SANTA MARIA, Calif. — An appellate court ruled yesterday that the judge in the Michael Jackson trial was right to seal dozens of records in the child-molestation case, saying he had successfully balanced Jackson’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know.
But the three-judge panel of the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with news organizations that the indictment against Jackson should be released. That decision, however, has no practical application because Judge Rodney S. Melville read the indictment’s contents in open court to the jury on Feb. 28.
The appellate court said in yesterday’s ruling that the indictment should be edited before its release to remove the names of five men prosecutors had named as Jackson’s alleged co-conspirators in a plot to hold the family of Jackson’s accuser captive. But Melville identified the men by name when he read the indictment to jurors.
News agencies, including the Associated Press, had asked the panel to grant the public access to several documents. They included the affidavit that accompanied a search warrant for Jackson’s Neverland ranch, a request by Jackson’s defense team that the indictment be dismissed, and a motion by the defense alleging misconduct by prosecutors.
The panel found that Melville’s decision to seal the documents was justified because of the intense news coverage of the case. Melville has said releasing the documents publicly could have poisoned the jury pool by prejudicing potential jurors against Jackson.
The panel said Melville “displayed sensitivity and insight into these issues,” and that his rulings allowed flexibility in balancing the rights of Jackson and the public.
“We’re pleased that the court ruled in our favor on the indictment issue, but we’re very disappointed that the court did not discuss or strike down the unconstitutional procedures that led to the sealing of massive quantities of documents,” said Theodore J. Boutrous, an attorney for the news organizations.
Boutrous said he was consulting with the organizations “to discuss the best way to challenge these rulings.”
Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a 13-year-old former cancer patient and giving the boy alcohol and conspiring to hold him and his family captive.
In a separate case, Boutrous filed an urgent request to another division of the appeals court yesterday asking that documents be unsealed in a lawsuit against Jackson by F. Marc Schaffel, one of the unindicted alleged co-conspirators in the criminal case.
Schaffel produced two TV specials in early 2003 meant to salvage Jackson’s image. He claims in the breach-of-contract suit that Jackson still owes him $800,000 of the $3 million promised to him for the specials, and $2.3 million for payments and loans for Jackson over the past three years.
Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor was to hear arguments in the civil case on today in closed court in Santa Monica. Media organizations including four TV networks, CNN and USA TODAY asked that the courtroom be open to the public, but Connor denied the request yesterday without a hearing.