Tuesday 11 November 2014

On Tom Sneddon

The death of former Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon sparked jubilation among the Michael Jackson fan community. The DA who twice failed to convict the star on child abuse charges died on Saturday, November 1, with his family at his side, from complications following a cancer diagnosis.

It was Tom Sneddon who pursued Jackson in 1993 over the Chandler family’s sexual abuse accusations – a case which fell apart when the accusers solicited a pay-out and stopped cooperating with the authorities. Then, it was Sneddon who charged and personally prosecuted Jackson a decade later when Gavin Arvizo, who famously appeared alongside the singer in a Martin Bashir documentary, made similar accusations.

For many Jackson fans, Sneddon was evil personified; a larger-than-life boogieman who masterminded a conspiracy to destroy their idol’s career. Undeniably, his professional conduct was extremely poor in the Jackson trial. But just as images of Jackson’s bereft children after his death reminded us that despite his superstardom, he was a man with a family like anybody else, so too the thought of Tom Sneddon surrounded by loved ones on his deathbed should remind us of the same. Fans' remarks about the prosecutor ‘rotting in hell’ will not affect Tom Sneddon. He’s not here to read them. It is his loved ones who are left behind to cope with them – and there is no reason why they should have to. Such comments are tasteless in the extreme and do not reflect well on Jackson’s followers.

Of course, those followers would likely argue that it was Sneddon who made things personal. They would have a point, too. Sneddon seemed to relish persecuting the musician. In a series of gleeful media appearances in November 2003, to reveal the Arvizo accusations, he cracked jokes, mocked Jackson’s art and referred to him as ‘Jacko Wacko’ – behaviour for which he was later forced to apologise.

But there was more to it than that. Sneddon didn’t just seem to enjoy prosecuting Jackson; he appeared obsessed by it – so much so that he repeatedly acted beyond his brief in his zeal to bring down the star. He removed clearly-labelled, privileged defence documents from the home of Jackson’s personal assistant. He made ‘factual’ assertions in front of grand jurors when he shouldn’t have done. He tampered with his case to circumvent exculpatory evidence. He even seemingly tried to plant fingerprint evidence. He over-stepped the mark, time and again.

Jackson’s fans largely believe Sneddon knew Jackson was innocent all along; that he had a personal grudge against Jackson and fabricated the cases against him. I’ve never been totally convinced of his supposed motives. The fans' theory tends to be that Sneddon was desperate for prestige; that the prospect of convicting the world’s most famous musician became an egomaniacal obsession.

Admittedly, there is some evidence which supports that theory. In November 2003, Sneddon raided Jackson’s Neverland Ranch with a reported 70 sheriffs and multiple helicopters. What use is a helicopter when searching for evidence of child molestation? It was an obvious stunt. Reporters were on the scene before police even arrived. The entire operation was designed to generate attention. Sneddon’s behaviour in front of TV cameras at the time suggested he enjoyed the press attention, too; he seemed intoxicated by it. But was he basking in the limelight, or just displaying very poor judgement, as he later claimed?

What's certain is that poor judgement became a feature of the prosecution. The decision to proceed to trial was in itself highly questionable. In one of many troubling incidents, Sneddon and his team learned after Jackson was arraigned in January 2004 that he had an alibi for all the dates on the charge sheet. Realising the family’s current story could not be true, Sneddon - rather than reconsidering the validity of the prosecution - simply changed the dates on all the charges, even though it threw out the whole timeline. His case no longer made any sense, but he bullishly pursued it anyway.

The holes were gaping and plentiful. The accuser initially claimed he’d been molested up to six times, but later said it was ‘one or two’. He originally said Jackson instigated the molestation by telling him boys had to masturbate, or else they’d become rapists. He later conceded it was actually his grandmother who told him that.

The boy’s brother, who claimed to have witnessed the molestation, gave contradictory accounts. Originally, he claimed Jackson and the boy had laid on their sides as Jackson rubbed his penis on the boy’s buttocks. Later, he said they’d been side-by-side as Jackson fondled the boy’s genitals. By the time their mother took the stand and made a number of increasingly wild assertions about hot air balloon kidnap plots, Sneddon was reportedly seen with his head in his hands.

As the trial progressed, it is therefore unsurprising that Sneddon appeared to become less enamoured with the spotlight. The obvious assumption was that this was connected to his crumbling case, but others felt accusations of glory-hunting were untrue from the off. Rather, they contended aggressive prosecutions were simply his modus operandi – hence his nickname: ‘Mad Dog’.

In a November 2003 profile by Associated Press, acquaintances said Sneddon was always relentless in his pursuit of justice. The piece said he was ‘tenacious and tough, particularly when he has made up his mind about a case – sometimes to a fault’. Superior Court Judge James Slater supported that allegation, commenting, “There were times, and there still are, where his tenaciousness gets in the way of his better judgement and he has to step back.”

Jerry Roberts, editor of the Santa Barbara News Press, told CBS: “He’s a law-and-order guy who sees the world in black and white. There’s bad guys and good guys, and he sees himself as the good guy.”

But Jackson was not a ‘bad guy’, according to the jurors who heard all Sneddon’s evidence and then acquitted him unanimously on all charges. And therein lies the problem with prosecutors like Tom Sneddon.

Cop shows are obsessed with authority figures who don’t play by the rules. Due process is routinely depicted as an irritant; a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise. As viewers, we are manipulated into rooting for cops who play dirty to nail people they ‘know’ are guilty. We come to despair of laws which prevent the Government locking people up on the ‘technicality’ there there’s no evidence against them.

To achieve this blind trust of authority figures, the shows tend to portray the ‘baddies’ as cartoonish master-villians, sneering at the prosecutors and mocking their professional impotence. The writers place us in the shoes of the victim or their relatives, making it all too easy to fall into the trap of sympathising with the corrupt officials. We are less often encouraged to sympathise with the accused – ‘How would I feel if it was me, or my brother, that they were planting evidence against, or entrapping?’

Due process exists to protect the innocent, not the guilty. If we allow investigators to break the rules for a supposedly ‘good cause’, we set a precedent which will inevitably make it easier to lock up the innocent. Actions like Sneddon's - like stealing defence information, and tailoring a prosecution to circumvent objective evidence undermining the charges - compromise the integrity of the entire system.

After his death, current Santa Barbara DA Joyce Dudley called Sneddon ‘a pioneer in many areas of prosecution, especially crimes against vulnerable victims’. She added that he founded Santa Barbara’s Sexual Assault Response Team.  

I don’t doubt that’s true. Unquestionably, in his more than 20 years as DA, Sneddon will have secured justice for many victims.  It is unfortunate, therefore, that he persisted in his quest to convict Jackson. A case of that magnitude was destined to define his career – and it will stand forevermore as a monument to the very worst aspects of his professional conduct.

Less than 10 years after the trial concluded, both men are dead. In the eyes of many Jackson fans, Sneddon contributed significantly to Jackson’s demise. So traumatised he could not rest without the assistance of hospital grade anaesthetic, the singer was accidentally killed by his doctor in 2009. Now Sneddon is gone too. May they both rest in peace – but may Sneddon’s catalogue of misconduct be a lesson to all, in how not to spend taxpayers’ money.