Saturday, January 17, 2004
Santa Maria, Calif. Michael Jackson showed up in court 21 minutes late Friday to plead innocent to child molesting, got a scolding from the judge, and then danced on top his SUV in front of a cheering crowd.
Later, he invited fans back to his Neverland Ranch for refreshments.
Jackson's antics marked a bizarre start to a criminal case that could send the 45-year-old singer to prison for decades.
"Mr. Jackson, you have started out on the wrong foot here," Judge Rodney Melville said after the singer was tardy for his first court appearance in the case. "I want to advise you that I will not put up with that. It's an insult to the court."
The hearing began with Jackson pleading not guilty to seven counts of molesting a child under 14 and two counts of giving the child an "intoxicating agent," reportedly wine. Jackson spoke softly as he entered his plea, and stared straight ahead while the judge took up various legal motions.
The hearing ended in less than two hours while Jackson was on a restroom break. The judge, irritated, remarked that Jackson's exit had caused a disruption.
About 1,500 people, including fans and media from around the world, swarmed outside the courthouse in a scene reminiscent of a concert. Vendors sold T-shirts, steaks and hot dogs. Many fans had come to the courthouse in chartered buses and cars in a "Caravan of Love" from Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Wearing a black coat, black pants, glittery shoes and big sunglasses, Jackson shook hands with fans as he entered the courthouse.
Jackson removed his sunglasses during the hearing and was surrounded by several family members, including his parents, brother Jermaine and sister Janet.
In contrast to his serious demeanor in the courtroom, Jackson was ebullient as he left amid a sea of cameras and fans carrying signs pronouncing his innocence and declaring, "We love you Michael."
Some fans brought their children, and others dressed in costumes inspired by Jackson's music videos. One man wore what appeared to be a makeshift suit of armor.
Jackson got atop the sport utility vehicle that brought him to court, briefly abandoning the umbrella he carries to shield his face, waved to the fans and did a few dance steps. Music played and a video cameraman standing alongside recorded the scene.
As Jackson tried to leave town, fans swarmed his vehicle. He was soon back at Neverland, about 25 miles away, where fans flocked after receiving invitations to a party. The invitations were distributed by supporters who appeared to be members of the Nation of Islam.
The judge scheduled a Feb. 13 session to set the date for a preliminary hearing, which will determine whether there is enough evidence to hold Jackson for trial.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon pointedly asked, "Judge will that be 8:30?" clearly referring to Jackson's tardiness. The judge responded, "8:30."
The judge also imposed a gag order on all participants but said he would consider proposals to allow either side to answer reporters' questions about rumors surrounding the case.