| Michael Jackson fans react to the not guilty verdict outside the courthouse in Santa Maria. (Reuters)
Santa Maria (California), June 14 (Reuters): Michael Jackson walked out of court a free man yesterday, cleared of all charges in a dramatic sex abuse trial that threatened to destroy his career and send him to prison for nearly two decades.
Jackson gripped the hand of his lead attorney, Tom Mesereau, and wiped his face with a tissue as the verdicts were read to a courtroom packed with reporters and about three dozen fans of the 46-year-old entertainer, many of whom broke into prayers or sobs.
Defence lawyer Susan Yu and Jackson’s mother, Katherine, wiped away tears as he was hustled from the courtroom and returned to his sprawling Neverland Valley ranch ' where a teenage boy had claimed the singer molested him after nights of heavy drinking.
Jackson, who looked expressionless and gaunt as he left the court, refused comment but blew a kiss to waiting fans. He faced nearly two decades in prison if convicted on 10 counts of lewd acts with a child, giving a minor alcohol and conspiring to commit child abduction, extortion and false imprisonment.
Outside the courthouse, the verdict, which was broadcast around the world, triggered a frenzy among the hundreds of fans who camped there for more than a week awaiting word on Jackson’s fate. Many were dressed in white. They hugged each other, cried, threw confetti and set free white doves.
Jackson’s defence team left the court without speaking to hundreds of reporters.
The case against Jackson was sparked by a February 2003 television documentary in which the singer was shown holding hands with his accuser and defending his practice of sharing a bed with young boys. The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for seven days before acquitting Jackson, a former child star who reached his peak in the 1980s with Thriller, among the best-selling albums of all time.
Jurors had to consider testimony by 140 witnesses and sift through some 600 items of evidence but they appeared to have had little difficulty reaching their unanimous decision.
“I think we all just looked at the evidence and pretty much agreed,” said a 79-year-old woman who served on the jury and was identified only by her juror number.
Other jurors said they were unmoved by Jackson’s star power. “One of the first things we decided is we had to look at him like an individual, not as a celebrity,” said the jury foreman, a 63-year-old man. A posting on Michael Jackson’s website, www.mjjsource.com, showed a hand giving the V for victory sign as the words: “The truth runs marathons” scrolled across the screen.