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Secretive Michael Jackson pretrial hearings keep the public guessing

SANTA MARIA, Calif. (AP) _ Despite the high-stakes legal tussle between prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Michael Jackson child molestation case, the public still doesn't know specifically what the two sides lately are arguing about.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers are battling over still-secret evidence that might make or break the case against the pop star. A pretrial hearing resumes Monday.

The defense has been trying to suppress evidence from two searches, claiming one sweep at Jackson's Neverland estate was overbroad and unjustified, and that another at a private investigator's office violated attorney-client confidentiality.

But defense lawyers also have used the inquiry to uncover information from key witnesses _ including the stepfather of Jackson's accuser, who admitted demanding money for the boy's family to appear on a video tribute to Jackson's kindness.

Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville said he will not rule on the evidence until the end of September, when the mother of Jackson's young accuser testifies.

Search warrant affidavits are sealed and witnesses speak only in vague terms about videotapes and other data seized in the separate searches at the private investigator's office and Neverland.

``It's a bit of a question just how important the evidence is,'' said Loyola University Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. ``But given the fight that's going on, it must be important. This is a major battleground.''

Jackson, 45, is charged with committing a lewd act upon a child, administering an intoxicating agent and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $3 million bail. Trial is set for Jan. 31.

Steve Cron, a defense attorney and adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine University, wondered if the material being debated is worth all the trouble.

``I doubt there will be a smoking gun anywhere,'' he said.
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