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The Jury Speaks: A Mockumentary of The Michael Jackson Trial, Or A Fair Perspective?

The Double Jeopardy Law Apparently Doesn’t Exist When It Can Be Masked As “Entertainment”

There has certainly been no shortage of Michael Jackson news the last few weeks! While I plan on delving into all of these recent developments in due course, I feel it is urgent that I begin with the most timely, since the Oxygen channel’s four part series on high profile celebrity criminal cases, The Jury Speaks, is set to kick off with its opening episode on the O.J. Simpson murder trail on Saturday, July 22, with the Michael Jackson episode following on Sunday, July 23.

Generally, it can be expected that any show purporting to dredge up the 2005 trial can’t be good news-unless, of course, its primary goal is to finally shed some much needed light on the under reported defense side of the case. Since many fans were led to believe that this was indeed going to be the case-or that at the very least, this would be a fair and balanced documentary on the trial, the sword of betrayal that many fans felt, including myself, after viewing the series trailer felt especially eviscerating.  Granted, the episode has yet to air and it may not prove to be as bad as the trailer suggests (as usual, the trailer for the series has been designed as salacious click bait, highlighting only the most controversial sound bites of the series) but given the show’s overall premise, coupled with the fact that it appears that the “star” juror from the case to be interviewed will be Raymond Hultman, one of two rogue jurors who later publicly recanted the “Not Guilty” verdicts when bribed with a book and movie deal (neither of which ever materialized), fans have every right to feel outraged-and also every right to feel justifiably concerned with the manner in which Oxygen plans to “re-try” these cases, as this essentially does seem to be the show’s major premise.

So let’s address that premise.  The series will cover four cases in which the nation was shocked by “Not Guilty” verdicts-O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, George Zimmerman, and Robert Durst. In each episode, the jurors will discuss details of the cases, as well as why they voted as they did. Since this is essentially just another form of reality TV (i.e, this is for “entertainment” rather than education) we can expect lots of drama and conflict to ensue between the respective jurors as they hash out old (and no doubt personal) battles that are probably best left behind closed doors. At some point (not sure if this will be a feature of each episode or a one-time event to occur at the end of the series) each of the jurors will be asked to vote once again whether they believe the subject to be “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” The idea is something like this: If you had it to do over, would you vote the same way? Yes or no?” This is why I say the show is basically all about putting these subjects on trial all over again.  Even though it may well be “for entertainment purposes only” and obviously has no bearing on the verdicts in the real world, the producers’ modus operandi is blatantly obvious-to find out if, given a second chance, along with weighing both old and new “evidence,” (note quotation marks!) these jurors would vote to convict. Obviously, they are betting that many of them will (after all,  it wouldn’t make for very compelling drama if they simply said, yep, we got it right the first time).

I can’t speak for the other three trials because I didn’t follow those cases as closely, but for the Michael Jackson case, such a premise could be especially damaging. It’s not that I have any fear of the case being revisited. The facts of the case-a case so blatantly absurd that Mesereau spoke the truth when he said it should never have gone to trial-can certainly still hold up to scrutiny. But that is provided that the facts are presented accurately, that no exculpatory evidence is purposely or accidentally omitted, and that the coverage is not skewered or slanted with an obvious bias in favor of the prosecution’s case. Obviously readers know where I’m going with this. If the trailer and PR articles are any indication, there’s no reason to believe that balance or fairness-or, for that matter, accuracy-is going to play any part in this production. Basically, it would seem that we can expect to see the 2005 media version of the trial-you know, the version that led the ignorant masses in 2005 to assume his guilt because they weren’t inside the courtroom. What’s more, it looks like they plan to bring in the more recent Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck  allegations as added fuel to the fire:

But now, after the emergence of new accusers and hard truths about Jackson’s troubled childhood and tragic death, do they stand by their decision today?-excerpted from Oxygen.com.   

Well, with Ray Hultman at the helm cheering them on, we need not guess how that is going to fly!

So as you may guess, my concern for this program is the same concern that many fans are sharing right now. It’s not that there is anything to fear from the case being revisited or discussed if done in a factual and educational manner.  The 2010 Frozen in Time seminar, for instance, was an excellent example of how the Michael Jackson trial could be deconstructed in a factual and balanced manner for educational purpose.

Thomas Mesereau Speaking At The Frozen In Time Seminar In 2010

But I do very much have concerns about the likely possibility that this program is simply going to sensationalize and distort facts to a public that is already woefully under informed, both about this trial and the reasons for its resultant 14 “Not Guilty” verdicts. I am rightfully concerned that their plan is to simply sensationalize the details of the trial for ratings, and that the exculpatory evidence that rightfully exonerated Michael will be either downplayed or, worse, ignored altogether. Michael Jackson fans are no strangers to how the media works, and we know all too well how the media will manipulate, edit and distort to paint the picture they want. Let’s be honest: The premise of this show isn’t simply to reexamine or reevaluate these trials to understand how the jurors got it right, or even “if” they got it right. Rather, it seems purely for the purpose of reopening and exploiting old wounds while egging on the substrative premise that, indeed, the jurors did get it wrong. In every case, they have chosen subjects who were voted guilty in the court of public opinion, and the entire series seems nothing more than a cheesy attempt at further exploiting those perceptions.

The premise is doubly disturbing because the Michael Jackson case, unlike the others, was not a clear case of celebrity acquittal or failure to convict due to some legal loophole or technicality. This was not a case like the Simpson case where one could point to a clear cut motive, or the Zimmerman case in which national outrage had been sparked over the killing of an unarmed teenager (and for whom it was never up for debate that Zimmerman had killed; only his motivation for doing so), or Robert Durst who supposedly even confessed to killing his wife. Although I understand the national cynicism and skepticism that has surrounded many of these high profile acquittals, the simple fact remains that Michael Jackson’s case stands unique in the amount of exculpatory evidence that exonerated him.  The many reasons why The People vs. Michael Jackson cannot be put into the same classification as The People vs. O.J. Simpson (or any other  high profile celebrity crime cases)  is a topic that I touched on in far greater depth in my last Huffington Post piece so I will provide the link to that article in the interest of avoiding the need to repeat myself here. However, the topic of trial-by-media is certainly one that remains relevant. In the wake of even more recent celebrity scandals and controversial verdicts (the mistrial of Bill Cosby and the alleged sex ring scandal of R. Kelley coming to mind) we have seen time and again how the ill informed love to lump Michael Jackson’s name among them, as if they all merely constitute the same category. And always, inevitably, they do so with no preponderance of the actual circumstances and/or differences of the cases. In this era of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”-a slogan fueled by the tabloid, medialoid, and yellow journalism ethics under which we now operate-we are driven by an ever insatiable thirst for celebrity blood.

They’re Throwin’  Me In A Class With A Bad Name”-Michael Jackson

The choice of Ray Hultman as the representative juror of the Michael Jackson case should certainly raise some alarms. Although it appears that other members of the jury will be included, it is Hultman’s remarks that were purposely chosen to provide the sound bites on the Jackson segment in the series trailer. Given that there were twelve men and women on the jury, this obviously comes down to which jury members were willing to go on camera-again-after twelve years, to discuss the case.

