Keep this in mind as you read: justice equals just, fair treatment and behavior. Justice for Michael Jackson equals just, fair treatment and behavior towards Michael Jackson. Justice and fairness do not imply exoneration. Nor do they imply accusation.
This is where my story of American justice for Michael Jackson begins: the night Michael Jackson died, which I remember.
Maybe you’re thinking I must be a super-fan. A stan, as I’ve learned they’re called. I heard a lot about stans and “stanning” in the nasty Twitter exchanges that ensued after I announced I’d be running an article on Michael Jackson. In most of the exchanges, one party — usually an account called “Believe Victims” or something along those lines — accused another — usually a normal person — of being a Michael Jackson stan. Stans are overzealous, obsessed fans. I have no idea how they came to be called stans. I’m sure the word has an etymology, like any other word. I’m sure I could research it.
In this day and age, you can research anything.
I remember the night — or, rather, the afternoon — he died not because I’m a super-fan, but for a different reason. Actually, I’m not really a fan at all. This is, of course, all up to you to believe. If you want to go along thinking I’m a stan, like some people on Twitter seemed to think, go right ahead.
Here’s my involvement with Michael Jackson and his music prior to my research for this article. I’ve never met him. I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I do listen to a few of his songs. “Billie Jean” is my favorite, followed by “Thriller,” followed by “Beat It.” Oh, and “The Man in the Mirror”? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I listened to an acoustic version sung by James Morrison and thought it was his song for the longest time, before I heard it on the radio sung by the king of pop one day and realized I was mistaken. That I had been mistaken.
I remember the afternoon he died because it happened near my brother’s birthday, which is June 26. I’ve just run the Google search, and Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, which would have made me 10 years old if I’m doing the math right, and my brother would have been turning eight the next day. Anyway, there’s something we did in my family around birthdays: We drove the 20 or 30 minutes from Medford out to the Burlington Mall in Burlington, Massachusetts and went to the Lego store. As kids, my siblings and I loved Legos. But we were only allowed to go shopping for them on our birthdays. By that time, there were four birthdays. Mine, my brother Joe’s, my sister KK’s, and my sister Mary’s, although Mary was too young to shop for Legos. We did the shopping for her.
I don’t remember what Legos Joe picked out that day, because that’s not the sort of thing you tend to remember. What you might tend to remember is the radio announcer with a sad, shocked sound in his voice telling you that Michael Jackson, the king of pop, has died. I remember that. I was sitting in the front seat. We were on the highway, heading back home. It wasn’t afternoon anymore, but it wasn’t quite evening. And on the radio, they kept saying Michael Jackson was dead.
Later, the next day or whenever, I found out about the pills his doctor had provided him with. Or given him. It’s still unclear what happened.
My household was a pretty limited-technology household. We didn’t have a TV. And that was back in the day when not having a TV was a big deal. We had a computer, but we were only allowed to use it for half an hour a day on the weekends. We called it “computer time.”
As a result, I was pretty closed off from popular music of my day and age until I got to middle school and started hearing it on the bus.
Sometime during my middle school career, my dad started playing us videos on YouTube in the evenings, every now and then. Some were clips of the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail performing little sketches like “Crunchy Frog.” Which is a must-watch. You must go watch it.
Others were music videos. In terms of music videos, we watched two artists and two artists alone. The first was “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the second was Michael Jackson. Sometimes, we watched them side-by-side, because “Weird Al,” for those of you who don’t know, has parodied a number of Michael Jackson’s songs. “Beat It” becomes “Eat It” beneath his weird gaze. “Bad” becomes “Fat” (I’m fat, I’m fat, I’m really really fat) and “Weird Al” grows to gigantic proportions onscreen with the help of some very primitive effects.
This is how I came to know about Michael Jackson, how I came to watch his iconic dances, and how I came to hear his iconic voice. Of course, growing up in the 2000s, the world was still saturated by Michael Jackson’s music and his presence and his image and the moonwalk and everything else. So I’m sure I saw him elsewhere, too. But this is how I remember hearing his songs and picking a few favorites, the ones I’ve already listed.
This is where my story of justice for Michael Jackson begins in earnest. I remember learning, probably sometime towards the end of high school, in 2016 or 2017, about the new allegations (Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s allegations) against Michael Jackson and about the old ones, too. And I remember thinking, Oh, man. The guy sure could sing and dance, but he did some horrible things in his time.
