Dispatches From the Michael Jackson Trial

Why the Pop Star Has No Cash
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 4 2005 12:44 AM

Dispatches From the Michael Jackson Trial

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"Poor" Michael?
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"Poor" Michael?

7:29 a.m.: Outside the courthouse gates, a fan dressed in a knee-length black tunic is explaining his theories about the trial.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

"If you like kids," he asks, "why would you go for a sick kid? And if you did go for a cancer kid, why wouldn't you go for other cancer kids? Pedophiliacs have a pattern!"

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Just a few feet away, BJ the pudgy superfan is doing what he does best: standing on a ladder, screaming. As prosecutor Tom Sneddon walks into the courthouse, BJ chants, "Sneddon, Sneddon, we know you! Your father was a racist, too!"

BJ is holding up an uninflated "We Love Michael" balloon, left over from yesterday's supply. "Who wants to have a water balloon fight?" he shouts toward the TV reporters. "Where's Diane Dimond?" Dimond is the talking head for Court TV, and a prime media bugaboo for the fans. "I'm going to throw a water balloon at Diane Dimond!" BJ shouts. "I'm going to soak her!"

8:29 a.m.: MJ enters the courtroom wearing an armband I haven't seen before. It's yellow silk brocade, with (I had to look closely to make sure I wasn't hallucinating this) embossed silhouettes of horses. Okaaaaay. His vest matches the armband, right down to the equine motif.

8:37 a.m.: More telephone record testimony. It just will not die. At one point, defense attorney Robert Sanger objects—on grounds of "undue consumption of time."

What? You can object for that? My God, where was this objection yesterday? I'm about to stand up and applaud for Sanger when Judge Melville overrules. Huge disappointment. The phone testimony resumes.

10:12 a.m.: At last we move on to something new. Prosecutor Sneddon calls Sgt. Steve Robel to the stand.

Robel is here to counter the testimony given by Debbie Rowe. (Rowe is Michael's ex-wife and the mother of two of his children.) Which raises a question: Why does the prosecution want to impeach its own witness?

Well, when Debbie Rowe took the stand for the prosecution last week, she stated that Michael Jackson was "generous"; "a friend"; "kind"; and "a wonderful father." Those are all sweet sentiments, but they're surely not what the prosecution had in mind when they brought her before the court. You rarely see a prosecution witness gushing over what a swell guy the defendant is.

So, now Sneddon is forced to suggest that Rowe is unreliable. He calls Sgt. Robel to the stand to describe a police interview he taped with Rowe prior to her testimony. In this conversation, Rowe called Michael "a sociopath." Also, she said he considers his children "possessions." It's a different tune from the one she sang in open court.

What happened here? As I see it, there are two possible explanations. One is that Debbie Rowe had a change of heart. (Or was in a foul mood the day of the police interview. Or harbors conflicted feelings about her ex-husband.)

The other explanation: Debbie Rowe is flat-out scared to cross Michael Jackson. She's terrified that she'll never see her children again, unless she cooperates with him. So, she does whatever MJ wants.

It's a disturbing theory. I admit, my biggest concern in this whole meshugaas is for Michael's little children—Prince Michael I, Paris, and Prince Michael II. You have to wonder what's in store for these kids. They have no mom. Their dad is Michael Jackson. And that's all I'll say about that.

10:32 a.m.: The prosecution calls John Duross O'Bryan. He's a certified public accountant who did a "forensic accounting investigation" into Michael Jackson's finances.

I love the idea of a forensic accounting detective. I wish there were a CPA: Miami. As it is, I'll settle for O'Bryan, who's on the stand to tell us about a dude who spends waaaaaay too much.

According to documents written by MJ's financial advisers, Michael spends $20 million-$30 million more than he makes each year. (His annual income consists mainly of $11.5 million in royalties.) Michael's debts are ballooning. He's got gargantuan loans that he's been living off of, and the loans are secured by his only real assets: his music catalogs and the Neverland Ranch.

According to O'Bryan, Michael can't pay his bills because he has no cash. He's in debt for over $10 million to various vendors (chimp food, etc.). He owes $200 million on a loan from Bank of America. Even if he sold his own music catalog (which has lost a lot of its value as his songs get played less and less) and also sold his half of the Sony/ATV catalog (which includes Beatles songs, among other properties), he'd still come out with very little (or perhaps nothing) after paying off all the taxes and debts.

How much does Michael spend? Yesterday we saw that he stayed in a $3,700-a-night hotel room. But that's a drop in the bucket. According to one breakdown, Michael shelled out $7.5 million on "personal spending" in a single year. That's not mortgage payments or employee payrolls or lawyers' fees or upkeep on Neverland. That's just Michael treating Michael to a whole lotta livin'.

But you may ask: Why this is relevant to the case? And you'd have a darn good question. The prosecution argues that MJ, back in early 2003 when the events at issue were taking place, was in a financial crisis. They further argue that he knew he was in severe economic trouble, and this is why he was so desperate (criminally desperate, they would say) to protect his image and his marketability.

That doesn't make much sense to me. The financial crisis was ongoing, and Michael never did a thing about it. O'Bryan mentions letter after letter in which Michael's accountants warned him to cut back on spending. He didn't listen to them. I still don't think he understands that he's broke. We're supposed to believe that he committed these conspiracy crimes as part of a wily scheme to protect his finances? Please. This is a man who, despite towering debts and plummeting income, spends more on silk armbands than I spend on rent.

1:54 p.m.: The prosecution calls Rudy Provencio.

Oh, man, this is going to be good. Provencio is a giggling, babbling bubblehead. He interrupts lawyers, he loses himself in his answers, and he's already driving Judge Melville batty.

Provencio was hired by MJ in 2001 to help produce a charity single called "What More Can I Give?" Michael had hoped this single would be "bigger than 'We Are the World,' " in Provencio's words. In the course of his work, Provencio says he overheard countless conversations between Michael and various associates. When we resume tomorrow, the content of these conversations will form the basis of Provencio's testimony.

If his act this afternoon is any indication, Provencio's got a bunch of fun in store for us. Asked if he can recognize Michael's voice over the telephone, Provencio says, "Sure, his voice is distinct. Well, unless he's upset and he uses the other voice."

The other voice? This is a fascinating thought. I imagine Michael shedding his breathy little-boy persona, switching gears to a growly, baritone rasp. I cannot wait for tomorrow. The trial of the millennium is suddenly heating up.

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