By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Prosecutors on Friday squared off against defenders of singer Michael Jackson in a child molestation case that could become one of the most bitter and sensational legal slugfests in recent memory.
The stakes are high on both sides but especially for Jackson, 45, who was charged on Thursday with committing seven "lewd acts" against a boy under the age of 14 earlier this year. He could go to prison for more than 20 years if found guilty at a trial.
And the self-declared "King of Pop" -- who has seen his once meteoric career eclipsed by his bizarre appearance and behavior -- would have his reputation destroyed by a conviction, which under California law would also require him to register as a sex offender.
Jackson's family and high-profile lawyer, Mark Geragos, have come out swinging, accusing nearly everyone involved in the case with improprieties and predicting that the entertainer would be cleared.
Geragos, who represented actress Winona Ryder during her 2002 trial on shoplifting charges and is lead attorney for accused California wife-killer Scott Peterson, has suggested that the boy's family was seeking money from Jackson and that prosecutors were nursing a 10-year-old grudge.
Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who sought similar charges against Jackson in 1993 but was foiled when the teen-age boy at the center of that case settled with the singer out of court, has been portrayed in the press as Jackson's nemesis.
AN AX TO GRIND?
"What we have here is an intersection between a shakedown -- someone who is looking for money -- with somebody doing an investigation who has an ax to grind," Geragos said at a press conference on Thursday. "Because otherwise there would be no way that any self-respecting prosecutor would be going forward on the basis of this patent ... shakedown."
Meanwhile, Jackson's mother, Katherine, released a written statement denouncing the charges and echoing the accusations made by Geragos.
"We know these vicious lies are totally untrue, malicious and motivated by pure greed and revenge," she said. "Our family totally supports Michael."
Jackson, who has three children of his own, has largely remained in seclusion since police raided his Neverland Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara in November. He has released a statement calling the charges a "big lie."
He spelled out his feelings for Sneddon in a 1995 song in which he called the district attorney a "cold man" who "tried to take me down."
For his part, Sneddon has repeatedly denied having any ill-will toward Jackson over the 1993 case. But the prosecutor angered Jackson supporters with a press conference following the Neverland raid at which they accused him of being smug and making facetious comments.
Sneddon, whose hard-charging courtroom demeanor once earned him the nickname "Mad Dog," was dismissive of a report by a Los Angeles child protective agency clearing Jackson of similar charges involving the same boy, suggesting that investigators had done a cursory job.
"To call that an investigation is a misnomer," Sneddon said. "It was an interview, plain and simple, and we are not concerned about it."
Jackson is accused of molesting the youth at Neverland between February and March this year. He was briefly arrested last month before being released on $3 million bail and is due in court on Jan. 16 for a formal reading of the charges.