Against my better judgement and almost against my will, I’m keeping up on the recent Michael Jackson developments. If you’re not, I’ll briefly get you up to speed: If you were around and paying attention in the ’90s and then again in the early 2000s, Michael Jackson was first alleged to have molested a child (the allegations were settled out of court) and then tried in a criminal case (where he was acquitted). It’s all blown up again since his death with the release of an HBO documentary, “Leaving Neverland.” In the doc, two men tell their stories of their (alleged) abuse at Michael Jackson’s hands when they were children.
By “keeping up,” I don’t mean that I’ve watched the documentary. I don’t know that I will. The men’s stories, I’m told, are graphic and horrific, and I’m not sure I want to subject myself to anything more horrific than what I’ve already been subjected to via YouTube.
And the documentary isn’t what I’m feeling driven to write about, anyway. Since the story has blown up everywhere, it’s the reaction I’m seeing all over the place that has me alternating between scratching my head and spitting fire. One way or the other, it’s given me lots of food for thought.
I’m a bit of a true-crime drama addict. The subject of due process and the courtroom standard for evidence beyond reasonable doubt is a subject that always interests me. How we know things and how we decide what we believe is a topic I’m always fascinated by, so that’s probably one reason why there’s something about the courtroom that has a draw for me.
And I see the brilliance of the basis of our judicial system: the presumption of innocence. The principle is that it’s always more important to protect the innocent than to punish the guilty. Both are important, but it’s far worse to think of the innocent suffering than to think of the guilty getting off scot-free. Both travesties, but the first seems far worse
Now, the real dilemma comes in when we ask ourselves, “But if the guilty walks free, will more innocent suffering result?” This shouldn’t be a consideration for the pure reasoner on the jury who has to weigh the evidence and decide if it’s beyond reasonable doubt, but I’m sure it would be a very human reaction of any one of the humans on the jury. Yes, I want to be absolutely sure not to punish the innocent. But what if the accused does happen to be guilty though the evidence is too weak to be conclusive? In the event that I free a guilty person, what is the likelihood of their re-offending?
If I had been on the jury in Michael Jackson’s criminal trial in the 2000s, this is the question that would have kept me up at night after his acquittal. Because if I’d been on that jury, I think I would have had to vote to acquit. Against every instinct in my brain and every fibre in my gut screaming out that he was guilty.
A jury member cannot listen to instinct. A jury member cannot give in to the cry of, “But I just feel like…” A jury member must consider the evidence and nothing else. And although the circumstances surrounding the charges against Michael Jackson were highly suspicious, the direct evidence — the eyewitness testimony — was weak and compromised.
The circumstances surrounding the charges are well-known and undisputed. I’ll just sum them up to say that Michael Jackson had series of little boys sleeping alone with him in his bed at his Neverland ranch for nights upon nights in a row. Some of these boys came forward later as accusers. Some did not. Some first defended Michael and said he never touched them and then later spoke out in an HBO documentary, claiming the opposite. (Stockholm Syndrome and fear of their own exposure, if these accusations are true, was apparently the cause of the boys lying to defend Michael. At the time of his trial, they claim, they felt as though they were “in love” with Michael and didn’t want to do anything to hurt him or themselves.)
And at the time of the trial, the case for the prosecution was shaky after the defence team was finished with it. The trial revolved around the accusations of one boy, but his testimony was weakened by the testimony of his mother who (from the documentary I watched on the case) was a non-credible witness. Her story kept changing, some of her statements were outrageous and plainly false, and she seemed to be a chronic liar. If I’d been on the jury, I would have had to admit that I strongly suspected MJ of wrongdoing but that I had reasonable doubt of his guilt. It was entirely reasonable that a greedy mother had put her son up to making up stories about the abuse for some kind of financial benefit or for attention or for one or more of any other of the vast number of reasons why people lie.
It would still be extremely strange that a grown man held sleepovers, many sleepovers, one-on-one sleepovers, with young boys who were no relation to him.There was no natural basis for these relationships which began as fans courting a celebrity and then turned into the celebrity courting the fans. But it’s a strange world, and people do strange things. Michael and his defenders used (and use) the line that he never had a childhood and was really just a big kid, hanging out with other kids. Nothing weird about one kid having a sleepover and even sleeping in the same bed as another kid.
