People v. Jackson

Decision Date27 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. B176587.,B176587.
Citation128 Cal.App.4th 1009,27 Cal.Rptr.3d 596
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff, v. Michael Joseph JACKSON, Defendant and Respondent; NBC Universal, Inc., et al., Movants and Appellants; The Superior Court of Santa Barbara County, Respondent.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., William E. Thomson, Julian Poon, Michael H. Dore, Los Angeles, for Movants and Appellants.

Collins, Mesereau, Reddock & Yu, Thomas A. Mesereau, Jr., Susan C. Yu, Los Angeles; Sanger & Swysen, Robert M. Sanger, Stephen K. Dunkle, Santa Barbara; Oxman & Jaroscak, Brian Oxman, Santa Fe Springs, for Defendant and Respondent Michael Joseph Jackson.

Stephen Shane Stark, County Counsel, Stephen D. Underwood, Assistant County Counsel, for Respondent the Superior Court of Santa Barbara County.


Defendant Michael Jackson was indicted on various charges including child molestation. The trial court ordered the grand jury transcript, the indictment, search warrant affidavits and other court records sealed.

Appellants NBC Universal, Inc., et al. (collectively NBC) appeal the trial court's denial of its motions to unseal records. NBC contends the order violates the First Amendment.

At the time of oral argument, most, if not all, of the information NBC sought was available to the public. Some information had been unsealed by the trial judge. Apparently most, if not all, of the information had been "leaked" and was available to hundreds of millions of people through the Internet.

We did not glean these facts from the record. We do not debate the notion held by some that appellate judges live in ivory towers. Such habitations, however, lack what is in abundant supply at sea level — sand in which to bury our heads. Even the most reclusive know that the Michael Jackson prosecution is discussed in many quarters: lively debate at a dinner party, idle conversation in the locker room, or a quick chat at the supermarket checkout counter. We have done our best to limit our exposure to public discourse about the case. However sincere our attempts to deflect conversation to other topics, we could not help but be aware that the information NBC seeks, it has. (Evid.Code, § 452, subd. (g) & (h).)

We therefore asked counsel whether a judicial opinion on its appeal would be academic, if not moot. Counsel responded that an opinion that considers the appeal at the time the motions to unseal were made would establish useful precedent. Bearing in mind the sui generis nature of this case, we leave that assessment to readers, present and future. We therefore journey in an imaginary judicial time machine to last year. We temporarily disarm our powers of hindsight so that our perception of events at the time the motions were made will not be distorted.

We conclude that Judge Rodney Melville carefully balanced the defendant's right to a fair trial and the public's right to know. He displayed sensitivity and insight into these issues, and he made rulings that gave him the flexibility to maintain that balance in an ever-changing environment.

We affirm the orders to seal, with the exception of the indictment. The trial court properly sealed portions of the indictment, including redaction of the names of unindicted purported coconspirators. We order the remainder of the indictment unsealed.


On November 18, 2003, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department executed a search warrant at Jackson's Neverland Ranch and other locations. The trial court initially sealed the warrant return, the inventory of items seized, and the supporting affidavit (warrant materials) for 45 days and then ordered they remain sealed "until, at a minimum, the arraignment in this matter." On January 7, 2004, NBC filed a motion to unseal the warrant materials. Jackson was arraigned on January 16. The court heard arguments on NBC's motion the same day.

On January 23, 2004, the court issued findings and orders supporting sealing of the search warrant materials pursuant to California Rules of Court, rule 243.1.1 The court found that sealing was necessary to protect the privacy of minors. Some statements in the affidavit were made by a minor and his family concerning events of a sexual nature. Some statements were made during counseling, and others contained details of an earlier investigation of Jackson's alleged molestation of another minor.

