Michael Jackson drops his lawyers. He hires a new defense team leader and begs the media to respect his privacy

By Gary Susman
April 26, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Less than a week before his scheduled April 30 arraignment, Michael Jackson has parted ways with his top defense lawyers, Mark Geragos and Benjamin Branfman, according to wire service reports. The singer is replacing them with Thomas Mesereau Jr., the lawyer best known for briefly representing Robert Blake in his pending murder trial, though Branfman told Reuters he and Geragos still plan to attend Jackson’s court date on Friday.

Why the change? Geragos wasn’t talking, citing the court-imposed gag order. Branfman told Reuters only that ”Mark and I elected to step down. There were a number of complicated legal and practical issues… but it’s not appropriate for us to discuss them. I wish Michael Jackson well… and I hope he will be completely exonerated.”

The New York Post cites a source close to the case as saying that Jackson fired the legal pair at the urging of the Nation of Islam-affiliated advisers in his camp. The source said that Branfman ”was battling people around Michael Jackson, these strident Muslims. These people have no real interest in Michael Jackson. They have interest in control, being up there, showing who they are and where they can reach.” Another theory was that Geragos was spread too thin, since he’s also leading the defense in another high-profile California case, that of wife-slaying suspect Scott Peterson.

Dana Cole, a lawyer who had worked with Mesereau on the Blake case, told Reuters that Meserau had been Jackson’s first choice as a defender. ”Michael Jackson has always been very impressed with the pro bono work and contributions Tom has made in the African-American community,” Cole told the Post. At the time of Jackson’s arrest on child molestation charges in November, however, Mesereau was unavailable because Blake had just hired him to take over the case from attorney Harland Braun. But Mesereau, whose well-known clients have also included Mike Tyson, left the Blake team in February.

For his part, Jackson spent the weekend singing a familiar tune: ”Leave Me Alone.” In seclusion with his children at a rented mansion in Orlando, he issued a statement on Friday urging the media to back off. ”As I release this statement, there are helicopters hovering above my residence, reporters staking out, and photographers lurking behind bushes, running rampant around my compound,” he said in the statement. ”I am respectfully requesting that media organizations please respect my privacy, and that of my children. I would greatly appreciate your cooperation.”