Eleanor Cook Was Among Six Jurors Interviewed For “Good Morning America”. This Was Her Speaking Before Acquiring Her Promised Book and Movie Deal.

Most of the jurors who served on the Michael Jackson case were humble, ordinary citizens who, after the grueling five month ordeal, simply wanted to return to their lives. That is, all but two who evidently loved the spotlight just a little too much to give it up.

Eleanor Cook and Ray Hultman, The “Rogue” Jurors Of The Michael Jackson Trial, During Their MSNBC TV Appearance In 2005

Within two months of the verdict, Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook had both sought book deals, and the only way they could secure those deals was by delivering controversy.  They could only “sell” their stories and continue to milk the celebrity status that the trial had given them by changing their story of Jackson’s case from one of “Not Guilty” to “Guilty.” In August of 2005, both Cook and Hultman gave an exclusive interview to Rita Cosby of MSNBC. This was an AP article of the time that discussed their appearance (added emphasis in red is mine):

2 jurors say they regret Jackson’s acquittal

Jackson’s defense attorney ridiculed the two, who spoke exclusively with MSNBC’s Rita Cosby, saying it was “time to move on” from the case.

“The bottom line is it makes no difference what they’re saying,” Tom Mesereau told The Associated Press, pointing out the jurors announced their turnaround Monday as they began publicizing book deals.

“Twelve people deliberated and out of that process justice is supposed to result. Now, two months later, these jurors are changing their tunes. They clearly like being on TV,” Mesereau said. “I’m very suspicious.”

Eleanor Cook and Ray Hultman revealed in a televised interview that they believed the singer’s young accuser was sexually assaulted.

“No doubt in my mind whatsoever, that boy was molested, and I also think he enjoyed to some degree being Michael Jackson’s toy,” Cook said on MSNBC’s “Rita Cosby: Live and Direct.”

Their comments will have no bearing on the verdict, which prosecutors cannot appeal.

Threat from jury foreman?Cook and Hultman said they agreed to go along with the other jurors when it became apparent that they would never convict the pop star. The two denied being motivated by money and tried to explain why they were coming forward now.

“There were a lot of people that were interested in this case from day one. People expect to know what’s going on with their justice system and how things work,” Hultman said.

Added Cook: “I’m speaking out now because I believe it’s never too late to tell the truth.”

Cook and Hultman also alleged that jury foreman Paul Rodriguez threatened to have them kicked off the jury.

“He said if I could not change my mind or go with the group, or be more understanding, that he would have to notify the bailiff, the bailiff would notify the judge, and the judge would have me removed,” Cook said in a transcript provided by MSNBC.

Hultman said he also felt threatened and didn’t want to get kicked off the trial.

A call to Rodriguez was not returned. A jury foreman cannot remove other jurors just for disagreeing.

Cosby asked Cook if the other jurors will be angry with her.

“They can be as angry as they want to. They ought to be ashamed. They’re the ones that let a pedophile go,” responded Cook, 79.

Upset at other jurors
Hultman, 62, told Cosby he was upset with the way other jurors approached the case: “The thing that really got me the most was the fact that people just wouldn’t take those blinders off long enough to really look at all the evidence that was there.”

The New York Daily News first reported Aug. 4 that Hultman and Cook planned books and believed Jackson was guilty.

Hultman has said that when jurors took an anonymous poll early in their deliberations he was one of three jurors who voted for conviction.

On June 13, the jurors unanimously acquitted Jackson of all charges, which alleged that he molested a 13-year-old boy, plied the boy with wine and conspired to hold him and his family captive so they would make a video rebutting a damaging television documentary.

Cook told Cosby: “The air reeked of hatred and people were angry and I had never been in an atmosphere like that before.”

In June, Hultman told the AP about the verdict: “That’s not to say he’s an innocent man. He’s just not guilty of the crimes he’s been charged with.”

During an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with five other jurors in June, Cook was one of three who raised their hands when asked if they thought Jackson may have molested other children but not the 13-year-old boy.

“We had our suspicions, but we couldn’t judge on that because it wasn’t what we were there to do,” she said at the time.

Hultman’s book will be called “The Deliberator” and Cook’s is “Guilty as Sin, Free as a Bird,” said Larry Garrison, a producer who is working with both on their separate books and a combined television movie. Part of the profits from their book sales will go to charity, he said.

Note that I highlighted Eleanor Cook’s comments above, not because I agree with them, but because I think the entire comment (aside from being very, very weird) sheds some interesting light on how she felt about pretty much everyone involved in this case. Throughout the proceedings, her demeanor was pretty much that of a grumpy old grandma who didn’t particularly like anyone involved in this case-prosecution or defense, it didn’t seem to matter. In this case, her obvious detest for Michael Jackson and his lifestyle, perhaps, was only outweighed by her absolute detest for the Arvizos, which she never made any secret. In one television interview, she spoke openly about her disdain for Janet Arvizo and her habit of snapping her fingers at the jury. Her comment to Rita Cosby is interestingly telling, in that she obviously didn’t feel much sympathy for Gavin even as an alleged “victim.’

Another interesting tidbit: While it is Hultman who loves to toss around the phrase “the blinders came on” (he used it here and is quoted using it again in the Oxygen promo) the second quote I have highlighted reveals that he formed his own bias very early in the deliberations (no doubt during the prosecution testimony) and then evidently must have put on his own blinders, refusing to listen as each prosecution witness in turn crumbed under cross examination.

The next highlighted quote reveals something of Hultman’s own savior/victim complex. He loved the idea of selling himself to the public as the “lone juror” who held out for truth and justice, but the reality is that he seemed to love the attention much more. He never specifies what “people” were angry with him, or why. In the Oxygen promo, he mentions receiving threats and the obvious inference is that the hate mail must have come from Michael Jackson fans. However,  the passion of MJ fans is a glaring red herring that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual case.

Lastly, we see that Hultman and Cook were hand in hand, obviously working with the same producer on a deal that was supposed to yield them two separate books AND a combined television movie! All in all, it was a deal that would have netted them quite a handsome profit. It gets better, though, because apparently longtime Michael Jackson hater Stacy Brown (singlehandedly responsible for planting many of the vilest stories on Michael in the media for the past decade) was on board to serve as the book’s ghost writer. The deal apparently fell through, however, when leaked passages revealed that Brown had plagiarized the “work” of yet another notorious MJ hater-Maureen Orth, apparently having lifted large chunks from her Vanity Fair article.  Hilariously, even the slimy Stacy Brown ended up tossing Hultman under the bus before the whole ordeal had ended! In a 2005 Santa Maria Times article,  Stacy Brown publicly denied any association with Hultman’s book and was quoted as saying:

“I think this is another attempt for Ray to keep himself in the media,” Brown said. “No one is interested in his book. He was badly misguided. He/d be better off riding into the sunset and getting on with his life.”