It didn’t turn me off from his music. In general, I separate artists’ bad behavior from their work. I recognize that some people don’t, and this is perfectly fine with me. (If you want to read more about what I think about “cancel culture,” check out my article on cancel culture.) But I was willing to keep listening, because damn — the man could sing. I wasn’t willing to dig any deeper to see whether or not the allegations were true. I just assumed, since there were multiple, that they had to be true. That was my understanding of pedophilia at the time. I didn’t even know how many alleged victims there were, but it didn’t matter. More than one? Pattern. Pedophile.
This was also around the time that Bill Cosby was facing charges of sexual assault. He, as you probably know, was ultimately convicted in a court of law. Since we’d been young, my parents had been playing his CDs, and my siblings and I had laughed along. Now, the CDs sat on the shelf collecting dust. My parents were unwilling to listen to material recorded by a known rapist. Even a funny one. And I didn’t begrudge them that. It still does put a bitter taste in my mouth every time I want to reference a funny Bill Cosby moment and realize that the crowd might not want to hear it. Because it makes people uncomfortable. So I leave it in my head. And I would never defend Bill Cosby, who was tried and convicted in a court of law.
Bad people are sometimes funny too. Bad and funny are not diametrically opposed. Neither are bad and “sings really well” or bad and “dances really well” or bad and “creates really beautiful artwork.” You can lie somewhere on the bad-good scale (and believe me, few people lie on the ends) and lie somewhere on the bad-good artist scale (again, few people lie on the ends).
Square One and the 1993 Chandler Allegations
I had just posted a review of the 2017 Jordan Peele film Get Out when I received a message from Jess Garcia, @hatethejess, saying she’d liked my review and was wondering if I’d be interested in a 2019 documentary about Michael Jackson. My interest was piqued. Let’s just say that I really like it when people come out of the blue and have the initiative to approach me. Indie filmmakers and writers of the world, I’m speaking to you! We all need to help each other.
At any rate, I got right on it. I spent the next hour and a half watching the documentary, which is delightfully slim but jam-packed with information and insight into the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson. Those are, in other words, the first allegations against the performer, leveled against him by the family of Jordan Chandler.
Here’s the hook of Square One.
On August 17, 1993, the Los Angeles police department opened an investigation against Michael Jackson based on an allegation that he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler.
On January 25, 1994, Michael Jackson settled a civil lawsuit with the Chandler family for $15 million.
“… the settlement had left Mr. Jackson open to similar suits.” — The New York Times, January 26, 1994
Jordan Chandler has never publicly spoken about the allegations.SQUARE ONE, opening sequence
This lady, Josephine Zohny, appears onscreen. She’s a big Michael Jackson fan. He’s part of the reason why she came to NYU in 2001 to study music business.
Then she says she knew Jordan Chandler, who attended NYU and studied in the same program at the same time. She and Jordan weren’t friends, but they were friendly acquaintances. The first time they met, Jordan told Josephine that he liked her T-shirt — which was from Jackson’s Victory Tour.
Later on in the documentary, she relates how Jordan went as far as to defend Michael Jackson when allegations resurfaced, culminating in Jackson’s 2005 acquittal in a court of law. Piece by piece, Square One dismantles the 1993 allegations against Jackson, laying out a detailed and probable case that those allegations were a scheme by which Evan Chandler, Jordy’s father, hoped to profit — and ultimately did, in the $15 million settlement.
Although few (or no) documentaries have approached the 1993 allegations from a standpoint assuming Jackson’s guilt, the fact remains that, as The New York Times pointed out, the settlement left Jackson open to similar cases against him, given that it made him appear to have a hand of guilt in the matter. In one of its most compelling strokes, Square One gives the real reason why Jackson settled. If he hadn’t, his lawyers would have been forced to reveal the details of their case in a civil suit preceding a criminal suit. Because the prosecution would have had the chance to work through the defense in advance of said criminal suit, there was a higher chance that Jackson would face a conviction. For this reason, Jackson and his lawyers chose the lesser of two evils and settled the civil suit before the trial could proceed in court.
There’s a widespread belief in this country that settling a case for a large sum of money makes the accused party guilty. This simply isn’t true. There are numerous reasons to settle court cases, among them a desire to avoid a lengthy trial, additional costs, or legal loopholes like the one Jackson would have faced. Following Jackson’s settlement, that particular loophole was in fact written out of law with the passage of a bill stating that criminal cases had to proceed before civil suits on the same matter. A positive development for law and the justice system. No justice for Michael Jackson, perhaps, but justice for people coming after him.
