The seeds of settlement were already being sown as the police investigation continued in both counties through the fall of 1993. And a behind-the-scenes battle among Jackson's lawyers for control of the case, which would ultimately alter the course the defense would take, had begun.
By then, June Chandler Schwartz and Dave Schwartz had united with Evan Chandler against Jackson. The boy's mother, say several sources, feared what Chandler and Rothman might do if she didn't side with them. She worried that they would try to advance a charge against her of parental neglect for allowing her son to have sleepovers with Jackson. Her attorney, Michael Freeman, in turn, resigned in disgust, saying later that "the whole thing was such a mess. I felt uncomfortable with Evan. He isn't a genuine person, and I sensed he wasn't playing things straight."
Over the months, lawyers for both sides were retained, demoted and ousted as they feuded over the best strategy to take. Rothman ceased being Chandler's lawyer in late August, when the Jackson camp filed extortion charges against the two. Both then hired high-priced criminal defense attorneys to represent them.. (Rothman retained Robert Shapiro, now O.J. Simpson's chief lawyer.) According to the diary kept by Rothman's former colleague, on August 26, before the extortion charges were filed, Chandler was heard to say "It's my ass that's on the line and in danger of going to prison." The investigation into the extortion charges was superficial because, says a source, "the police never took it that seriously. But a whole lot more could have been done." For example, as they had done with Jackson, the police could have sought warrants to search the homes and offices of Rothman and Chandler. And when both men, through their attorneys, declined to be interviewed by police, a grand jury could have been convened.
In mid-September, Larry Feldman, a civil attorney who'd served as head of the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association, began representing Chandler's son and immediately took control of the situation. He filed a $30 million civil lawsuit against Jackson, which would prove to be the beginning of the end.
Once news of the suit spread, the wolves began lining up at the door. According to a member of Jackson's legal team, "Feldman got dozens of letters from all kinds of people saying they'd been molested by Jackson. They went through all of them trying to find somebody, and they found zero."
With the possibility of criminal charges against
Jackson now looming, Bert Fields brought in Howard Weitzman, a well-known criminal-defense lawyer with a string of high-profile clients -- including John DeLorean, whose trail he won, and Kim Basinger, whose Boxing Helena contract dispute he lost. (Also, for a short time this June, Weitzman was O.J. Simpson's attorney.) Some predicted a problem between the two lawyers early on. There wasn't room for two strong attorneys used to running their own show.
From the day Weitzman joined Jackson's defense team, "he was talking settlement," says Bonnie Ezkenazi, an attorney who worked for the defense. With Fields and Pellicano still in control of Jackson's defense, they adopted an aggressive strategy. They believed staunchly in Jackson's innocence and vowed to fight the charges in court. Pellicano began gathering evidence to use in the trial, which was scheduled for March 21, 1994. "They had a very weak case," says Fields. "We wanted to fight. Michael wanted to fight and go through a trial. We felt we could win."
Dissension within the Jackson camp accelerated on November 12, after Jackson's publicist announced at a press conference that the singer was canceling the remainder of his world tour to go into a drug-rehabilitation program to treat his addiction to painkillers. Fields later told reporters that Jackson was "barely able to function adequately on an intellectual level." Others in Jackson's camp felt it was a mistake to portray the singer as incompetent. "It was important," Fields says, "to tell the truth. [Larry] Feldman and the press took the position that Michael was trying to hide and that it was all a scam. But it wasn't."
On November 23, the friction peaked. Based on information he says he got from Weitzman, Fields told a courtroom full of reporters that a criminal indictmentold a courtroom full of reporters that a criminal indictment against Jackson seemed imminent. Fields had a reason for making the statement: He was trying to delay the boy's civil suit by establishing that there was an impending criminal case that should be tried first. Outside the courtroom, reporters asked why Fields had made the announcement, to which Weitzman replied essentially that Fields "misspoke himself." The comment infuriated Fields, "because it wasn't true," he says. "It was just an outrage. I was very upset with Howard." Fields
"There was this vast group of people all wanting to do a different thing, and it was like moving through molasses to get a decision," says Fields. "It was a nightmare, and I wanted to get the hell out of it." Pellicano, who had received his share of flak for his aggressive manner, resigned at the same time.
With Fields and Pellicano gone, Weitzman brought in Johnnie Cochran Jr., a well-known civil attorney who is now helping defend O.J. Simpson. And John Branca, whom Fields had replaced as Jackson's general counsel in 1990, was back on board. In late 1993, as DAs in both Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties convened grand juries to assess whether criminal charges should be filed against Jackson, the defense strategy changed course and talk of settling the civil case began in earnest, even though his new team also believed in Jackson's innocence.
Why would Jackson's side agree to settle out of court, given his claims of innocence and the questionable evidence against him? His attorneys apparently decided there were many factors that argued against taking the case to civil court. Among them was the fact that Jackson's emotional fragility would be tested by the oppressive media coverage that would likely plague the singer day after day during a trial that could last as long as six months. Politics and racial issues had also seeped into legal proceedings -- particularly in Los Angeles, which was still recovering from the Rodney King ordeal -- and the defense feared that a court of law could not be counted on to deliver justice. Then, too, there was the jury mix to consider. As one attorney says, "They figured that Hispanics might resent [Jackson] for his money, blacks might resent him for trying to be white, and whites would have trouble getting around the molestation issue." In Resnick's opinion, "The hysteria is so great and the stigma [of child molestation] is so strong, there is no defense against it."
Jackson's lawyers also worried about what might happen if a criminal trial followed, particularly in Santa Barbara, which is a largely white, conservative, middle-to-upper-class community. Any way the defense looked at it, a civil trial seemed too big a gamble. By meeting the terms of a civil settlement, sources say, the lawyers figured they could forestall a criminal trial through a tacit understanding that Chandler would agree to make his son unavailable to testify.
Others close to the case say the decision to settle also probably had to do with another factor -- the lawyers' reputations. "Can you imagine what would happen to an attorney who lost the Michael Jackson case?" says Anthony Pellicano. "There's no way for all three lawyers to come out winners unless they settle. The only person who lost is Michael Jackson." But Jackson, says Branca, "changed his mind about [taking the case to trial] when he returned to this country. He hadn't seen the massive coverage and how hostile it was. He just wanted the whole thing to go away."
On the other side, relationships among members of the boy's family had become bitter. During a meeting in Larry Feldman's office in late 1993, Chandler, a source says, "completely lost it and beat up Dave [Schwartz]." Schwartz, having separated from June by this time, was getting pushed out of making decisions that affected his stepson, and he resented Chandler for taking the boy and not returning him.
"Dave got mad and told Evan this was all about extortion, anyway, at which point Evan stood up, walked over and started hitting Dave," a second source says.