And if no accusers had ever come forward, I would have raised my eyebrows at the situation, thought the parents were naive in the extreme to allow it, but given MJ the benefit of the doubt.
But the accusers have come forward.
If there was ever only the one who was at the centre of the trial, I would have had misgivings being on a jury that acquitted, but I would probably have admitted the doubt to be reasonable. (The jury had been instructed not to consider in their verdict the earlier allegations which never went to court.)
But now more accusations have come forward.
Now, I’ve told you that I believe in the presumption of innocence as a legal principle. In cases of sexual assault, this gets very tricky. These cases are often nothing more than he said/she said cases. Or in Michael’s case, he said/he said. The balance Lady Justice is holding is supposed to be weighted in cases like these on the side of the accused, not the accuser. Slightly weighted. So that if both stories and both story-tellers are equally credible, the jury must acquit. The presumption must be towards innocence.
Often, it will come down to a decision by the jury that one of the stories and story-tellers is more believable than the other. And this may be influenced by all kinds of biases and experiences and instincts that the jury carry with them. This is one of the many imperfections of a system that is very good in its design but is still imperfect. There is always the human factor.
For instance, last year I watched outraged as the left demanded that we “believe all women” when Christine Blasey Ford came forward to publicly accuse then-Supreme-Court-Justice nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexual assault. Leaving the political motivation aside, there were likely victims of sexual assault who were equally outraged when Christine Blasey Ford was not universally believed and Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court of the US. Once you’ve been the victim of a sexual assault, you may not be the best evaluator of evidence in another sexual assault case.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t believe Christine Blasey Ford. And considering the human element, I don’t know positively if this was because she was a less credible witness whose corroborating evidence didn’t stand up under investigation or if my political motivation is showing. Of course I give myself the benefit of the doubt, but, well, I’m human, too.
At that time, we were told that, yes, innocent until proven guilty was the courtroom standard, but this wasn’t a criminal case being tried in a courtroom. This was a case where those deciding the case needed to look at the evidence available to them and make up their minds. They weren’t under the necessity of deciding if the guilt was beyond reasonable doubt. Here it was only the preponderance of evidence that needed to be considered.
And I agree that the courtroom standard, which is vital for the courtroom, is not a realistic standard for the court of public opinion. At the time of Michael Jackson’s trial, if I’d been unlucky enough to be on the jury, I would likely have privately believed the charges, even if I felt compelled to return a “not guilty” verdict on the basis of reasonable doubt. The suspicious circumstances would have already predisposed me to think he was guilty. If Brett Kavanaugh had admittedly been sleeping in the same bed with Christine Blasey Ford for a month but denied ever touching her in a sexual way, I would have been a lot more inclined to believe Christine Blasey Ford when she claimed that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her. In the comment section under something I was watching on YouTube about “Leaving Neverland,” one Michael Jackson apologist wrote something to the effect of, “I slept in the same bed as my grandma lots of times. She never assaulted me.” And I’m willing to lay money on the conjecture that no one ever came forward at any time to accuse the commenter’s grandma of sexual assault. It’s really when you put the suspicious circumstances together with the accusations that we have what I see as an almost ironclad case against the king of pop. If, at the time of his trial, the other accusers had come forward to testify against him, I, as a jury member, would have had no reasonable doubt. I would have returned a verdict of guilty. The sole somewhat-discredited accuser left room for reasonable doubt. I don’t see any of that room now.
But I still maintain that, while there may have been room for reasonable doubt at the time of the trial, I would have believed in my heart of hearts that MJ was guilty as sin. And that’s legitimate. The court of public opinion operates on a lesser standard than the criminal courts, and rightly so. We still need to make up our minds based on the best evidence we have. It’s still a good idea to lean towards thinking the best of people as far as possible and not immediately rush to the guilty verdict on the slightest of evidence or no real evidence at all.
And, no, we don’t want to “Believe all women.” Or all men. Or all children. Or all anybodies. Some women lie. Some men lie. Some children lie. It’s good to maintain a healthy scepticism. We’d do well to reserve judgement until after weighing all the evidence and hearing all the stories. But what we call “common sense” (I’m starting to think it’s rather uncommon) must be allowed to prevail in the court of public opinion.
