Michael Jackson Case Judge Melville Gets it Right

March 14th, 2005


Last Thursday, fascinated trial watchers and legal media throughout the world focused their attention on the courthouse in Santa Maria, California. Jurors, reporters, observers, victim advocates, and a beleaguered band of die-hard fans expected to hear the first public testimony of the young man who accuses Michael Joe Jackson of Lewd Acts (California Penal Code Section 288(a)) and other crimes. Instead, a different drama unfoldedJackson did not arrive at court as ordered. Reports filtered out from the courtroom that a warrant had been issued for Jacksons arrest. The public learned that Jackson was at a local hospital with a back injury. The normally dapper and polished superstar-turned-defendant arrived, one hour and thirty-eight minutes late, bizarrely clad in pajamas and slippers.

Explaining the delay briefly to the jurors, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville stated, Mr. Jackson had a medical problem and it was necessary for me to order his appearance. Jurors were further instructed to make no inference about the situation.

Judge Receives Criticism in Jackson Case

At days end, many pundits expressed disappointment that Judge Melville had rescinded the warrant, had not revoked Jacksons bail, and had not even rebuked Jackson or commented to him on his tardiness or inappropriate dress. Thursday evening and again Friday morning, news commentators criticized Melvilles weakness in failing to bring Jackson to task. Some harkened back to Jacksons previous one-day absence due to flu-like symptoms, and conjectured that Jackson uses illnesses as a convenient excuse to delay or upstage the court proceedings. Despite the disapproval of court watchers, Judge Melvilles choice not to belabor this issue was correct.

Among the most important duties of a trial judge is to avoid tipping the scales. The introductory jury instructions given by Californias judges at the start of every jury trial warn, Do not guess what I may think your verdict should be from anything I say or do. In trial courts, some judges go so far as to turn their chairs away from the jury during key moments of the trial, lest an ill-timed nod or eye-roll be interpreted as a signal of the benchs approval or approbation of testimony or argument.

Potential Effects of a Judge’s Comments

Remanding Jackson or even rebuking him privately risks an unintentional signal that a jury, no matter how well admonished, might interpret as a sign that the court disbelieves the defendant, which could pollute their deliberations with impermissible conjecture. Although in-custody defendants are permitted to dress in normal clothing during court proceedings, jurors inevitably become aware of the custody status. During a lengthy trial, a chance sighting of the defendant being led to a back hallway by bailiffs, the presence of extra security personnel, or the defendants absence from the hallway during breaks eventually tips off even the least savvy juror. Most attorneys believe that this has an effect on jurors willingness to consider the defendants innocence. A change in custody status during trial is even more prejudicial. A juror can only imagine that the accused has committed some new crime or other infraction. This alone exposes jurors to information outside the evidence presented at trial. It is difficult for jurors to ignore the prejudicial implications. Counsel and the court must then weigh the dangers of admonishing the jury and calling further attention to the issue, or remaining silent and risking improper speculation. Even if the court chooses to admonish the jury, deciding what to say is complicated. If the court gives no details, jurors may speculate that the accused has committed new crimes. Telling the jury that the defendant, in the courts opinion, faked a back injury essentially tells them that the court disbelieves Jackson.

Rather than accusing Jackson of grandstanding and hypochondria Judge Melville must consider what he would rather Mr. Jackson do? Should a person who might have the flu risk exposing everyone in the court to illness? In the height of flu season, in an unusually wet winter, in a year saw a shortage of flu vaccine, caution was probably the wiser choice. A flu-wracked defendant in a closed courtroom might spread the flu to jurors and court staff alike. Furthermore, a defendant must participate meaningfully with his or her lawyers during trial. A person who is ill, in pain, or medicated may be unable to pay attention during lengthy court sessions. Attorneys often need their clients attention and input. Jurors notice defendants who appear to be inattentive during proceedings, and tend to make negative inferences.

For Judge Melville to impose any penalty on Jackson, the court would need to make a finding that Jacksons medical excuse was invalid. Even a less drastic penalty, such as a caution or rebuke to Jackson requires the court to make a finding based on evidence that Jacksons injury was not genuine. Any penalty imposed on Jackson could also have a backlash, and create sympathy among those who consider the courts wrath unjustified. Without a hearing to determine the validity of the excuse, rebuking Jackson would create the appearance that the court has determined, without evidence or argument that Jackson was malingering. Such an appearance could create an appellate issue of judicial bias, and would be a violation of judicial ethics.

Judge’s Duties

A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartiallyA judge shall be faithful to the law regardless ofpublic clamor, or fear of criticism, reads part of Canon 3 of the California Code of Judicial Ethics. Canon 3 admonishes judges repeatedly to maintain impartiality in court proceedings; A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and othersA judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice.

Though many observers questioned the convenient timing of Jacksons back injury, and previous flu-like symptoms during jury selection, he indisputably was at the hospital when absent from court. An article about Thursdays incident on Jacksons own web-site, mjjsource.com, reminds his faithful that Mr. Jackson has suffered many back injuries over the course of his legendary career, including a sudden and dramatic fall from a four-storey bridge during a concert in Germany in 1999 In the absence of some proof that Jacksons back pain was a ruse, further comment or penalty from the court would risk the appearance of prejudice.

Even a private rebuke, outside the presence of the jury, would be unwise. Even the most carefully sequestered jury may hear of the rebuke and assume that the court has information, to which they are not privy, that the medical excuse was false. Even if the jury were to never find out, a warning form the bench without proof would change the atmosphere in the court to one in which it would appear to the trial participants that the court was no longer even-handed.

Preservation of the Courts Impartiality

Judge Melvilles decision not to make further issue of Jacksons back injury or unusual attire preserves the courts impartiality. A hearing into the validity of Jacksons injury would seem very unlikely to disprove that Jackson was in pain. Furthermore, the prosecution never disputed the claim. Holding such a hearing would consume the courts time and further delay the trial. To preserve its impartiality, the court might feel bound to hold a similar hearing every time any participant claims illness. That would surely create a waste of time and an unproductive atmosphere of suspicion.

News organizations, their readers, and viewers throughout the world are paying attention to this trial. Preserving fairness in this case serves not only Mr. Jackson and the accuser, but also the judicial system as a whole. The comment to Canon 1 of the California Code of Judicial Ethics amplifies this premise; Deference to the judgments and rulings of courts depends upon public confidence in the integrity and independence of judgesPublic confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is maintained by the adherence of each judge to this responsibility. Conversely, violations of this Code diminish public confidence in the judiciary and thereby do injury to the system of government under law.

Judge Melville will no doubt be called upon to admonish many participants on both sides in this trial, as the court has already done, though mildly, to trial counsel on both sides. If Jacksons health issues cause further delays that fail to appear genuine, the court can visit the issue when that happens. Every ruling the court makes will no doubt require the court to make future rulings as circumstances unfold. Even a judge with the Wisdom of Solomon cannot predict the future. Public confidence in the fairness of Jacksons trial is just as important for future defendants and victims, and for the integrity of the legal system as it is for Jackson and his accuser. Jurors in future cases, who hear similar allegations in the wake of a high profile case, may inevitably skew their opinions based on their views of how the previous case was handled. Future defendants and future accusers deserve to have their causes decided on the strength of their own evidence, not on a perceived injustice in another courtroom.

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