02/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
As the prospective jurors filed into the Santa Barbara County courtroom, Michael Jackson hopped to his feet with a disarmingly warm smile of greeting. "This time there will be no moon walking on the roof of his car," says former Bay Area prosecutor Jim Hammer, referring to the incident last year when Jackson showed up for his arraignment and danced atop his vehicle. Jackson's apparent desire to tone down his act seemed in keeping with the fact that he is facing 10 criminal counts involving the alleged molestation of a 13-year-old boy. "He's all about taking care of business," says one source close to Jackson. "He looks like he's ready to fight this out."
That determination will come in handy because his legal battle is likely to be long and bruising. Prosecutor Tom Sneddon has assembled a case against Jackson, 46, that will draw on a considerable body of circumstantial evidence but whose centerpiece will be the direct testimony of the accuser, who is now 15 and a recovering cancer patient. If convicted, Jackson could be sentenced to more than 20 years in jail. That is not to say, however, his case is a slam dunk. "If the prosecution had a perfect case," says Ruth Jones, a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, "there would have been a plea bargain."
For both sides, jury selection—which is expected to take at least three weeks—is fraught with uncertainty. Santa Barbara County is predominantly Latino and white with many socially conservative, blue-collar workers, a demographic that may not be ideal for Jackson. Still, says Hammer, the pressure in selecting jurors is mostly on the prosecution, which needs 12 "guilty" votes to convict. "The prosecution has to get this 100 percent correct," says Hammer. "That's how high the stakes are."