SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- In a high-stakes drama of legal gamesmanship, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Michael Jackson child molestation case are battling over still-secret evidence that might make or break the case against the pop star.
During pretrial hearings that resume Monday, the defense has been trying to suppress evidence from two searches, claiming one sweep at Jackson's Neverland estate was overbroad and unjustified, and that another at a private investigator's office violated attorney-client confidentiality.
But defense attorneys also have shrewdly used the inquiry to uncover information from key witnesses -- including the stepfather of Jackson's accuser, who admitted demanding money for the boy's family to appear on a video tribute to Jackson's kindness.
The testimony had little to do with either search. Yet it appeared to bolster a key defense contention likely to be raised at Jackson's upcoming trial -- that he could have been the target of a shakedown.
Ironically, amid all the accusations of misconduct, the public still doesn't know specifically what the two sides are arguing about.
Search warrant affidavits are sealed and witnesses speak only in vague terms about videotapes and other data seized in the separate searches at the private investigator's office and Neverland.
"It's a bit of a question just how important the evidence is," said Levenson. "But given the fight that's going on, it must be important. This is a major battleground."
Jackson, 45, is charged with committing a lewd act upon a child, administering an intoxicating agent and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail. Trial is set for Jan. 31.
Steve Cron, a defense attorney and adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine University, wondered if the material being debated is worth all the trouble.
"I doubt there will be a smoking gun anywhere," he said, adding that if there's something significant, the defense will have a hard time excluding it. "My experience has always been that the more important the evidence is, the more judges will try to justify the search," Cron said.