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Last Updated: Monday, 31 January, 2005, 09:25 GMT
Jackson jurors to report for duty
By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Santa Maria

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson will be in court on the first day of his trial
As Michael Jackson's child abuse trial gets under way in California, the BBC's Peter Bowes looks at the jury selection process that could take over a month.

Mr Jackson will come face-to-face with the first batch of prospective jurors in the first stage of his child molestation trial on Monday.

Judge Rodney Melville will summon people in groups of 150 over the next three days.

With the superstar sitting next to his lawyer in the courtroom, the first round of juror questioning will focus on potential hardship issues that may preclude people from sitting on a long trial.

Judge Melville has said that it is only fair that would-be jurors are told the case will last well into the summer.

Prosecution lawyers estimate it will take five months from the start of opening statements, which are weeks away.

Once the jury pool has been whittled down to a group of people that is able to serve for many months, they will be given a seven-page questionnaire about the case.

The document has been kept secret, but the questions are likely to focus on the potential jurors' views on Mr Jackson, their existing knowledge of the case and their own personal backgrounds.

They will return to court on 7 February for a further round of questioning by Judge Melville, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

The judge has given lawyers from both sides permission to bring jury consultants in to the courtroom.

Michael Jackson fan
Fans of the pop icon have gathered outside the courthouse

These experts, who are commonplace in high-profile US trials, will scrutinise the jurors for early signs of bias either in Mr Jackson's favour, or against him.

"I think what the jury's going to hear is a lot of damaging evidence," said Raymond Chandler, the uncle of the boy who made sex abuse allegations against Mr Jackson in 1993.

"The question is, will they judge Michael Jackson on the same basis as they would judge an ordinary man? Can they put celebrity out of their minds and judge him like they would you or me or their neighbour? That's the key issue here," he said.

Mr Chandler, a lawyer, is planning to attend the trial as a commentator for various media outlets.

"The outcome is sort of pre-determined by who ends up on that jury," he explained.

Moral support

Santa Maria is a town of 80,000 people. It is an agricultural area with a conservative community and a population that is mainly Hispanic or white.

"There are plenty of people in Santa Maria who can be fair," added Mr Chandler.

"Michael Jackson has excellent attorneys and they will do their best to make sure that the people who get on that jury will treat him fairly and not take their prejudices, if they have any, into the courtroom."

The selection process will take place in open court, although there will be a restricted number of seats for the media. None have been allocated for fans.

Michael Jackson fan
Mr Jackson's supporters have been defending their icon

The judge told the singer's lawyer that space was being reserved for the huge number of potential jurors. Even Mr Jackson's family could not be present, not even for moral support.

Only personal issues relating to the private lives of potential jurors will be discussed behind closed doors.

While TV cameras are banned from the courtroom, the media has welcomed Judge Melville's decision to keep the jury selection process open.

"In several recent celebrity cases - the Martha Stewart case - the judge closed the jury selection," said Theodore Boutrous, the lawyer representing a coalition of broadcasters covering the trial.

"I was very glad to hear the judge say that he would hold this in open court. I think that would be better for the process," he said.

The aim is to assemble a final panel of 12 jurors and eight alternates by the beginning of March.

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