WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Assuming for the moment that Michael Jackson is brought before a jury on charges of molesting a teenage boy, his trial will highlight one of the most significant changes in the modern defense process.
Jury selection has become at least as important as the evidence.
This is especially true when criminal charges rest largely on the word of an alleged victim and when a high-profile defendant is the target of the charges.
Jackson was formally charged Dec. 18 with seven counts of molesting a minor and two counts of administering an intoxicating substance for the purpose of committing a felony.
The crimes by the self-styled King of Pop allegedly took place last spring at Jackson's Neverland Ranch, an estate and private amusement park where Jackson likes to entertain children. Jackson's accuser in Santa Barbara County, Calif., Superior Court is a 14-year-old cancer patient whom the singer befriended.
The Jackson case, like the Kobe Bryant rape case, is just one of a handful of high-profile stories that have become saturated -- some would say drowned -- in media coverage over the past year.
The broadcast and published image of Jackson's grisly, over-whittled face -- a self-realized "Man Who Laughs" -- staring out from his mug shot will haunt many of us for some time.
As a result, there is a high degree of public knowledge about the case, and any potential juror would be likely to have an opinion about Jackson's guilt or innocence before a trial began.
Those who believe Jackson guilty point to a 1993 case in which another boy accused the singer of molestation but was persuaded to drop the charges in a multimillion-dollar settlement.
Those who believe Jackson innocent point to the same incident, and say the current allegations are just another attempt to shake down the singer for millions. They also say Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon was furious when the charges were settled in 1993, and has gleefully latched on to the current allegations as a chance to finally "get" Jackson.
There are still those, of course, who insist they know nothing about the case. This third category is ideally where potential jurors are found. But you have to wonder whether such people are really too oblivious to the world around them to make accurate judgments, or whether they are simply lying.
Mark Geragos, one of the canniest of the big time lawyers, is representing Jackson. He and his team will realize that the case may be won or lost during the jury-selection process. Look for them to try to move the case from Santa Barbara to a venue that may be more Jackson-friendly.
If you need an example of the importance of jury selection, look at the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman.
The evidence against Simpson was overwhelming.
But the case was moved from Simpson's mostly white neighborhood in Santa Monica -- the killings were committed in Brentwood -- to downtown Los Angeles.
The "pool" from which potential Simpson jurors were chosen was 40 percent white, 28 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian. The actual jury finally selected after prosecution and defense screening consisted of nine blacks, a Hispanic and two whites.
Simpson's crack defensive team was savvy enough to realize that not only would Central Los Angeles jurors probably be more sympathetic to Simpson, but also would be more likely to have had contact with the Los Angeles police.
In the end, the Simpson jury accepted the defense argument that much of the evidence against him was manufactured and tainted.
The verdict absolutely stunned many people in this country and abroad, while many other people in black communities celebrated. Some white people speculated that the largely black jury acquitted Simpson because he is black, and his ex-wife and her friend were white.
But it wasn't that all black people thought Simpson innocent, in spite of the facts. One friend, a black police officer, said it best for me: "They (the LAPD) framed a guilty man."
Whether Los Angeles police officers framed Simpson or not, a change in venue and jury selection got him acquitted, not attorney Johnnie Cochran's courtroom antics.
Jackson's lawyers will be looking to that example as they try to paint District Attorney Sneddon as a man obsessed with a mission.
(Mike Kirkland is UPI's senior legal affairs correspondent. He has covered the Supreme Court and other parts of the legal community since 1993.)