Hearts trampled and helicopters poised, tension runs high on verdict watch

JOURNALISTS swarm around the grounds of Santa Maria courthouse desperately looking for a story; fans proclaim Michael Jackson’s innocence to anyone who will listen, and scores of police officers keep watch over it all.

Another day of waiting begins at the site of the Jackson trial in southern California as jurors start their sixth day of deliberations, following a half day on Wednesday.

Since the 12 jurors retired to consider their verdict on Friday afternoon they have become the central players in the world’s most talked-about trial. The eight women and four men, who range in age from 20 to 79, have sat through four months of trial and heard testimony from more than 140 witnesses. Now they face the task of following 98 pages of instruction from Judge Rodney S Melville to decide whether or not Jackson gave alcohol to and molested a 13-year-old cancer victim in 2003.

If they find Jackson guilty of all 10 charges, he will face up to 20 years in prison.

There has been a massive surge of interest in the trial since it entered its final stages in the last few weeks.

Fans and journalists have descended from all around the world. Helicopters hired by the main news networks have flown in to do test runs in preparation for verdict day. News vans have been stationed outside Jackson’s home, Neverland Valley Ranch.

Earlier this week, a portable toilet appeared outside the ranch to accommodate the growing crowd.

The scene outside the courthouse has been mainly one of waiting, relieved by short dramatic episodes, most of which are prompted by the appearance of one of Jackson’s posse. On Monday it was Jackson’s father, Joseph, who caused excitement that turned to chaos when he walked up the street where the hundreds of fans wait and onto the court grounds.

The next day it was civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson who caused a stir by turning up to defend Michael.

He told reporters that Jackson had invited him to Neverland for spiritual and moral guidance and that Michael has absolute faith in the justice system and was hopeful of a full acquittal.

The following day Jackson’s spokesperson, Raymone Bain, also showed up accompanied by Frank Dileo, who managed Jackson’s career in the 1980s and worked on his Bad album and Moonwalker video.

While these personalities have given journalists something to talk about, many prefer to focus their reporting on the fans.

Most fans said last week that they expected an immediate verdict of not guilty on all charges.

As the deliberations have continued, the atmosphere among them has become more and more strained.

This has led to frequent spats sometimes among themselves but usually involving media personnel, whom they accuse of being biased and untruthful in their reporting.

Fans are also unhappy about the presence of other people who’ve been drawn to the courthouse circus to promote their own beliefs, including religious extremists, supporters of child abuse victims and protesters against the Iraqi war.

The friction isn’t limited to the courthouse. There have been several confrontations between locals and fans gathered outside Neverland which is about 48 kilometres south of Santa Maria.

On Monday a woman mowed down 60 large hearts fans had planted on a long stretch of the road leading up to the ranch.

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