That these two would have even considered relying on Maureen Orth’s nonsense (remember, she was the one claiming that Michael had engaged in secret voodoo rituals to hex Steven Spielberg!) speaks volumes about the contents of this thankfully never birthed monstrocity. So apparently, instead of relying on the evidence and testimony of the trial, it seems the plan was to fill the book with tabloid nonsense. This was exactly the same tactics that Wade Robson’s attorneys are using now. In the case of Hultman and Brown, it seems they weren’t sorry for anything other than the fact that they got caught in the act of fabricating “evidence” from a source even more ridiculous than anything they could cook up on their own. And now,  Hultman’s decision to participate in The Jury Speaks makes it quite clear that after twelve years, he still hasn’t been willing to take Stacy Brown’s advice and just ride off into the sunset (one only wishes that Stacy Brown would likewise apply his own advice to himself!).

In September of 2005, legal analyst Jonna Spilbor blasted Eleanor Cook and Raymond Hultman in a scathing article that called to task jurors who are seduced by the almighty dollar, or as she put it, jurors who attempt to “profit from their duty.” As Spilbor pointed out in 2005, what Hultman and Cook did was more than reprehensible-it was also illegal!

When The Jury Has Spoken, But Won’t Shut Up:
How the Jackson Jurors’ Book Deals Broke the Law, and How We Can Avoid Having Jurors Undermine Their Own Verdicts

By JONNA M. SPILBOR

Thursday, Sep. 01, 2005

By now, there probably isn’t a single Earth-dweller who doesn’t know Jackson was acquitted following the fifteen-week trial. The jury of four men and eight women rendered a collective “not guilty” verdict to each and every charge. And their verdicts rang out loud and clear across a courtroom which, at times, seemed more like a battlefield.

Several weeks have since passed, most of them quietly – appropriately so – as Jackson’s across-the-board acquittal literally means this case is closed. The jury has spoken, and frankly, there is nothing left to say.

Why then, won’t Jackson’s jury shut up?

Less than two months after clearing Michael Jackson of all charges, jurors Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook have come forward publicly to announce they made a mistake. In their words, they feel Jackson’s jury “let a pedophile go.”

Cook has reported being “bullied” into her not-guilty verdicts – all fourteen of them.

Hultman claims his conscience has gotten the better of him. At least, so says his publisher.

Whether these claims are publicity stunts, or genuine revelations, the world will never know, because, as has been the case since time in memoriam, jury deliberations are done in secret. Privately. Behind closed doors, only to be interrupted by a welcomed pizza person or bailiff.

These surprising revelations are of no legal significance whatsoever to Michael Jackson – double jeopardy prevents Jackson from being retried, no matter what any or all of the jurors say post-verdict. Yet they are significant for us all – for they are destructive to the integrity of our criminal justice system. There is something very powerfully unsettling about a jury, or rogue members thereof, undermining its own verdict.

In this column, using the Jackson case as a prime example, I will discuss how, when it comes to criminal trials – particularly in high-profile cases – a few minor modifications to the law could save future defendants from similar fates.

The stakes are high – when jurors whose verdict was “Not Guilty” start to reverse themselves in public statements, their comments degrade the sanctity of the criminal justice system, and violate the paramount right of any defendant — the right to a fair trial. They also threaten the spirit of the double-jeopardy clause; despite his acquittals, Jackson may not be at risk in the courtroom anymore, but his guilt is being debated, once again, in the court of public opinion.

Why Jury Duty and Dollar Signs Don’t Mix

To see why situations like that of the Jackson jury are happening, it’s worth stepping back a bit, and looking at the character of jury duty as a whole.

Jury duty. It’s the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. A girder within the framework of our Constitution. A noble commitment that nary an American citizen shall escape – save for those who have themselves been previously convicted by a unanimous group of twelve unfamiliar peers.

That is, until now.

Today – especially when it comes to celebrity trials, or those that become celebrity trials (think Scott Peterson; he was a fertilizer salesman, remember) – being selected for jury duty is almost like winning the lottery. It leads to lucrative book deals. Movie options. All-expenses- paid interviews in exciting cities. The post-trial money-making opportunities for celebrity-trial jurors abound. And it’s all perfectly legal – indeed, arguably protected by the First Amendment.

But should it be? The First Amendment is involved here, but so is the Sixth – which guarantees a fair trial. Might the future prospect of payment for post-mortem, jury deliberation tell-alls cloud jurors’ judgments and affect their decisions?

In high-profile criminal trials, it’s not difficult to imagine an enterprising potential juror with dollar signs in his eyes, and fingers crossed, dutifully answering all the questions of voir dire as if he were channeling Mother Teresa in an effort to be chosen.

And, it isn’t much of a leap from there to imagine an unscrupulous publisher who, with a wink and nod, secretly convinces a juror that his or her advance may include an extra zero should the verdict be, say, guilty. It’s been said that “sex sells,” but acquittals? Eh, not so much.

Jurors are the ultimate triers of fact. When we offer to pay for an account of a juror’s experience in the jury box, we risk changing what the juror has to sell. Put the prospect of making a million bucks in front of a middle-class juror (which most are) and you may create a monster.

And even if eleven jurors have perfect integrity (let’s not forget the admirable ten Jackson jurors who do NOT have book deals), it won’t matter much if the twelfth does not. That twelfth could either hang the jury, or else hold out so strongly for conviction, that he or she batters the rest into submission.

The Case of the Michael Jackson Jurors: Why Did They Come Forward Now?

Looking at jurors Hultman and Cook, I asked myself this: Why come forward now? For that matter, why come forward at all? If they cannot change their verdict (and they can’t), and therefore cannot change the outcome of the case, why speak out?

The answer, sadly, requires little imagination. Obviously, something happened in between what appeared to be an unwavering “not guilty” verdict following several days of deliberation, and August 8th, when they appeared together – on a primetime cable news show – to announce their about-face.

What was it? Did these two people happen to show up at some “Jurors Anonymous” meeting, only to learn the Step Six is admitting when you’ve rendered the wrong decision? Or, were they approached with the prospect of a book and movie deal which (wink, wink) just might make them a whole lot richer if there were (hint, hint) a controversy of sorts surrounding the verdict?

I can’t truly know these jurors’ motivations, but I can hazard a guess based on the timing of events, and the statements they’ve publicly made. I’m putting my money on the book and movie deal because, simply, the revelations of jurors Hultman and Cook coincide with the announcement of their individual books deals and combined television project.

Each juror will be coming out with his or her own book, and both, not surprisingly, will be published by the same publisher. Hultman’s is to be entitled, “The Deliberator”, while the title of Cook’s tell-all is to be, “Guilty As Sin, Free As A Bird.” I imagine that books entitled “Yup, Like We Said, Still Not Guilty” would be a lot less saleable.

How The Jackson Jurors Broke the Law: They Were Supposed to Wait Ninety Days

In California, Penal Code section 1122 states, in part: “After the jury has been sworn and before the people’s opening address, the court shall instruct the jury…that prior to, and within 90 days of, discharge, they shall not request, accept, agree to accept, or discuss with any person receiving or accepting, any payment or benefit in consideration for supplying any information concerning the trial; and that they shall promptly report to the court any incident within their knowledge involving an attempt by any person to improperly influence any member of the jury.” (Emphasis added.)

