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Pop Star Michael Jackson Pleads Not Guilty to Child Molestation Charges - 2004-01-16

Pop star Michael Jackson has pleaded not guilty to child molestation charges. The singer appeared in court in Santa Maria, California, Friday morning. He was given a scolding by the judge after arriving late, but received support from admiring fans outside the courthouse.

The pop star pleaded innocent to the charges, which include seven counts of committing lewd acts on a teenaged boy and two counts that he gave the boy an intoxicant, an alcoholic beverage. He faces years in prison if convicted.

Hundreds of fans and journalists were outside the courthouse in what is being described as a circus-like atmosphere. There were celebrity impersonators, an itinerant preacher and busloads of fans who came from Los Angeles and Las Vegas in an organized show of support.

Fans in other cities also protested the singer's innocence. They chanted outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, "Michael Jackson is innocent."

The pop star is known for hosting children at his California ranch, called Neverland. He has admitted to sharing his bed with some, although he insists he is innocent of misconduct.

Jackson reportedly reached a multi-million-dollar out-of-court settlement with the family of another accuser in 1993. The alleged victim declined to testify and the singer faced no charges.

Fans are convinced he is innocent. "There are thousands of kids that come to Neverland and spend time with him on a one-on-one basis, and for only two people to actually come forward and accuse him, it just doesn't add up," said a women.

The entertainer entered the courtroom 20 minutes late, which drew a rebuke from the judge. "Mr. Jackson," the judge said sternly, "you have gotten off on the wrong foot here." Judge Rodney Melville issued what he called a polite warning, telling the singer not to be late again.

Jackson's lawyer Benjamin Brafman later defended his client, but also apologized, in remarks to reporters. "In fairness to Mr. Jackson," he said, "I think you have just seen that it takes about 20 minutes to make it 100 yards (90 meters) when you're in Mr. Jackson's company because of the large volume of people. We regret that he was late this morning, we will see to it that will never happen again and we apologize to the court for that inconvenience."

The singer waved to fans from atop a black vehicle before he and his entourage drove away from the courthouse. His aides invited fans to a post-arraignment picnic at Jackson's Neverland estate.

Cameras were barred from the courtroom, but the celebrity trial is expected to be a media obsession as it unfolds in the coming months. The judge set a pretrial hearing date for February 13.