In the end, no criminal case was filed against Jackson by the Chandlers, because by the time they were looking to pursue criminal charges, Jordy had refused to testify against Jackson. He has, as the opening sequence of Square One points out, never spoken publicly about the charges.
Reasonable Doubt and Plausible Alternative
Square One, as a documentary, leans on the evidence. The cold, hard, court case evidence, the evidence that’s recorded, with a few personal testimonies mixed in. But mostly solid evidence, connected with lines of conjecture. And, listen, it’s okay to create a documentary that’s partly based on conjecture. After all, if Michael Jackson didn’t abuse Jordy Chandler, what did happen?
It’s about creating a plausible alternative out of the evidence. This is, oftentimes, one of the main ways a defense presents its case: by creating an alternative so plausible that it approaches the truth. In this way, the defense proves reasonable doubt. In this case, there is reasonable doubt. Square One highlights it. There’s evidence in the opposite direction, evidence suggesting that Jordan Chandler’s father was looking to extort money from Jackson through whatever means possible. I could tell you all about it — the calls between Evan Chandler and Michael’s lawyers, the “lie-inducing” drug Evan subjected Jordy to, and more. But I want you to watch Square One yourself, so I won’t spoil the details that convinced me.
Michael Jackson’s story has two sides. On one stands the time-tested but yes, somewhat flawed hand of American justice. On the other stands the new and indisputably biased hand of the media circus. Call them trial by jury and trial by media, if you will. One lives and breathes the mantra “innocent until proven guilty.” At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. The other seems to live and breathe, at best, “guilty until proven innocent,” but sometimes it lives and breathes “guilty until proven guilty.” Which is to say that the circus continues long after it becomes clear that the party in question in innocent, because people keep adding fuel to the fire. Accused of wrongdoing once, accused of wrongdoing forever. Stained of wrongdoing forever. Even if there’s a court case. Even if that court case goes your way.
To take part in the media circus is to repudiate the American justice system.
The thing is, there are a lot of people who want to repudiate the American justice system. Because, as I said before, it’s flawed. We know it’s flawed because sometimes, it sends the innocent to jail. But the way it’s designed, it’s meant to prioritize innocence over guilt. It’s meant to set ten guilty people free before it locks up one innocent. To create a system like that requires a great deal of faith in humanity. It requires you to know you’ll let some guilty people go, in exchange for making certain that the ones who are innocent will walk free.
There are practical reasons for the system to work like this. If we presumed everyone guilty until proven innocent, jails would be a lot more crowded. The defense would have the burden of proof. They’d essentially be suing for their client’s innocence. The prosecution, meanwhile, would have the edge.
More often than not, they’d win. Because it’s often impossible to prove someone’s innocence.
I admire Square One in some ways because it doesn’t attempt to say, definitively, that Michael Jackson was innocent. The people behind it, of course, believe that he was. But they cover one small portion of his story, the portion they can attack with the best evidence and propose a credible alternative — and one that has, over the years, proven prescient. It’s a documentary that brings justice for Michael Jackson to the 1993 court case.
It does this by presenting the most important information, from a justice standpoint: information from court cases. Calls that passed between client to lawyer. Ways in which interviews were conducted. This sort of information is the kind that another 2019 documentary, one that created a media firestorm around Michael Jackson and his legacy, lacked. I’m talking about Leaving Neverland.
Leaving Neverland and the Burden of Proof
The American justice system functions on “innocent until proven guilty.” Which means, essentially, that the prosecution has the burden of proof. They need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty of whatever crime or wrongdoing they have been accused of. The prosecution must prove this before a jury of American citizens, in an American court of law.
Until a jury does convict the accused party in a court of law, I feel that we, no matter how strongly we may feel about the matter, have our own burden: the burden of impartiality.
That is to say, as a court proceeds, even if I become convinced that the defendant is guilty, I personally feel the need to wait until the verdict is handed down to proclaim their guilt. Even then, there are things we will never know. People fear uncertainty, but we deal with uncertainty every day. Even uncertainty in things as big as criminal cases. Ever watched The Staircase on Netflix? Could you say whether Michael Peterson was innocent or guilty of his wife Kathleen’s murder? Could you even say whether it was murder? There are always unanswered questions. The job of the justice system is to do the best it can, with the evidence it has.
I stress evidence.
After watching Square One, I knew I needed to see the other side of the story. So I watched Leaving Neverland.
From an emotional standpoint, I was moved, or at least wanted to be. So were hundreds of commenters whose angry voices scream from the comments: DENOUNCE JACKSON! IT’S TIME WE CANCEL HIS MUSIC! ERASE HIM FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH! Robson and Safechuck tell tragic stories. And, if the accusations they level are true, they’ve clearly been emotionally moved and remain emotionally confused.
