Jackson Hearing Centers On Sealed Papers

Court, media at odds over secrecy issue.

The judge in the Michael Jackson child-molestation case has scheduled a pretrial hearing for today (June 25), a proceeding likely to focus on whether many aspects of the case will be kept from public view.

The majority of 13 items on Friday's calendar concern the secrecy surrounding the case and the sealing of almost all documents.

Prosecutors and Jackson's new defense lawyer have consistently sought to keep documents under seal. A coalition of news media outlets has opposed those efforts, asking for a grand jury transcript, portions of a grand jury indictment and at least 47 sealed search warrants to be made public.

Jackson will not attend Friday's hearing. His lawyer has declined to comment on why he wants so many documents sealed, including his own motion to suppress evidence against the singer.

Legal experts suggest the Jackson case is emblematic of a new brand of American justice, especially when trials involve celebrities. In those cases, judges increasingly are trying to keep their proceedings and related documents from the public eye.

"Since the last hearing, the practice has continued to be to file virtually every document under seal. They're keeping the public in the dark," says attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., who represents the coalition of news organizations.

"The obsession with secrecy appears now to have gone off the deep end," First Amendment lawyer Douglas Mirrell says. "The judicial obsession with treating celebrities in a manner different than all other defendants has turned the courts in an unprecedented direction."

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville issued sealing orders for 24 more search warrants served on banks, car companies, credit card firms and department stores. What was sought or found was not specified. The news media objected but was overruled.

Jackson, 45, has pleaded not guilty to committing a lewd act upon a child, administering alcohol and conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

Key sections of the indictment against the music superstar are blacked out. The names of five alleged co-conspirators remain secret, as do 28 specific acts the prosecution alleges in support of the charges.

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