LOS ANGELES — Michael Jackson called his trial on child molestation claims, "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life." Acquitted of all charges by a jury but convicted by public opinion, he spent the rest of his life trying to recover from the ordeal.
On many fronts, it was a losing battle. Late night comedians derided him as a pedophile. Prosecutors who lost the case against him never accepted the jury verdict, and Jackson felt driven to give up his beloved Neverland Ranch and leave the country.
This month, exactly four years after the verdict, the nation's greatest pop star was on the verge of a dazzling comeback. His "This Is It" concert tour was to be his artistic rebirth, a vivid signal that he had at last recovered from the trial.
But Thomas Mesereau Jr., the lawyer who defended Jackson, said the star never fully recovered from the trial.
"The jury said, 'not guilty,' 14 times," Mesereau recalls. "You couldn't have a verdict that got any closer to full vindication."
On the acquittal day, Mesereau issued a statement: "Justice is done. The man's innocent. He always was."
Mesereau said in an interview Saturday that the effort by prosecutors and many media outlets to demonize Jackson during the 2005 trial took a physical and emotional toll on the already fragile defendant that was difficult to erase.
"These were horrible charges to accuse any one of and they were completely bogus," he said.
Jackson could have gotten nearly 20 years behind bars if convicted of charges that he molested a 13-year-old cancer survivor at Neverland Ranch in 2003. Jurors also acquitted Jackson of getting the boy drunk and of conspiring to imprison the accuser and his family at the ranch.
Jackson's defense team prevailed with evidence that he was the victim of mother-and-son con artists and a prosecutor with a vendetta.
Mesereau recalled Jackson visibly withering as the trial progressed, losing weight, his cheeks sunken, his skin pale. Twice he was taken to a hospital emergency room for treatment.
"The poor fellow couldn't sleep, couldn't eat. He was very worried about what would happen to his children if he was sent away. It took a horrible toll on him," said Mesereau.
The attorney said Jackson suffered at the hands of a media contingent that wished him to be convicted.
"Much of the media was having a field day trying to make him out as a monster," he said. "People were trying to build careers off a conviction."
At first, though, the hysteria that would surround the trial was fed by Jackson the showman. On the day he pleaded not guilty, he responded to the cheers of fans by jumping atop an SUV and doing some dance steps.
About 1,500 people, including fans and media from around the world, swarmed outside the courthouse in a scene reminiscent of a concert, with vendors selling T-shirts, steaks and hot dogs to the many fans who had come in chartered buses and cars.
By the time the trial began more than a year later, a media tent city of 2,200 reporters and camera crews sprang up outside the courthouse. There were no more antics by Jackson, although he commissioned a costume designer to create his outfits for court, favoring military style jackets with a rainbow of different colored vests and armbands.
Mesereau said Jackson deteriorated rapidly. The artist known for his electric, moonwalking performances was rendered motionless, seemingly frozen in his courtroom chair as his private world became utterly public.
The hardest part, the attorney said, was for Jackson to be accused by a child. It had happened once before in 1993 but that case was settled without a trial. "He didn't really trust adults," Mesereau said. "He looked to children as the people who wouldn't hurt him."
When the trial was over, Jackson left the courthouse, waving weakly to the crowds of fans who never left him. And then he disappeared.
"He loved Neverland and Santa Barbara County, but he fled to the Middle East and then he lived like a rolling stone in England, Ireland, Las Vegas," Mesereau said. "He never found an anchor."
In his only post-trial interview , Jackson called an Associated Press reporter from Bahrain three months after the verdict to express his thanks for fair coverage. He said then that the trial was "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life" and that he and his children were still "resting and recovering."
Jackson said he was at work on a charity song for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"I'm constantly working on it," he said.
But like many projects he began, it was never completed.