There are things in life I will never know. And the hard truth of Michael Jackson’s guilt or innocence is one of them. I can accept that. If Robson and Safechuck’s stories are true, I feel for them as I feel for all victims of sexual abuse and molestation. But they haven’t given me enough to satisfy their burden of proof. It is possible they will satisfy it in a future case. But it seems likely that they will not. And in that case, Michael Jackson will remain innocent. He is innocent and will remain so until and unless he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In my mind, examining all that I know, the evidence doesn’t exist. In fact, evidence exists towards the contrary: towards proving Michael Jackson’s innocence, which doesn’t need to be proved under our justice system.
And from a cold, logical, reasoned standpoint, Leaving Neverland did not move me in the slightest. It is little more than several hours of hearsay, which is to say relatively useless from the perspective of truth and justice. I am not someone who “believes victims” indiscriminately. I feel for all victims, alleged or not, but that does not mean that I am obligated to believe every single word they say. People have lied in matters of criminal guilt before and they will lie again. Lying for profit is in human nature. I, instead, choose the way of the American justice system, flawed though it may be. I choose to believe the accused innocent until and unless they are proven guilty in a court of law. Leaving Neverland presented no evidence that could have stood on its own right in a court of law.
It presented one single shred of “physical” evidence: a ring James Safechuck claimed Michael Jackson had purchased for him. I don’t know if the impending court case leveled against Jackson by Robson and Safechuck will hinge on that ring. I highly doubt it will. The case is not criminal. It’s civil, because the criminal case has already happened. It happened 2005, and Jackson was acquitted in a court of law. In that trial, Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf, not for the first time. Safechuck has also given testimony supporting Jackson in prior cases. If and when they pursue a case against Jackson, they will be admitting in court that they perjured themselves, in court.
I choose not to overtly connect Leaving Neverland and Square One. They’re about two different things. I will note that I weigh each case separately. That is, even if one alleged victim seems to lack credibility, I don’t let this weigh on the shoulders of the other alleged victims. Each case needs to be judged separately. They can be considered together, but justice needs to be handed down on a case-by-case basis.
However, in my eyes and in the eyes of millions around the world who have weighed the evidence, the evidence is not strong enough in any case. Michael Jackson remains innocent. I’m a skeptical person. If anything, I fall towards the side of believing people guilty before believing them innocent. But in this case, I believe that the justice system has done its job. The FBI investigation that found nothing has done its job. Michael Jackson, for all intents and purposes, is innocent, and it’s time that the media rest their case against him.
The Media Firestorm and the Turnaround
All around the world, in the wake of Leaving Neverland, news outlets declared that the whole world had fallen under Jackson’s spell, and that it was time the spell was broken. It was time to leave Neverland. The media turned on the man who had been, literally, the most loved man in the world during large parts of his life.
Over the next few months, though, people came spilling through the woodwork in support of Jackson, his music, and his legacy. This is the thing about the man: love him or hate him, he practically became a god throughout the course of his lifetime. A superstar singer and dancer, a devoted philanthropist, beloved by people all around the world. Some of his supporters have supported him through thick and thin, through the criminal trial that ended with the 2005 acquittal. Others have just discovered his story. Many are like me. Not super-fans or even fans, but people passionate about the truth and about justice. And trial by media, or trial by documentary, is not conducive to either truth or justice. Trial by media is unfair. It is unjust.
I will not tell you to believe in Michael Jackson’s innocence. I can’t tell you to do that. Neither will I tell you not to believe in his guilt. But that’s what the American justice system tells you to do. And that’s what I choose to believe. I choose not to believe that Michael Jackson is guilty. I choose to believe that he has not been proven guilty, therefore he is innocent. I choose to believe in American justice for Michael Jackson.
Some of you may say the American justice system needs reform. I would agree. But I doubt you would advocate reforming it to resemble trial by media or trial based more heavily on emotional testimonies that pull at people’s heartstrings without proving anything. People are not angels and people are not mind-readers. People sometimes have bad intentions. Approach the world with an air of skepticism, and you will stop yourself from falling into traps.
I will tell you to look at all the facts available and make up your own mind. When I looked at the facts, and the evidence, I saw that there has never been enough verifiable evidence — not even enough credible witnesses — to prove Jackson guilty. There is, in fact, more evidence on the other side: defense evidence that Jackson has been the victim of extortion attempts for years.
