Who's in His Corner?

updated 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

To Michael Jackson, heading into court in Santa Maria, Calif., must have seemed just another amble up a red carpet. Though 20 minutes late for his Jan. 16 arraignment on multiple charges of molesting a then-13-year-old boy, the 45-year-old star (who'd been sitting in his SUV) frittered away additional moments greeting fans. The pointless delay prompted Judge Rodney S. Melville to warn, "You have started out on the wrong foot with me." Then after pleading "not guilty" in his soft voice, the erstwhile King of Pop was back outside, dancing on the roof of the SUV. But the fanciest footwork may be behind the scenes, with the struggle for control of the case—and the defendant—by his sprawling backup team, which includes four lawyers and the Nation of Islam. "It's a tough situation for Michael," says a concerned friend. Even with the united front of his famously dysfunctional family, "This may be his last dance."

First there was attorney to the stars Mark Geragos, 46 (left, who's also handling Scott Peter-son's defense). Now he's been joined by former Manhattan assistant D.A. Benjamin Brafman, 55, a tough, savvy lawyer who defended Sean "P Diddy" Combs during his nightclub shooting fracas in '99. His other clients included Genovese crime-family boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante and Mob hit man Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.

Joe and Katherine Jackson, who've said they'd be willing to raise Michael's kids if custody becomes an issue, prominently seated themselves toward the front of the court with children Tito, 40, Janet, 37, Jermaine, 49, and Randy, 42. (No Marlon, 46, and no LaToya, 47, although a friend describes her as being "so much in support of Michael" despite past differences.)

The militant black movement "is now in charge" of guiding the star's life, says a friend. The group was first brought in as bodyguards for Jackson's children, Prince Michael 1, 6, Paris Michael, 5, and Prince Michael II, 2, at the suggestion of their nanny. But sources say their presence has so disturbed the older children's mother, Debbie Rowe, that she has discussed the matter with Jackson advisers.

The family's other superstar (getting checked by security at court) has said virtually nothing publicly in support of her brother. But several fans say they saw the singer later that day among the thousands who showed up for the open-invite party at Neverland.

Jermaine has been a strong vocal defender. Michael "is 1,000 percent innocent," he said at a news conference Jan. 12. Jermaine, says a source, was one member of the Jackson camp who encouraged the Nation of Islam's involvement.

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