Judge: Sneddon can stay on Jackson case
Judge found no 'disabling conflict'
By DAWN HOBBS
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
A judge refused Thursday to throw veteran prosecutor Tom Sneddon off the Michael Jackson case.
Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville disagreed with defense lawyers, who said the Santa Barbara County district attorney has misused his power in the child molestation case against the entertainer.
"It is my belief he has not been excessively zealous and has not threatened the integrity of the investigation up to this point," Judge Melville said in the Santa Maria courtroom Thursday morning.
Judge Melville's ruling means that Mr. Sneddon will continue to pursue the high-profile case that has attracted worldwide attention.
Mr. Jackson's lawyers had alleged that Mr. Sneddon was waging a vendetta against their client stemming from a failed 1993 child molestation investigation that also targeted Mr. Jackson.
But the judge said a prosecutor may be removed from a case only if there is a conflict so grave that it would be unlikely the defendant would receive a fair trial. Judge Melville said he found "no disabling conflict."
Judge Melville had previously characterized some of Mr. Sneddon's conduct during the grand jury hearing in April as "regrettable."
The judge noted Thursday that he plans to keep a tight rein on attorneys during the upcoming trial in his courtroom: "There will be controls during this trial while the jury is present. The conduct of the district attorney will be under my direction. If he appears excessively zealous -- it will be taken care of."
The judge's ruling came after he heard heated arguments about Mr. Sneddon's conduct.
Lead defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau contended that Mr. Sneddon has been "blinded by zeal" in an attempt to convict his client and pointed to the use of 70 officers to raid Mr. Jackson's ranch and nearly 100 subsequent search warrants. The prosecutors "have done more to intimidate Mr. Jackson than they have done to go after serial killers and alleged murderers," Mr. Mesereau said.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen countered each of the defense allegations and defended Mr. Sneddon's record.
Mr. Zonen said: "Tom Sneddon was elected to district attorney in 1982 by an overwhelming majority of the vote. No one has run against him since that time. . . . No one in the state of California has held the position of district attorney longer than Tom Sneddon. He's been elected repeatedly because . . . of his skill, hard work and, particularly, his integrity."
Mr. Jackson pleaded not guilty in April to child molestation and conspiracy charges. Trial is scheduled to begin in January.
The pretrial hearing continues today. Sheriff's detectives who seized items from the Sherman Oaks home office of Mr. Jackson's personal assistant are expected to take the stand. Defense lawyers contend some of the items taken violate attorney-client privilege, particularly items in three folders labeled "Mesereau."
Judge Melville's decision Thursday marks the third time he has denied a defense motion attacking the prosecution.
In October, defense lawyers petitioned the judge to drop the indictment against their client, claiming Mr. Sneddon "bullied" witnesses during the grand jury proceeding and presented inadmissible evidence. Also last month, the defense lawyers requested that the judge throw out material seized in the November 2003 raids of Mr. Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch and a private investigator's office, claiming the searches were illegal.
Although Judge Melville ruled against the defense motions, Mr. Jackson's lawyers have made gains. The motions allowed them to put Mr. Sneddon and the prosecution's key witnesses on the stand to give testimony that can be used later in the case. In the process, defense lawyers educated the judge about the case and presented their client's side of the story to the public and potential jurors through intense media coverage.
New details about the case also came out Thursday.
Mr. Mesereau told the court that the accuser's DNA was not found on Mr. Jackson's mattress seized during the Neverland raid. If the forensic tests had been positive, prosecutors would have had a physical link to the allegations.
It was also revealed that Mr. Sneddon had traveled to Australia in search of other alleged victims of Mr. Jackson and that an alleged victim from the 1993 case had been interviewed in 1999 by a sheriff's detective.
Mr. Mesereau also said that the accuser's mother deposited her welfare checks into the account of her husband -- who makes more than $80,000 per year. He was attempting to show that prosecutors had failed to look into her background and question her credibility.
Mr. Mesereau indicated that he plans to call Mr. Sneddon as a witness at trial because the prosecutor questioned the accuser's mother in Los Angeles without an investigator present.
Mr. Zonen shot down the defense allegation that Mr. Sneddon crossed the line that day by acting as an investigator. He said Mr. Sneddon had planned to be in the Los Angeles area anyway and characterized the trip as a 20-minute "errand."