Michael Jackson, the Man Who Never Grew Up
Jackson himself probably could have used some more skepticism. Had he possessed a more skeptical mind, he might have weighed his actions more carefully. I will not lie — in my eyes there is something markedly strange about the relationships Jackson fostered with children throughout his life. Regardless of whether they’re pedophiles or not, most adults don’t create these sorts of relationships with children. Jackson invited trouble upon himself by taking children into his home and even into his bedroom (albeit a very large bedroom). Yet he never lied about any of this. He never hid any of it. People knew he did this. It was an open practice.
Over the course of Jackson’s life, several people who knew him and at least one psychologist who interviewed him suggested he had the mind of a child. That he was stuck with a child’s mind. Had this happened as a result of the abuse he’d suffered during his childhood at the hands of his father? Or was it because he’d grown up too fast and thus hadn’t grown up at all? All this is and will remain conjecture. But it is possible that Jackson surrounded himself with children not because he was a pedophile, but because he liked having them around. They were innocent, they wouldn’t take advantage of him like adults might, and he related to them.
In other words, he could have been a man who loved children without being a pedophile.
Justice for Michael Jackson
The spell is broken, because Jackson is dead. And the children he professed to love have lost their innocence, one way or another. In the end, I lean on the testimonies of those who have testified again and again on his behalf. Macauley Culkin, for instance, whom Wade Robson claims “replaced” him as the object of Michael’s affections, defends Jackson to this day. I lean on the inconsistencies that exist in the stories of Michael Jackson’s accusers.
But more than anything else, I lean on the fact that when the case came to the court of law, a jury of twelve acquitted Michael Jackson and declared justice. Justice for Michael Jackson and justice for the accusers. Justice for all. Justice, after all, is not an inherently positive concept. Justice does not mean exoneration. Justice does not mean compensation. Justice means just, fair treatment in the eyes of the law. Which is to say that accusers, alleged victims, and accused alike get their days in court. Perhaps more days in court will come. This is justice. And for now, justice for Michael Jackson means his vindication. It means his innocence.
I urge you to watch Square One (US link) if you haven’t already. I’ve refrained from giving you a play by play of its events because I want you to see how they unfold with your own eyes. Even if you came here completely convinced of Michael Jackson’s guilt, I want you to watch Square One with as open a mind as possible.
I also urge you to watch Leaving Neverland (again, if you haven’t already, and that’s a link to Part 1). It is a striking, provocative piece of work. It can’t stand as evidence of Michael Jackson’s guilt, but it is a piece that stands as a testament to our times. I’ll let you consider why.
Here’s a list of sources I used in this process:
A timeline of the allegations against Michael Jackson by NPR
A timeline of the allegations against Michael Jackson by The New York Times (notice differences between the two timelines)
From Slate, an article detailing all of the accusers and their accusations
I would like to point out that none of these sources, except perhaps the timeline of events, is without bias. In the case of a documentary, documentaries have a story to tell and therefore possess an essential bias. However, bias in a case like this is useful to study, as long as one takes care to include multiple viewpoints in their research.
I hope you can see that I have made a deliberate effort to examine all sides of this issue, and that I have sought to treat it with care and caution, and that I have attempted to afford justice for Michael Jackson and justice for the other parties involved. I don’t expect you to take anything I’ve written as the objective truth of the matter. It’s my viewpoint based on all of the media I’ve consumed during the process of my research. You may have a different view or put your faith in different sources than I do, and that’s all right. I afford you your opinion. I hope you will afford me mine.
Now I would like to acknowledge first the two teams that produced Square One and Leaving Neverland, the two documentaries that made this commentary possible. I would especially like to thank Jess Garcia, the associate producer of Square One, for reaching out to me and opening my mind to this field of discourse. I don’t run a great number of long-form articles like this, but this topic really piqued my interest and struck me as something important and worthwhile.
It’s my hope that you’ve found this article as worthwhile to read as I found it to write. Thank you for your readership. The comments section is open to all points of view, though I will be moderating it for civility. Please moderate yourselves, and I am sure we will have a positive conversation.
If you enjoyed American Justice for Michael Jackson…
First, read my followup to this post, “The Tragic Life of Michael Jackson,” for more of my opinion on the matter.
Then check out some of my other articles for justice-minded people like you.
- 5 Reasons Why Cancel Culture Is Dangerous
- Education Inequity & COVID-19
- Protests and Police Brutality
- Pete Seeger, Labor Unions, and the Allure of American Socialism
follow voyage of the mind…
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