This is California’s version, but most states, it turns out, have similar statutes – imposing moratoria, but not forbidding jury book and movie deals.

Looking at the calendar, it has not been 90 days since Jackson’s jury was discharged. Clearly, the pair is in violation of the statute — a statute punishable by contempt of court.

How can this violation be addressed? Jackson – or the prosecution, though I doubt it would be so inclined, since it too believed Jackson guilty – could file a motion for an “Order to Show Cause” why the jurors should not be held in contempt. Or the court could issue such an order on its own initiative (in legal parlance, “sua sponte”).

But this is an unusual case: Most jurors would simply have complied with the law, and waited the ninety days. Most publishers’ attorneys would have been sure to advise them to do so. And that leads to an important question: In a typical case, is a ninety-day moratorium on juror book deals enough?

In my opinion, absolutely not.

An Ounce of Prevention: Why Not Do Away with the 90-Day Clause of Penal Code §1122?

There is an easy fix. It’s time to do away with statutes that allow jurors to profit from their duty. Until then, a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury of his peers continues to be severely compromised. Forget the ninety-day limit. Let’s just say no to juror book and movie deals.

Even in a society as delightfully entrepreneurial as ours, there are a few things in life that simply mustn’t be for sale. For example, judges cannot take gifts, and lawyers cannot represent conflicting parties, no matter how that might negatively affect a lawyer’s income stream. Nor can a lawyer publicize his client’s secrets to the world – then take refuge in a claim that he was only exercising his First Amendment rights.

Similarly, never should the rights of an accused be trumped by the price tag one juror places on his or her sworn duty to be fair and impartial.

An Acquittal Should Guarantee Freedom – Not Being Tried In the Press By the Same Jurors

The conduct of Michael Jackson’s jurors is downright shameful. In this country, an acquittal should guarantee one’s freedom. And I don’t simply mean freedom from future prosecution, I mean freedom from public ridicule, freedom from suspicion, freedom from having to be berated publicly by the same individuals who set you free.

Comedian Norm Crosby once said, “When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”

Today, with potential book-and-movie-deal paychecks that dwarf the $12 dollars-a-day and free lunch of bygone juries, I gotta ask, who’s dumb now?

With The Jury Speaks  kicking off this weekend, this paragraph from Spilbor’s article bears repeating for emphasis:

The conduct of Michael Jackson’s jurors is downright shameful. In this country, an acquittal should guarantee one’s freedom. And I don’t simply mean freedom from future prosecution, I mean freedom from public ridicule, freedom from suspicion, freedom from having to be berated publicly by the same individuals who set you free.

If fans and persons who are knowledgable about the Jackson/Arvizo case needed further confirmation of this series’ intended direction, that confirmation appeared with an article on the Oxygen.com website titled “10 Of The Most Shocking Facts From the Michael Jackson Case.” The article, credited to Kat George, actually consists of few “facts” at all and is, instead, riddled with egregious mistakes and inaccuracies about the investigation and trial. Although it appears now that at least “some” edits and corrections have been made (perhaps following the deluge of angry tweets they received from Jackson fans rightfully correcting these errors!) the piece is still a hot mess of sloppily researched and inaccurate information. Among the most glaring, it credits the rebuttal video Michael Jackson, Take Two: The Footage You Were Never Meant To See to Martin Bashir (this was footage shot by Michael’s own team; Bashir had zilch to do with it) and erroneously claims that there were criminal charges filed against Jackson that were later dropped. Where this information comes from I have no idea! It appears that Kat George is simply confusing the initial investigation with the actual charges (an initial investigation was launched by The Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD in February of 2003 following the airing of Living with Michael Jackson. After extensive questioning of the Arvizos, both the Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD determined there was no case, and officially closed the investigation. However, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department then launched their own investigation in April of 2003.  District Attorney Tom Sneddon had  changed the alleged dates of the molestation from “Feb 7th-Mar 10th” to “Feb 20th-Mar 12th” in order to help explain away a rebuttal tape the Arvizos had made in which they sang Michael’s praises as a father figure to them). The dropping of the first investigation launched by the Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD is most likely what Kat George was referring to, but there is a huge difference between an investigation and actually charging someone!

Initially, the article had repeated the thoroughly debunked media hoax regarding child porn found at Neverland. At least that error appears to have been corrected, but it is still linking to a tabloid article from The Sun that mentions “life sized creepy dolls” being found (which were actually mannequins, and simply one more item in a room filled with hoarded clutter). And really, do we need “Pajama Day” listed as one of the “10 Most Shocking Facts” about this trial? Here Kat George is simply doing the same thing the media did back in 2005, using the spectacle of “Pajama Day” to divert from any real facts about the trial. (To further add to the confusion, the website is using a photo from Michael’s 2002 civil trial against Marcel Avram, making it appear to an unsuspecting public as if Jackson took the witness stand in his own behalf at the 2005 molestation trial. It is the well known photo of Michael taking from a jar of candy while on the witness stand. In the context of a civil trial-which this was-it’s an adorable photo, but if readers are led to mistakenly believe that it is from the molestation trial, it certainly creates the wrong impression, making it appear as if he is treating a gravely serious accusation in a frivolous manner. One almost has to wonder if this was the intent by using that photo, which has nothing to do with the Arvizo trial).   If we want to talk about “shocking facts” from the trial that the public may not know, how about starting with a DA who intentionally changed the timeline of the alleged abuse in order to make his case fly? How about this same DA having a pornographic magazine tested for Gavin’s fingerprints after having knowingly had Gavin touch the magazine?  How about how witness after witness crumbed under cross examination? Or the illegal raid of Mark Gerago’s office, which violated client/attorney privilege? Or the fact that Janet Arvizo had already coached her kids to lie when she scammed JC Penney? Any or all of these (and so many more!) make for far more “shocking facts” of this case than anything mentioned in the Oxygen article, which simply sources tabloid articles.

One can only assume that if the content of that article in any way reflects the overall content of the episode, this can’t bode well-either in the name of factual accuracy or fairness to a now deceased defendant, one whose full acquittal in 2005 should have ended the matter once and for all.  Just as with the Reelz channel’s recent series Rich and Acquitted, these shows seem designed with little more than one purpose in mind-to blatantly defy the laws of double jeopardy and to make a mockery of the justice system, all in the name of sensationalistic entertainment.

Important Update: Just as I was preparing to publish this post, I was informed (thanks to my good friend sanemjfan) of a Q&A session conducted on Reddit by the show’s executive producer, Nancy Glass. I have to say, I was both pleasantly surprised and genuinely encouraged by what she had to say in answer to some fans’ questions and concerns. In the name of fairness-and especially given that I blasted the show pretty good here-I would like to include those responses for you guys.

]dangerouslyblue 2 points 

Hi Nancy,

Will the episode on Michael Jackson be biased and show him in a negative light, or will it discuss the actual facts of the trial without sensationalism? When Michael was on trial in 2005, the media reported a lot of false information that was misleading to the public about what was really happening in the courtroom. Will MJ’s episode shed light on this and show the case for what it really was (extortion)?

Thank you.

