: cancellation of his “Dangerous” tour for health reasons, growing prescription-drug addiction, and Jackson’s fear that returning to the United States would result in his arrest, which according to Douglas, "would have been the death knell to Michael Jackson and his entire world."

Perhaps Cochran and Douglas concluded that the accuser would have a lower threshold of evidence in a civil rather than criminal case, and that an agreement would, in fact, also wipe out the chance of criminal charges emerging at all. They settled on setting up a $15 million trust fund for the accuser with an additional $1.5 million to each of his parents and $5 million for the plaintiff’s attorney, according to a copy of the pact obtained by Court TV’s Diane Dimond.

From the purely legal perspective, the strategy worked: The accuser and his parents not only did not testify in this case but refused to do so 10 years later when Jackson faced a harrowing criminal trial on similar charges with another boy, a cancer victim. But, from a public-relations viewpoint, it was a catastrophe. Or, rather, part of a PR mega-catastrophe. In a piece written for The Huffington Post after the singer’s death, entertainment publicist Kimberly Krautter noted that, whenever colleagues gathered together and challenged each other on how they would handle various PR disasters, “By far the most interesting and stimulating conversations have always been around Michael Jackson.”

The catalogue of “high ick-factor cringe moments of the past 25 years” that Ms. Krautter enumerated is as notable for its length as for what it leaves out: “The mysteriously blanching visage. The nose. Bubbles the Chimp. The hyperbaric chamber. The onstage (and obviously staged) full French kiss with Lisa Marie Presley. The burka-draped Prince and Paris. The dangling of baby Blanket from the balcony. And the ultimate train wreck that was the Martin Bashir interview.”

Only the last item—in which the singer spoke of sharing his bed with young visitors while denying any sexual component to it (“We go to sleep with the fireplace on; I give them hot milk, you know, we have cookies, it's very charming, it's very sweet, it's what the whole world should do")—hints at the enormous legal peril he faced—and, at minimum, his lack of recognition of the boundaries that adults must, by necessity, maintain with children.

At this juncture, it is difficult, if not impossible, to say what transpired between Jackson and these two cases in which formal charges were dropped—or, indeed, of other allegations that have emerged since his death of up to 24 boys molested. (One major objection might be made to this latter claim: If there were so many victims, why was only $35 million needed to silence all of them?) On the one hand, the singer, like so many in the entertainment field, made an inviting target for either crazies, those hoping for a huge financial score, or both—and the white-hot nature of celebrity makes it practically a law that a sensation-seeking news media that loves to take down celebrities they recently elevate also makes it difficult for those figures to find impartial judges of their case.

At the same time, the money and power gained by celebrities enable them to buy off—or strike back against—those who attempt to accuse them of crimes. In the old days, stars could rely on famous fixers such as Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling of MGM to cover up crisis pregnancies, vehicular homicides, even manslaughter. In the day of the entertainer as free agent, that responsibility has devolved upon, for instance, private detectives such as self-described “Sin Eater” Anthony Pellicano, hired by the likes of Kevin Costner, Farrar Fawcett, Stevie Wonder, Rosanne and James Woods (and Bill Clinton) to make problems go away. 

Pellicano’s career came to a crashing end following his 2008 conviction on 78 counts of wiretapping,  racketeering and wire fraud. As it happened, he worked for a while on the Jackson case, meeting privately for an hour with the accuser—and, some have claimed, frightening staffers at Jackson’s household about going to the police.  

Nearly 20 years later, his jailhouse statement about the entertainer was cryptic but intriguing. He had only worked briefly for Jackson, he said, because he had “found out some truths. He (Jackson) did something far worse to young boys than molest them.”

A February 1994 PBS Frontline documentary about the Jackson media feeding frenzy was entitled, aptly enough, “Tabloid Truth.” Twenty years removed from the initial event, that case, like all the other allegations against the late entertainer, continues to reside in that shadowy realm. Yet the messy circumstances surrounding exposure of the allegations do not argue totally against the claims’ dismissal. If the sex-abuse cases that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church teach anything, it is that the word of revered persons or institutions cannot be accepted strictly on faith—even if the individual happens to be, as Hampton Stevens wrote in an arresting (if somewhat hyperbolic) Atlantic article, the “first great televisual entertainer.”

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