I can promise you this: If my adult next-door neighbour was having series of little boys who were not related to him over for sleepovers at his house, grooming one after the other to sleep alone in the same bed with him, if I were the parent of a young boy, do you think there’s any way on God’s green earth I would be allowing my little boy to go for sleepovers with the man? Until accusations came out, there may be no grounds for charging the neighbour, but there would be 110% grounds for the parents saying, “Over my dead body!”
And that brings me to the second part of the MJ situation that I want to talk about, and this is the part that has me spitting fire: the cult of celebrity-ism. Why didn’t the parents involved in the MJ situation say to Michael Jackson, “Over my dead body!”? Why is my homepage on YouTube flooded with videos in defence of Michael Jackson’s innocence? Why are the comment sections under the other videos I watched, declaring Michael Jackson guilty, flooded with attacks on the ones making these videos? Why did I see the same reaction from Bill Cosby fans to the multiple accusations against him? Why did OJ get off? Why (in a recent development) is the Jussie Smollett case not going to court (as of this writing. Maybe that will change if the prosecutor is investigated. If you’re not tracking with this one, no time to explain here!)? Why aren’t these valiant warriors in the cause of “presumption of innocence” (or so they would claim) taking up their cudgels on behalf of the Pennsylvania priests? All we have in the cases of the Pennsylvania priests are multiple accusations. Probably some of those accusations are false. (Fame-seekers will jump on bandwagons once they’re rolling.) Perhaps one of the Pennsylvania priests was falsely accused by one of these fame-seekers. Why aren’t we sifting and dissecting and tearing apart every bit of evidence against the Pennsylvania priests the way the MJ apologists are doing on behalf of their idol? If the Pennsylvania priests’ cases could have been brought to court, then their defence lawyers would have been obliged to treat the evidence against them the way this worldwide team of MJ advocates have treated the evidence against him. They attempt to discredit all the witnesses against him and explain away or reframe all the circumstantial evidence. That’s how the courtroom system works, and it’s a necessary step in a fair trial. The evidence must be given a good, hard shake. That’s the job of the legal team on both sides. But these Michael Jackson defenders are self-appointed and unpaid. Why are they devoting their time and energy volunteering to his cause? What’s their motivation?
My only surmise is the cult of celebrity-ism. Unreasoning worship. The blind faith and wish-fulfillment often perceived to be the basis of all religion. Believing without evidence. Or even against the evidence.
Am I, as a Christian, guilty of the kind of thinking and behaviour I see exemplified by the Michael Jacksonians? Do I pass off and justify to myself bias or gullibility as logic and reason? I try to take a step back from time to time to see if what I believe really is based on my honest appraisal of the evidence. I think it is, but I acknowledge I might not be the best judge of my own reasoning. Then again, you might not be the best judge of my reasoning. You’re also human. You’re also prone to biases. Your bias might lean in a different direction than mine, and you might be just as convinced as I am that your reasons for what you believe are just as reasonable and logical as I believe mine to be. And as the Michael Jackson disciples believe theirs to be.
Nevertheless, I think the time has come for me to start explaining my thinking, and you can judge for your biased self what you think about my thinking. I’d like to do a series on why I believe what I believe as a Christian. If you’re more interested in the political side of this blog, you may not be interested in the Christian issues I want to write about, but because the two are hopelessly entangled in my mind, they will end up being hopelessly entangled in this blog, as well. And I don’t want to keep inserting my Christian viewpoints as assumptions into these posts. I’d like to give my best shot at having you understand where I’m coming from and maybe, just maybe, opening your mind to the possibility that Christians are not quite as crazy as you presently think they are.
So, that’s what I’ll be attempting in the next few blog posts: defending my beliefs as a Christian. I hope, if you’ll follow along, that, unlikely as it may look to you right now, you’ll go away thinking that there are better reasons to believe the Bible than there are reasons for letting your kids go for sleepovers at Neverland.
C’mon, people! Fight the urge towards the unthinking worship of celebrities. Exercise some common sense. Parents, protect your kids as much as you reasonably can. Never let Neverland ever happen again.
And all of us, let’s try to see around our biases. Let’s have good reasons for what we believe based on the best evidence at our disposal. Let’s acknowledge our feelings but act on our reasoning. Let’s make common sense common again. Let’s be thinking adults, not gullible children. Let’s stay grounded in reality. Let’s get the heck out of NeverNeverland!