 [–]JurySpeaks_Nancy[S] 2 points 

Excellent point. You are right, the public got a completely different view of Jackson than the one presented in court. It was clear to the jurors that the witnesses were not credible. And, the prosecution had no evidence. Some people won’t like the information presented in this episode but, it is a real look at what happened not, what some people wish had happened.

[–]dangerouslyblue 1 point 

Thank you for responding. I truly hope this is an honest portrayal of Michael Jackson and his trial. There is enough “fiction” out there about him, and it’s about time the truth comes to the surface. I will be tuning in!

]bestzeller78 1 point 

Hi Nancy! Big fan. What do you think are the most important characteristics the defense lawyers looked for in jury selection in the Michael Jackson case?

[–]JurySpeaks_Nancy[S] 1 point 

That is a very interesting question. One juror told us she was chosen because she was a mother of three. Believe it or not, that was what Jackson’s lawyer wanted. One said she was chosen because she disclosed that a family member had been molested. Another was chosen because he had no idea who Michael Jackson was.

isthatyouralibi 1 point 

What is this “new perspective” you speak of? On behalf of all Michael Jackson fans, we hope it is code for the truth- that Michael is and always was innocent. Michael was crucified while he was alive, and continues to get crucified in his death by the media spreading lies in an effort to tarnish the legend/beautiful man he was and is inside and out. Hopefully this is all a misunderstanding, and Michael will be shown in a positive light while at the same time providing actual facts and the truth rather than evil myths.

“It is completely irresponsible to pass comment on a criminal investigation that you know nothing about and even more irresponsible to make a criminal accusation and then support it with non-existent evidence.”.

“Even if the media refuses to print the truth about Jackson, they should compromise by not printing the lies either. At least that way he can rest in peace.”.

[–]JurySpeaks_Nancy[S] 1 point 

The new perspective is the fact that the family who helped the DA bring charges were a bunch of grifters who went to several celebrities trying to get money and favors. On the stand they had no credibility. I am saying this as a person who went into this show thinking MJ might have been guilty but, after hearing the jury and looking at the evidence, I have a different opinion.

[–]Sochimynativeplace 1 point 

Thank u for standing up for MJ

Given Glass’s responses, I feel somewhat better and more hopeful that this show may not be the total trainwreck I was anticipating. I’m still not thrilled about Ray Hultman being the apparent major spokesperson for the Jackson jury, but perhaps the opinions of the other four jurors will help balance things out. I am hoping this may turn out to be a valuable lesson that we can’t always judge an entire program based off of a horribly edited trailer, but as the old saying goes, the proof will be “in the pudding” this Sunday night. I will update this post with a full review once the episode has aired. 

UPDATE: The show will also be featuring juror Paulina Coccoz. I hope she will be allowed ample time in the episode to be able to speak on the case as passionately as he has in this recently published Fox article:

Juror Paulina Coccoz is shocked many people still believe Michael Jackson was guilty on all charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy he befriended as the child recovered from cancer in 2003.

The then-46-year-old King of Pop walked free in June 2005 after a nearly four-month trial. While the jurors said at the time they wanted to “return to our lives as anonymously as we came,” some, including Coccoz, have spoken about their experience for Oxygen’s four-night special, “The Jury Speaks,” in hopes it will set the record straight.

“It’s really important for me to share my story because when I talk, even in my daily life to people that I don’t know or even with people I know, everybody still thinks he was guilty,” Coccoz, known as juror #10, told Fox News. “And I find it hard to believe that it’s still going on. That’s not what happened… he was accused of some horrible, horrible things and it’s a sad thing that we lost such a wonderful human being on this planet.

“We need to all look at things for what they were instead of saying, ‘Oh yeah, he was a freak. He was guilty because he was a freak.’ Everybody’s different and God forbid we should all be judged in a courtroom because we’re a freak and we’re guilty.”

Coccoz didn’t always feel that way about the pop star. When the mother of three boys first heard the accusations, she was ready to find him guilty if they proved to be true.

“For me, it was a real sensitive spot,” she admitted. “I took it kind of personal in a way that you would never want something like that to happen to your children. So I really didn’t think or care that he was Michael Jackson. If he was doing these things that he was being accused of, I didn’t feel that I had any problem finding him guilty if that was the case.”

The case first arose after a February 2003 broadcast of the British documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” in which the entertainer said sharing his bed with children in the Neverland Ranch was a non-sexual act of affection. He was shown holding hands with Gavin Arvizo, a cancer patient Jackson wanted to help, which immediately sparked outrage.

While the family originally insisted no inappropriate contact occurred between the two, Jackson was charged later that same year. Prosecutors claimed at the time the singer gave Arvizo alcohol in order to abuse him.

“I do remember looking at his face and his body language when Gavin Arvizo took the stand,” recalled Coccoz. “It was very obvious he was deeply hurt. You could see that his head was down and there was no eye contact whatsoever. He was taking in all of the testimony and his body language really showed his sadness.”

The jury found the testimony of Arvizo’s family to be not credible. Some jurors even noted Arvizo’s mother would stare down at them and even snapped her fingers at the bewildered group.

“There were a lot of moments where you felt… ulterior motives was money,” she explained. “And it appeared that they were imposing themselves on everyone that they could and they used different opportunities and a ‘feel sorry for me’ scenario. There were a lot of moments, really.

“There were several people, several stars that indicated they really needed something from them. It was very strange that they talked to an attorney and said he was molested. And ironically, it was the same attorney that had something to do with the Jordan Chandler case. So, I don’t know, that raised some eyebrows. It just seemed really, really far-fetched. And unfortunately, the family’s credibility was just horrible.”

In 1993, Chandler’s father accused Jackson of sexually abusing his 13-year-old son. While Jackson always denied any wrongdoing, they reportedly settled the case out of court for $20 million and both parties signed a confidentiality agreement.

The mother also noticed something she thought was peculiar about Arvizo.

“Because I have boys, I guess that’s my experience I’m using to refer to,” she said. “Boys are pretty obvious in their mannerisms. [And] he didn’t seem upset…when you put kids in a situation where they’re suddenly surrounded by adults, you see a different person…when it comes to talking about being molested, I would imagine that’s a very difficult, difficult thing to talk about, especially in front of a lot of people in a courtroom setting. So I can see how it’s something that would be upsetting. [For him], it’s something where it would come across as ‘no big deal, just another day in the courtroom.’

“But also, the emotions that go with a moment that causes trauma or impact on you, especially if you cared about someone or were so enamored with someone who totally let you down. I would think that would be a little more intense…not even a tear or a moment of choking up arose. And that was kind of strange, too.”

The jury delivered the verdict in California Superior Court on their seventh day of deliberations. Coccoz revealed she will never forget Jackson’s reaction.

“I remember looking and I could see that there was a tear running down his face…we were all very emotional. It was a very emotional moment,” she revealed.

And while the courtroom drama came to an end, Coccoz believed the trial haunted Jackson since then. The singer passed away at age 50 in 2009 from cardiac arrest.

