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Who's Gagging Who?

Thomas Mesereau Jr., as attorney for Michael Jackson, talks on cell phone while waiting for Jackson to arrive at Santa Barbara County Superior Court, Santa Maria, California, 3-10-05, on the day the pop star ultimately turned up late - in his pajama bottoms.
AP
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

The big news Wednesday at the Michael Jackson trial didn't come from jurors. It didn't come from the judge. It came from lead defense attorney Thomas Mesereau, who in the midst of a media frenzy here, had to issue a formal statement telling his client's so-called spokespeople to stop preening for the cameras.

First came the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who never met a camera he didn't like, who held a meandering morning press conference right by the courthouse door. Next it was Michael Jackson's spokesperson, Raymone Bain, who never met a question she couldn't avoid answering, who came to that same spot during the afternoon and told reporters that we shouldn't presume that the Reverend spoke for the defendant.

All this was too much for Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville, and probably to prosecutors and Mesereau, too. So there was a meeting of the attorneys and the judge and at the end of it the defense issued a statement that told the world that neither the Reverend nor Bain were authorized to speak on behalf of the defense.

Trouble in Neverland? Perhaps. It's probably another lesson for the King of Pop that he cannot manipulate the message now like he has so many times before during his career. Trouble inside the jury room? Probably not. There is no indication that all the meaningless words uttered during the course of the day by the Reverend or Bain had any impact upon the jury.

But there is no reason even to take a chance. What concerns the attorneys and the judge is that something these public speakers will say will somehow get in front of jurors at the most sensitive point in the case. The place where the news conferences take place here is about 50 feet away from where the jurors hang out during their breaks. Can you imagine if one of those jurors, just by accident, just happened to hear what was being said at the microphone?

Mesereau, prosecutors, and the judge can imagine it. They know that any mess up now will waste the better part of a year of their lives. They know that this is the worst time for public chatter in the shadow of the courthouse. And no side wants it to blow up what has otherwise been a model trial in many respects. Whether the judge ordered the defense attorney to issue the statement, or whether prosecutors demanded it, or even whether Mesereau came up with the idea himself, it makes perfect sense.

Michael Jackson's lawyer is telling everyone else on Team Jackson to shut up and keep quiet until the verdict comes in. He is distancing his client from their remarks and the motives behind them. He is signaling the judge that he will not take the fall if the Reverend and the spokesperson come back and keep talking. He is warning them that they do so at their own risk.

The only people whose words count now are the jurors. They are the ones we all ultimately will have to listen to. Until then, the less that's said out of court, and the softer it is spoken, the better.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.