SANTA MARIA, Calif. – Wanly blowing kisses of gratitude to his screaming fans, Michael Jackson left court a free man Monday and went back to Neverland to pick up the pieces of his shattered career and image.

Jackson, 46, was cleared of all charges in his child-molestation trial, hearing the words “not guilty” uttered 14 times in a deathly still courtroom. The Peter Pan of pop music could have gotten nearly 20 years behind bars if convicted of charges that he molested a 13-year-old cancer survivor at Neverland in 2003.

A motionless Jackson dabbed at his eyes with a tissue as the verdicts were read, and he later was embraced by his chief lawyer, Thomas Mesereau Jr. Another member of his defense team burst into tears, and some of the women in the jury also wept and passed around a box of tissues.

Jackson, looking drawn, walked out of court minutes later to shrieks from fans, waved weakly and was driven home to his Neverland ranch, where applauding fans ran after his caravan as it disappeared behind the bunting-decorated gates.

“Justice is done. The man’s innocent. He always was,” Mesereau said on a Jackson Web site.

Jurors also acquitted Jackson of getting the boy drunk and of conspiring to imprison the accuser and his family at Neverland, bringing an end to a four-month trial in which the pop star insisted he was the victim of mother-and-son con artists and a prosecutor with a vendetta.

Jurors remained guarded about details of their 30 hours of deliberations over seven days but offered some insight during a news conference, saying they were irritated by the testimony of the accuser’s mother, who at one point snapped her fingers at them.

“I disliked it intensely when she snapped her fingers at us,” said one juror, a woman. She said she thought to herself, “Don’t snap your fingers at me, lady.” The jurors were not identified.

The acquittals marked a stinging defeat for Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who displayed open hostility for Jackson and had pursued him for more than a decade, trying to prove the rumors that swirled around Jackson about his fondness for children.

Sneddon sat with his head in his hands after the verdicts were read.

“We don’t select victims of crimes and we don’t select the family. We try to make a conscientious decision and go forward,” Sneddon said afterward, adding “I’m not going to look back and apologize for anything that we’ve done.”

Fans outside the courthouse jumped up and down, thrust their fists in the air, hugged each other and threw confetti. A woman in the crowed released one white dove as each acquittal was announced.

The verdict means Jackson will be free to try to rebuild his blighted musical career. But his legal victory came at a terrible price to his image.

Prosecutors branded him a deviant who used his playland as the ultimate pervert’s lair, plying boys with booze and porn. Prosecution witnesses described other bizarre behavior by Jackson: They said he licked his accuser’s head, simulated a sex act with a mannequin, kept dolls in bondage outfits on his desk.

Defense lawyers described Jackson as a humanitarian who wanted to protect kids and give them the life he never had while growing up as a child star. The boy had asked to meet the star when he thought he was dying of cancer.

The defense said the family exploited the boy’s illness to shake down celebrities, then concocted the charges after realizing Jackson was cutting them off from a jet-set lifestyle that included limo rides and stays at luxurious resorts.

Jackson was cleared of 10 charges in all, including four counts that he molested the boy in early 2003. Jackson also was charged with providing the boy with wine – “Jesus juice,” the pop star called it – and conspiring with members of his inner circle to hold the accuser and his family captive to get them to rebut a damaging documentary.

The case was set in motion by the 2003 broadcast of the British TV documentary “Living With Michael Jackson” that Jackson had hoped would actually improve his image. In the program, Jackson held hands with the boy who would later accuse him, and he acknowledged sharing his bed with children, a practice he described as sweet and not at all sexual.

The program triggered intense media scrutiny of Jackson’s relationship with the boy, as well as calls for investigations. Authorities interviewed the boy and Jackson was charged before year’s end.

At the trial, prosecutors would allege that Jackson molested the boy in the weeks after the family helped Jackson record a rebuttal video.

The boy, now 15, testified that Jackson twice masturbated him while they were under the covers in the singer’s bedroom. The boy’s brother testified he twice witnessed Jackson fondle the boy as he slept.

Prosecutors said kids were allowed the run of Neverland – a fantasy land of amusement park rides, golf carts and exotic animals about 110 miles northwest of Los Angeles – before being molested in Jackson’s bedroom.

Under an unusual California law, prosecutors were allowed to introduce evidence of other instances of molestation on Jackson’s part that never resulted in any charges, to prove that the alleged crimes were part of a pattern of behavior.

A parade of servants and other Neverland staff members described seeing Jackson grope or otherwise molest boys, with a one-time security guard saying he saw the singer shower with and perform oral sex on a boy who later received a settlement with Jackson.

The defense systematically portrayed the household help as disgruntled employees who were angry about being fired and peddled gossip about the pop star to the supermarket tabloids.

The defense also relentlessly attacked the credibility of the accuser and his family, namely by focusing on a $152,000 settlement they received from J.C. Penney after the mother accused store security guards of roughing up the family and groping her.

Jackson’s lawyers said it was a trumped-up lawsuit and suggested that the woman’s injuries were actually caused by her abusive then-husband. The defense also portrayed the mother as a welfare cheat for obtaining benefits after winning the settlement.

Witnesses for the defense testified that during the weeks the boy and his family were supposedly being held against their will by Jackson’s associates, they were taken on shopping sprees, the mother went to a spa for a body wax, and the children had an orthodontist appointment – all paid for by Jackson.

In jumbled and tearful testimony, the accuser’s mother claimed that Jackson’s associates held her against her will, warning her that killers were after the family and that they might somehow disappear from Neverland in a hot-air balloon.

“Please don’t judge me!” the mother implored jurors, holding out her arms. “He’s wrong!” she said, pointing at Mesereau, an aggressive defense attorney with a mane of pure white hair and the build of a prize fighter.

Up against Mesereau was Sneddon, who eagerly brought Jackson to trial – an opportunity denied him in 1993 when the star settled another threatened molestation case with a boy for $15 million to $20 million. Later, Jackson derided Sneddon in song as “a cold man.”

Several celebrities testified for Jackson, including Macaulay Culkin and comedians Jay Leno and Chris Tucker. Tucker said he felt used by the family and warned Jackson to beware. Culkin said he slept in Jackson’s bed as a child but nothing improper ever happened, contradicting testimony that Jackson put his hands up the “Home Alone” actor’s shorts.

The case unfolded at times like a circus. After his arraignment, Jackson jumped atop an SUV and danced for cheering fans. He failed to show up for court one morning and was nearly jailed before he shuffled in wearing pajama bottoms, suffering from what aides said was a back injury. Often, he came to court in dark jackets and a rainbow of vests and matching arm bands.

Prosecutors portrayed Jackson as being in dire financial straits because of heavy spending. Jackson’s “Thriller” album from 1982 is one of the best-selling albums of all time, but his dominance of pop music eroded around the time molestation allegations began to arise in the 1990s.

Jackson never took the stand, but spoke on several videos played in court.

On one video, Jackson said he would often hug or play with his chimp Bubbles to relax after a hard day’s work. He also said he once considered having a celebrity animal party for Bubbles.

The trial seemed to wear Jackson down. He lost weight, and the artist known for his electric, moonwalking performances was rendered motionless, seemingly frozen in his courtroom chair as his private world became utterly public.

The defense also used a powerful tape of Jackson shot by his own video cameraman. The jury saw nearly three hours of introspection during which the star talked about his troubled childhood.

“I haven’t been betrayed or deceived by children,” he said. “Adults have let me down.”



Associated Press Writer Tim Molloy contributed to this report.


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