“[It] painted a picture of him being this monster when he spent all his life trying to do good things for children, that had to have just crushed him,” she said. “I know it would have crushed me. To rob him of the joy of what he worked so hard (for) in his life was just so, so wrong. I can only imagine for him, that was probably the reason why he had a hard time with finding that spark again. I imagine that spark was just taken away.”

Coccoz added that if the trial were today, she would still stand by her not guilty verdict based on the evidence presented to the jury.

“It was pretty obvious that there was no molestation done,” she said. “It was pretty obvious that there were ulterior motives on behalf of the family. And the mother, she orchestrated the whole thing…that’s my opinion. But there wasn’t a shred of evidence that was able to show us or give us any doubt in voting guilty. It was pretty obvious there was no other way to vote other than not guilty.”

“The Jury Speaks: Michael Jackson” airs Sunday, July 23 at 9 p.m.

Also, at least one of the featured jurors will be conducting a Q&A on Reddit after the broadcast. 

Neverland’s Sacred Spot: Recent Tour Provides An Interesting Glimpse Into How Neverland Is Being Marketed

Recently, a new video surfaced on Youtube that features a rare, inside look at what a person visiting Neverland Ranch (i.e, prospective buyers) might expect to see in 2017. The video was filmed by Coldwell Banker realtor Brad Pearson. As fans are all too aware, we got the devastating news in 2014 that Colony Capital had decided to put Neverland Ranch (re-renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch) on the market.  Compounded with the sale of the Sony/ATV catalog, the action stands as a sad reminder that much of the empire that Michael built has been slowly siphoned off. But despite the fact that Neverland has sat dormant for over a decade, ever since Michael himself abandoned the property in 2005, it is encouraging to see that the magical imprint he left there is still very much intact.

While there have been many fan videos posted from the gates of Neverland, we have had precious few glimpses-that is, recent glimpses-of what has transpired with the property since going on the market in 2014. These days, only prospective buyers and realtors are offered access to the house and grounds. It is not open for public or private tours. But for prospective buyers who just happen to be fans, it is an added bonus. At any rate, the video does offer an interesting glimpse into the manner in which Neverland is being marketed to potential buyers, and it is an encouraging sign.

The worst fear of most fans is the idea of some millionaire buyer scrubbing the property of all reminders of Michael Jackson’s residency, and turning Michael’s magical creation into just another sterile, faceless California ranch. Indeed, that could well still happen (I had shudders reading here about the proposal of Golf Digest to turn it into a golf course). But it does seem obvious that Coldwell Banker, the company currently listing the Neverland property, has made no concentrated effort to scrub the property clean of Michael Jackson’s memory, and in fact, seems to be using it as a selling point.

Neverland currently is being touted to prospective buyers pretty much exactly as Michael left it. From the first few seconds of the video to the final frame, every square inch of the property is instantly familiar, evoking the same magical feeling as it always has. True, as the articles are always quick to point out, the rides and animals are long gone, but there was always so much more to Neverland than just its mini amusement park and zoo. The main house has not been refurbished or remodeled in any way. Although the echoes of the hardwood floors are a stark reminder of the home’s emptiness, its exterior and interior are still instantly recognizable from countless photographs and TV interviews. It still reflects the tastes of the man who called it home for nearly seventeen years.

A tour of the property reveals that not much has changed since 2008. The petting zoo looks to be in very good repair, as is the train station and other amenities added by Michael during his time spent at the ranch. Visitors can still experience the tranquility of The Giving Tree; they can still observe the same diving board where Macaulay Culkin  pushed Michael into the pool in “Private Home Movies.”

But easily the most emotional-and perhaps biggest selling point of the home-is a small, square spot in the center of the studio dance floor, eternally lit by a single spotlight. It marks the scuff spots left by endless hours of diligent practice. On the wall, a video of Michael practicing to “Stranger in Moscow” in that very spot is kept on a loop. This is a spot that all potential buyers are brought to, as a reminder of what they would be purchasing; a reminder that the house does carry with it a legacy, and that the inheritance of that legacy will come along with its purchase. Of course, once the property is sold, all remnants of that legacy may remain or may be eradicated completely, depending on the whims of the new owners, but at the very least, I think it is an encouraging sign that Michael’s ownership and presence is being built up as a selling point for the property, rather than downplayed or dismissed. I think it increases the likelihood that the property could end up being purchased by a fan who respects the property as Michael Jackson’s former home. I can’t expect that a new owner would not wish to put their own stamp on the place, but I would be happy so long as I knew that Michael’s original vision for the property was still respected and maintained in some way, however great or small. That would indeed be the “best case” scenario (rumors of Prince, Paris and Blanket perhaps purchasing the property notwithstanding).

Of course, it stands to reason that it could well be more than just sentimentality that is prompting Coldwell Banker to retain as much of Michael Jackson’s presence as possible. There is also a very practical reason, as well. The additional amenities that Michael added to the property-including the  50 seat movie theater, dance studio, train station, stables, and guest cottages-have added substantially to the property’s total value.  This is confirmed by the description given on Joyce Rey’s website, the Coldwell Banker realtor who is currently handling the property. The following paragraphs all allude directly to amenities only added to the property after Michael Jackson became owner:

Adjacent to the main home is a separate staff annex above the five-bay garage, with a ground-level estate manager’s office, which has a gas fireplace and bathroom. The property also includes separate staff facilities, a movie theater and dance studio, barns, and corrals.

The primary guest house, about 150 feet from the main house, consists of four units, each with a separate entrance, HVAC, and full bath. The hill house, with sweeping views, was used by William Bone during the construction and could now be used as guest or staff quarters.

In a separate building of approximately 5,500 square feet, there is a movie theater and dance studio. The spacious, 50-seat inclined cinema has theatre-grade projection and sound system, private viewing balcony, and a stage with trap doors.

A Disney-style train station has a kitchenette, loft, and two fireplaces. There is also an approximately 1,900 square foot private fire station and administration building with three restrooms and a shower.-Joyce Rey

Click here for full article.

I also find it interesting that the tag “formerly known as Neverland Ranch” is being used prominently in the property’s promotion. What this says is that they are still very much aware that the property’s former history remains its greatest selling asset.

As encouraging as these signs are, however, it still remains the greatest hope of most fans that the property could be converted into a Michael Jackson museum. I highly encourage everyone to read this excellent new piece from Annemarie Latour, “7 Reasons Why Michael Jackson’s Neverland Should Be A Museum.”   This is not just another fan fantasy piece or sentimental fluff; it is a very enlightening piece that delves into the very realistic pros and cons of such a venture. But it is also a very poignant reminder of why such a place is so sorely needed. The absence of any true mecca is a void that Michael Jackson fans have felt keenly for the past eight years. True, we still have Hayvenhurst and we still have Michael’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, and both have their respective place in Michael’s history. But neither of these homes were ever exclusively his (rather, they were the domain of the entire Jackson clan) and they do not represent the vision that was exclusively his. Only Neverland can provide that experience.

