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Picking the Jackson 12 

Local attorneys weigh in on jury selection in the Michael Jackson case

If Santa Maria attorney Michael Clayton were defending Michael Jackson from charges of child molestation in the King of Pop’s high-profile court case, his ideal juror would be a childless, middle-aged Raiders fan with a mohawk and an ear for pop music.

While the odds of such a person turning up for the jury selection process that is currently underway may be slight, Clayton thinks any of those qualifications would be helpful in setting Jackson free.

His reasoning is simple: A juror without kids may be less inclined to feel sympathy for the alleged victim, while a pop fan might love Jackson so much, they’d be willing to forgive him no matter what.

As for the Raiders fanatic with the wild haircut?

“If someone walks into the courtroom with a mohawk, I know they’re different, and they’re comfortable with themselves,� he said, noting that such a juror would also be more likely to sympathize with a man who bleaches his skin.

“They’re independent,� he said. “If a guy comes in with a Raiders shirt, you have to assume he specifically picked it to wear that day. You know instantly that’s something he really believes in. He’s passionate. At least half of it’s based on looks.�

Santa Maria lawyer Michael Scott, who spent years as a prosecutor and judge before becoming a defense attorney, said body language is a huge tip-off.

“When I was a prosecutor, if I noticed a juror looked relaxed when I opened, it was good for me,� he said. “If they’re restrained or they won’t look you in the eye, you wonder why.�

In this era of jurors signing million-dollar book deals and selling their stories to the tabloids, Clayton said defense teams often hire experts to help them analyze jury responses and body language.

Of course, no attorney gets to handpick a jury. In a high-profile case like this one, the process can be arduous, involving a lot of give and take.

Potential jurors were selected from DMV and registered voter lists, then randomly summoned to appear based on qualifying questionnaires, according to the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

In this case, Judge Rodney Melville is selecting eight alternates in addition to the jury of 12, ensuring plenty of backup if something goes wrong.

About 250 people — from an initial pool of 750 — are currently being considered for the Jackson jury after completing a seven-page questionnaire Melville prepared from defense and prosecution questions.

Based on their answers, potential jurors both sides dislike will be eliminated, and the remaining jury pool will be called back for further questioning scheduled for Feb. 7. From that point, attorneys can ask for widespread dismissals if there’s good cause, such as jurors who say they can’t be fair and impartial.

In the process’ final stages, both the prosecution and defense can dismiss any 10 candidates they choose.

Not surprisingly, both Clayton and Scott think race is an important factor. Defense attorney Clayton said a multi-racial jury representing people from all walks of life would be beneficial for Jackson, an African-American.

It’s an issue upon which the prosecution will have to tread lightly, Scott said.

“They’ve got to make sure that if they dismiss an African-American juror, they have a just excuse,� he said. “You can’t disqualify on race alone.�

He said if he was prosecuting the case, he’d want to see more “social service and teacher-types� on the panel, as opposed to “engineer-types,� who are more rigid and approach the law as a science.

“Mothers with young kids, retired military — these types of people tend to be more conservative and support law enforcement, which is a good thing in this case,� he said. “People with an ax to grind, who’ve had run-ins with the D.A. or the police, you can usually weed them out on the questionnaire. I’m sure both sides will want to know if the jurors have a history with sexual abuse.�

He also mentioned geography, since the jury will be selected from the whole of northern Santa Barbara County.

“Often, people from Santa Ynez are more liberal than in Lompoc or Santa Maria,� Scott said.

Clayton said jury selection in a typical criminal case takes two days at most, but notes the process for the Jackson case could last up to a month. Jackson’s defense team has filed a motion asking that each potential juror be questioned individually to prevent a corrupted verdict, since several grand jury documents have already leaked to the media.

“It’s such a high-profile case,� Clayton said. “If you get through the whole jury pool and you can’t find 12 people to form an impartial jury ... you have to start the whole process over again.

“You win or lose based on the jury that has been seated,� he concluded. “You actually have a feeling which way it’s gonna go right from the beginning, once the jury’s been selected.�

Santa Maria Sun Staff Writer Andrew Parker can be reached for comments at aparker@santamariasun.com.

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