Abstract: The recent Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard civil defamation trial saw fans and media heavily invested in the outcome. In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at the similarities in media reporting – and judging – in this recent case compared to Michael Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial and more recent allegations.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXVIII: Vindication Day seventeen years on and its significance for Michael Jackson fans.” (14-6-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 4 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxviii/
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Vindication Day seventeen years on and its significance for Michael Jackson fans. By Kerry Hennigan
Since 2005, Michael Jackson fans have remembered June 13 as “Vindication Day” or “Victory Day” – it being the date on which the pop icon was acquitted of all charges in the criminal trial held in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County, California. Throughout the trial, fans from all over the world stationed themselves outside the courthouse, providing support to the entertainer in what must have been the very darkest days of his life. Yet, despite the jury’s unanimous “Not Guilty” verdict on all fourteen charges, the child abuse allegations continue to be referenced by the mainstream and tabloid media, casting a shadow on Jackson’s legacy. This, I believe, has little to do with the legal process that cleared him back in 2005, or the believability of any subsequent accusations, and a lot to do with the role the media plays in twenty first century society.
This was seen again recently when another high profile celebrity case made daily headlines and prompted supporting hash tags for both parties on social media. However, trial outcomes do not/should not depend on who has the biggest fanbase, the best hash tag(s), or is able to latch on to a popular cause (like the #metoo movement) no matter how worthy that cause may be in principle. Justice is depicted as blindfolded for good reason; the evidence is meant to be weighed without prejudice through the courts irrespective of the race, creed, colour, gender or sexual orientation – or celebrity status (if any) – of the individuals concerned. Whether or not one is famous makes no difference. We are all human beings; we all deserve those basic human rights as detailed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – that an accused person should be considered innocent of wrongdoing until proven otherwise. 
When the verdict for the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation trial was announced earlier this month, largely in favour of Depp, many media editorials proclaimed it a disaster for survivors of abuse. Michael Jackson fans immediately saw parallels with the way his trial was reported by media outlets in 2005. They have witnessed similar behaviour from the media with regard to the accusations made against Jackson in 2019’s HBO two part television series “Leaving Neverland”. Many fans believe that if his 2005 trial had been broadcast, as the Depp vs. Heard trial was, there would have been far fewer lingering doubts about Jackson’s innocence and less of an audience for his latter-day accusers.
Unfortunately though, the reaction to the Depp vs. Heard verdict tells us that the media will report the outcomes of celebrity trials however it likes, irrespective of what evidence was (or wasn’t) presented, or what was revealed under cross-examination. In its rush to show sympathy unquestioningly for one side against the other, the media forget one of the basic tenants of human rights – that an accused person should be considered innocent of wrongdoing until proven otherwise. Since Michael Jackson’s 2005 trial ended, there have been those who have insinuated that the jury was somehow “bought” or “confused” by a clever defence team paid for out of the supposed-bottomless pockets of a major pop star. Such a suggestion is an insult to the legal process and those who worked hard to see justice fairly done in the face of adverse public opinion aroused by the media’s anti-Jackson narrative.
At the time of his trial, Michael Jackson’s pockets were mired in debt, and his legal team, led by the brilliant Tom Mesereau, didn’t need to “confuse” anyone. All it took was asking the right questions in cross examination to reveal the duplicity of those making the accusations, and those who supposedly “saw something” in return for an irresistible fee offered by a gossip magazine or TV program. The claims of some of these so-called witnesses for the prosecution are still given credence today, as though their “evidence” had never been tested under oath and revealed as totally fabricated. The reality revealed in court was that there was nothing at all to hang a guilty verdict on for all of fourteen charges brought against the pop star. The jury accordingly acquitted him.
Some of the name-calling Jackson was subjected to in the media at the time would be considered unacceptable today – or would it? Because of the facts as revealed and lies exposed under oath, Michael Jackson deserved his “not guilty” verdict on 13 June 2005. Yet he has continued to be demonised by those who would profit from his downfall and the destruction of his legacy. “Leaving Neverland” is just another manifestation of this lusting after mammon at Jackson’s expense. His death in 2009 means that, unlike Depp or Heard, he is not protected from defamation by any law in the US (or in many other countries).
Commencing February 2023, the Michael Jackson Estate’s $100 million lawsuit against HBO prompted by “Leaving Neverland” is scheduled to begin arbitration. In a statement to the media, issued when the court dismissed HBO’s appeal against the original ruling, the Estate said, “It’s time for HBO to answer for its violation of its obligations to Michael Jackson.”  The Estate’s suit, first lodged with the court in 2019, has from the outset, been for arbitration to be conducted in public, to which HBO objected. The media, however, have reported it as the Jackson Estate’s request for “closed-door-secrecy” despite the court documents revealing otherwise.
Whether or not the public gets to watch the arbitration unfold, it will be interesting to see how the matter is reported when the time comes, except… I fear, we already know. Unless, between then and now, the media grows a conscience – and remembers to apply it to Michael Jackson. 
 United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
 MaGee, Ny. “Michael Jackson: Estate Wins Appeal in $100M Battle Over HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’” published electronically Eurweb.com 15 Dec 2020.
 Houghton, Jack. “Media ‘loses reader trust’ by painting the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial as ‘misogynistic’” published electronically Sky News, June 3, 2022.
The MJCast Podcast Episode 145: Vindication Day Special with Brett Barnes. https://open.spotify.com/episode/3x6bIgQv5yKmSN3SlwoKOi
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXV: “With your pen you torture men.” Michael Jackson, trial by media, cancel culture, and the suspension of presumption of innocence.” (14-05-2021).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, No. 4 (2021). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxv/
Vogel, Joe. “What You Should Know About the New Michael Jackson Documentary.” Published electronically 29 Jan 2019 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/joevogel/2019/01/29/what-you-should-know-about-the-new-michael-jackson-documentary/
Jax, Pez. “On Record: Tom Mesereau Exclusive.” Published electronically 13 June 2022 at https://www.pezjax.com/on-record-tom-mesereau-exclusive/
Woodward, Susan. Otherness and Power. Michael Jackson and his media critics. Blackmore Books, 2014. Available from Amazon.
Woodward, Susan. “An Interview with Susan Woodward.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 2, no. 3 (2016). Published electronically 21/05/16. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/an-interview-with-susan-woodward/
The Michael Jackson Allegations. A comprehensive discussion of the child abuse allegations against pop star Michael Jackson. https://themichaeljacksonallegations.com/
Illustration: “#MJInnocent” photo montage designed by Kerry Hennigan. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not for profit educational exercise.