Latour’s article makes a good point (actually, several but this one stood out to me): After three years on the market, the property still remains unsold. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell eventually, of course. But it does say there must be something that is holding potential buyers back. Aside from the obvious fact that most people don’t just have 67 million dollars lying around to burn on real estate, perhaps there is a deeper reason. Stepping onto the grounds of Neverland now, even after twelve years, still feels like trespassing. Any potential owner has to know that, regardless of any changes or renovations made, they will be living with the ghost of Michael Jackson (and what’s more, all superstition aside, will inherit the legacy of the property as a fan gathering spot, something that won’t be easy to eradicate). I can almost imagine the ghost of Michael, mischievously interfering with every potential deal that “almost” goes through. Clearly, no matter who eventually buys Sycamore Valley Ranch, they will have only two options: Embrace its legacy as Neverland, or have a miserable life trying in vain to eradicate that legacy.  I think by now, even its sellers have had to come to terms with the fact that what they are selling isn’t just another California ranch property. What they are selling is the home and soul of Michael Jackson, and any buyer-fan or not-will have to have some measure of peace with that idea.

The sad reality is that, ultimately, once the property is sold, its new owners can do with it whatever they want. They can tear down the train station; chop down The Giving Tree; demolish the dance studio to make room for an extra golf course, and there won’t be anything that fans can do other than to accept it and move on. However, that is only the most extreme end of the scale and it seems far more encouragingly likely that Neverland’s chances of being sold to a buyer who will at least respect its heritage is extremely good, given that its former owner and his contributions to the property’s value remains its biggest selling feature. The best case scenario is that it might be purchased by a very rich fan who will not only respect what the home meant to Michael Jackson and his original vision for the property, but would even be willing to open it up for occasional private or public tours-or, better yet, someone who would find a way to finally give us that museum! But, really, I have to say from a personal standpoint that it does not matter to me as long as whoever buys it is respectful to the property, takes care of it and cherishes it as did Michael. The ideal future owner of Neverland, as I see it, is a steward who will continue to respect the unique stamp that Michael Jackson left on this property, even as they convert it into a home that will invariably reflect their own lifestyle and values.

Most importantly, they must recognize the futility of competing against a ghost. Obviously, some things due to their sacred nature should remain untouched at Neverland. The Giving Tree should be left undisturbed, and only a complete and utter fool would wish to erase those scuff marks from the dance studio floor. But true stewardship of the property must extend beyond just Michael Jackson’s memory. We must also remember that hundreds of years before Michael Jackson called Neverland home, this was also the sacred ceremonial grounds of the Chumash Indians. This was already sanctified land centuries before Jackson purchased it. Therefore, respect for the land itself and conservation of the property’s natural resources should remain the top priority of any true steward.

It is probably the wisest approach that the realtors have chosen to embrace Michael Jackson’s seventeen year residency. After all, any attempt to downplay it would only be doomed to failure. Realtor tours of the property are conducted almost as guided tours inside a superstar’s home (indeed, that seems to be the reaction of many even if that is not the actual intent of the tours; I would imagine-unless there is a stringent vetting process- they get their fair share of the simply curious who just want to see the inside of Michael Jackson’s home). Prospective buyers know what they are getting, as well as all of the history-both famous and infamous-that comes with ownership of the property. I think it is, at the very least, an encouraging sign that if Michael Jackson’s stamp on the property is used as a selling point, it is a selling point that will likely continue to hold value for its future buyer.

Three years and counting, we are still waiting anxiously to see what this next chapter reveals.

“Searching For Neverland”: A Review

Navi Recreating Michael Jackson’s 2007 Ebony Shoot in “Searching For Neverland”

I just watched the premiere of the Lifetime biopic Searching For Neverland and am rushing this review out while the film is still fresh on my mind. First of all, I’ll just acknowledge that I know this review isn’t going to please everyone, as a goodly percentage of the fan base was already gunning for this film from the start. However, despite some reservations, I said I would give it a fair viewing before jumping the gun to condemn it. I am glad I approached it with an open mind.

Here is really the bottom line: One’s reaction to this film is inevitably going to be based on how one felt about its source material, the book Remember The Time by former bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Fan reception of the book was every bit as polarizing as any MJ project that gets released. Some praised it as a positive account of Michael’s final two years, revealing his struggles to provide a normal life for his three children despite mounting financial issues and the fallout from the molestation trial. Others condemned it as a violation of the very trust that Michael had placed in them.

I gave the book a fairly positive review back in 2014. I suppose given that I was one of those more charitably predisposed to the book, it may explain why I was willing to give a bit more benefit of the doubt to this movie. Let’s just say, if you were one of those who liked Remember The Time, you’ll probably love Searching For Neverland. The movie is pretty much simply a faithful, condensed version of the book. Which also means if you were one of those who disliked the book, it will no doubt color how you view this film.  but if we put that aside and just view the film on its own merits, I found it refreshingly sweet and endearing in its portrayal of Michael as a family man struggling to keep together the most important thing to him-his life with his children. Sure, the eccentricities are there, but this was not one of those condescending portrayals intended to make him look one dimensional, naive, or mentally challenged. (Indeed, the few eccentricities will be familiar ground to anyone who routinely watches celebrity biopics; Michael does not come across as worsted for them ). For once, I think a genuine effort was made to portray Michael in all his human complexities, which is at least a big step in the right direction. The worst thing for me was Navi’s accent, which was frankly terrible, but overall, his performance was surprisingly nuanced. I think he did a good job, certainly exceeding my expectations. Despite what some reviewers have said, he is not a “dead ringer” for Michael Jackson, but his performance was believable and earnest enough to transcend those concerns (and, in fact, in some segments such as the Ebony photo shoot, he managed to perfectly capture the sizzling sex appeal of mature era Michael. Refreshingly, this was one of the few portrayals in which we actually are able to see what the fans always knew-that this was still a sizzizingly sexy and vibrant man, not the media portrayed “freak”-and, yes, we even get the scene of the “backseat date”). In another refreshing twist, this was the first film I have seen to successfully capture both the wonder and enchantment of Michael’s world view without the kind of patronizing condescension of so many projects. Despite the title, there is no pixie dust and no childishly naive pleas to everyone around him to “just believe.” What we do have is a realistic depiction of a man who once truly believed he could create magic, but has become worn down by a world that has turned its back on him. This is the story of a father who simply wants to find a home again, both for himself and his children.

The Film Balances The Fine Line Between Michael’s Sense Of Wonder And Unique World View Without Resorting To Merely Cliched’ Or Cloying Sentiment.

By far the biggest complaint, one leveled at both the book and film (and an irony not lost on most reviewers) is that the film is still, nevertheless,  an exploitation of a man whose last years were already the stuff of exploitation. Certainly there is something to be said for those arguments. However, perhaps it is my own journalistic background, but I tend to take a more tolerant and long sighted view of these things. Michael Jackson was a public figure, and even his personal life has become public property. The simple fact is that, while fans may know and cherish the knowledge of this Michael Jackson-the devoted father who strove to give his kids an ordinary life amidst the most extraordinary circumstances possible-it is still a side of him that many do not know, and haven’t bothered to know. If even a fraction of those bothered to tune in tonight, they will have met a very different man from the “Wacko Jacko” they thought they knew. And if the film at the very least accomplishes that goal, it is a worthy endeavor. I’m not going to necessarily subscribe to the school that insists every single project made about Michael Jackson is some sort of gross exploitation. Most are, but for every fifty films that are trash, there is always going to be at least one that deserves a fair chance to be seen and heard.