The court also found that sealing was necessary because of widespread media and public interest. The court stated: "Michael Jackson is a figure recognized around the world and the events surrounding execution of the search warrant, his arrest, and even the file-stamping of the felony complaint have received widespread publicity. There will inevitably be even greater interest in the details of the claimed offenses. This presents a significant challenge to the court with responsibility for insuring that the trial is fair both for the defense and the prosecution. Widespread dissemination of evidence, which may or may not be admissible at trial, can only complicate the process of selecting an unbiased jury. The combination of sensitive information involving minors with the notoriety of a celebrity defendant produces circumstances where without protective measures by the court both the privacy interests of the minors and the public interest on all sides of the issue for a fair trial are imminently threatened with substantial prejudice."

The court found that no redaction of the warrant affidavit was possible without violating the privacy of the minors and prejudicing the jury pool. "Any disclosure in advance of admission of the evidence in a court proceeding burdens the privacy of the minors whose statements are made public, and in the intense environment surrounding the present case immediately threatens the integrity of the jury pool." The court concluded that other alternatives such as cautionary jury instructions would be ineffective because the jury had not yet been chosen and sealing was necessary to avoid prejudicial information from being made public.

The trial court also sealed the transcript of the grand jury proceedings and portions of the 10-count indictment. It redacted from the indictment the name of the minor, descriptions of overt acts relating to a conspiracy charge and the names of alleged unindicted coconspirators.

The court stated: "At the same time, the Court desires that public access be maximized within the limitations of the concern for an unbiased jury pool and a fair trial. All of the charges and sentencing considerations, the findings of the Grand Jury, and all other portions of the indictment, beyond those indicated and the signature of the foreperson, have been made available, remain unsealed, and are posted on the Court's Internet media site."

Thereafter, sheriff's deputies executed approximately 65 additional search warrants. The court ordered these search warrants sealed because "the affidavits contain confidential information, premature disclosure of which may prejudice an ongoing investigation and the constitutional right of both parties to a fair trial."

On June 29, 2004, Jackson filed a motion to dismiss the indictment pursuant to section 995 on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.2 The court released a redacted version of the motion. The district attorney filed its opposition to the motion under seal. The court released a redacted version of the opposition to the motion and Jackson's reply in support of the motion. It ultimately denied the motion.

The court issued findings and an order regarding the sealing motions, oppositions and replies. It reasoned: "Each of these documents in their unredacted form identifies potential witnesses and specifies items of evidence the admissibility of which has yet to be determined by the Court and provides the identity of the minor complaining witness or his family. In particular, the Motion to Set Aside the Indictment argues that the indictment should be set aside, in part, based on the insufficiency of the evidence and on the inadmissibility of the evidence .... [¶] In this case, protection of the Defendant's right to a fair trial and protection of the identity of the minor complaining witness and his family overcomes the right of public access to the record. A substantial probability exists that those interests will be prejudiced if the record is not sealed as requested. The intensity of the media coverage in this case is unprecedented. Each court hearing is thoroughly reported and exhaustively analyzed by the media. It is substantially probable that if the evidence expected to be given at trial were to be released pretrial, it would be similarly reported and analyzed. The sealing order is necessary to maintain the integrity of the available jury pool by limiting exposure to the expected evidence and testimony pretrial and to prevent exposure to inadmissible items of evidence. The Court has consistently held that because of the pervasive media coverage in this case, the Defendant's right to a fair trial outweighs public access. Those findings are relevant here and incorporated by reference. . . . [¶] There are no less restrictive means to protect those interests. The extraordinary circumstances present in this case overcome the presumption that cautionary admonitions and instructions to the jury pool would have a curative effect. It is far more desirable to avoid the prejudice in the first instance than to hope to identify unaffected jurors later. [¶] The Court acknowledges that its order must be narrowly tailored to accommodate the maximum public disclosure. Each document has been redacted and released in its redacted form. . . ."

Throughout the pretrial proceedings, the court held several in camera hearings and ordered the transcripts of the hearings sealed, releasing only summary minutes of the hearings.

NBC filed numerous motions opposing the sealing of judicial records...

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