As I had mentioned back when I first reviewed Remember The Time, the one thing that really struck me the most was how they captured the claustrophobic sense of how small Michael’s world had become at that point, a world consisting mostly of himself, his kids, nanny Grace, and the bodyguards. There have only been two books that have successfully shed light on what those last two years were like for Michael and his kids, the other being Dr. Karen Moriarty’s Defending A King: His Life and Legacy (which also originated from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard as sources). Not surprisingly, this is also a central narrative of the film, and even though it doesn’t dwell on any of the real controversies that created these circumstances, it successfully conveys the pathos of a wildly famous father, his life now tainted by scandal, who is struggling to keep life for his children as safe, secure, and filled with love as possible. The bottom line is that, as much as we may wish to respect Michael’s bid for privacy from a human perspective, his life-both public and private-has long since passed into the realm of public domain. We live in a celebrity dominated culture, where interest in the private lives of public figures continues to be a billion dollar industry, and where the proliferation of biographies,  biopics and “tell all” memoirs are a permanent fixture of our culture. For better or worse, future journalists, historians, bloggers, scholars and, yes, filmmakers, will be telling his story. In this case, at least some genuine and heartfelt effort was made to get it right, even if they may have failed on one or two minor fronts.

Of course, this was not so much Michael’s story as it is Bill Whitfield’s (and to a lesser extent, Javon Beard’s). Like most celebrity memoirs told from the perspective of another party (be it friend, former employee, lover, etc) we already understand that it is going to be filtered through the lenses of that individual’s perception. That is the nature of memoir, for better or worse. In Michael’s case, almost everyone who ever came into contact with him-for all of five minutes-has claimed at some point to have been his closest confidante. Whitfield and Beard are no exceptions. However, as a narrative frame device, it holds the film together well, and Chad Coleman (familiar to Walking Dead fans as Tyrese) gives a compelling performance as Whitfield, a man torn between his obligations to his own family and the surrogate family he has come to love.

There are some controversial aspects, however, although it’s not anything that anyone already familiar with the book won’t know. The worst, and I suppose the one still most difficult to grapple with, is when we see Michael obliviously piling a shopping cart with Christmas gifts for his own kids while supposedly knowing that the body guards had not been paid in months and were not even able to buy gifts for their own kids. But even here, it is not so much an attempt to portray Michael as selfish or disconnected from reality; instead, it is further evidence of just how little control Michael had by that point over his own finances, and indeed even his own life. (As in the book, Raymone Bain is quite villified). Scenes like this are not intended so much to belittle as to humanize, and I liked that the film seemed at least capable of walking that tightrope without tripping to the extremes of either condescension on the one hand, or mindless sychophantism on the other. In other words, Michael is allowed something in this film that he’s very rarely been allowed to have in any film portrayal up to this point, with the possible exception of An American Dream over twenty-five years ago: His humanity. It won’t please everyone, but it is what it is. And it did not detract in the least from the endearing sympathy already built for the character (if we keep in mind this is as much a story with a narrative as a depiction of a real life). If I had not already been in love with Michael Jackson before I watched this film, I certainly would have been afterward, and I think that is the power it has (and again, a huge credit for this must go to Navi’s affecting performance; terrible accent or not, he did manage to capture Michael’s essence without resorting to cloy sentimentality or childish caricature). I also appreciated that the film actually had a sense of humor. It enabled viewers to see a side of Michael rarely glimpsed in these types of films, as someone who could be a bit self deprecating and loved practical jokes. The humor here is endearing, as it was in real life; not in a way that simply makes him look foolish or immature.

This is still a long way from being the perfect MJ biopic (I’m not even convinced such a thing is ever going to be possible) but, as with An American Dream, it is a satisfying recount of one particular chapter in his life, and for bringing that story full circle, a fairly decent companion piece to that film. (This may not be surprising, considering Suzanne de Passe was the force behind both). Understandably, it still leaves gaping holes in the story, even with its two and a half hours’ running time. As some reviews have already pointed out, Conrad Murray becomes little more than a side player, and the insinuation (just as with so many projects both better and worse than this one) is that Michael’s death was more about the bigger picture: The intense pressures of facing the This Is It shows, in which succumbing to Murray’s “treatments” merely becomes symptomatic of a much bigger problem: An inability to cope with the pressure squeezing him from all sides. As usual, this will most likely leave viewers to merely surmise, again, that Michael was indeed a victim, but perhaps more than anything, a victim of his own inability to cope. This isn’t so much a critique of the film as of the source material (even in the book, Whitfield and Beard were irritatingly soft on Murray). However, as far as these things go, it isn’t a fatal flaw of the film. Most viewers are intelligent enough to know that any movie can only cover so much ground, and that frankly, it isn’t really this film’s purpose to faithfully recount the events of those final two months of Michael’s life, in which Whitfield and Beard were no longer actively involved. Indeed, their story with Michael ends when Michael leaves for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for This Is It.  At any rate, that is another story perhaps beyond the present film’s scope. The events that transpired beyond those cloistered two years of Michael’s life spent in Vegas are certainly well documented enough for anyone who really wants to research further, and this is not a documentary.

For those who chose to condemn this movie out of hand, simply on principle, that is their right but in my honest opinion I think this was as good as a film of this caliber could be, given its limitations (low budget, no access to Michael’s music) and the generally low expectations most fans have come to expect from any movie made about Jackson’s life. Those trepidations don’t come lightly; they have been earned as per my previous post. I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, but within the first ten minutes, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be watching with a reviewer’s judgmental eye, and was simply caught up in a compelling story of an eccentric but beautiful dad struggling to keep together his beautiful family. Of course, it was a bit cheesy in places; this was a Lifetime biopic, after all, not an Oscar contender. But as these films go, it’s definitely a cut above some of the other recent Lifetime biopics, and as far as movies about Michael Jackson, it’s definitely a step beyond the usual drivel that we’ve been subjected to.

All in all, not perfect but certainly a very sweet and affecting film. Also, the follow up documentary that Lifetime is broadcasting, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Icon, is excellent. I highly urge everyone to check it out. (For those still convinced they won’t be able to stomach the movie, at the very least fast forward to The Ultimate Icon-it’s well worth it!).

I can honestly say, however, that Searching For Neverland has at least redeemed my hope that a decent MJ biopic can still be made. All it takes is a little heart and respect for who the man was. Unfortunately, it will still be found lacking in some regards. Viewers still will not come away with any enlightened view of Jackson’s philanthropy or work as a humanitarian. And they won’t learn anything new about Michael Jackson, the artist (however, as mentioned, the follow-up documentary The Ultimate Icon pretty much covers that ground). What we’re left with is, quite simply, a poignant and tender tale of a father’s love. But maybe that is all it really needs to be.

Now if we can just work on Navi’s accent (lol) and if the estate would loosen the purse strings on Michael’s music, we just might finally get ourselves a halfway decent MJ biopic.