When Michael Jackson superfan Myriam Walter first saw the HBO “Leaving Neverland” documentary, in which two key witnesses gave a graphic account of sexual abuse at the hands of the star, she said she cried and wanted to vomit.
Referring to Jackson’s alleged pedophilia, the 62-year-old former French nurse said, “I know that it is not possible,” despite having never met the star. “It was rotten. It was to make a buzz. It was to make money.”
Now she is among three groups of fans who are suing the two victims of Jackson’s alleged abuse, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, in a French court, hoping to challenge a perceived smear of their idol, who died in 2009.
Robson and Safechuck, now aged 41 and 37 respectively, alleged in the four-hour documentary that they endured years of sexual abuse by Jackson when they were minors in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
While neither are resident in France, they are being sued in that country where it is illegal to make criminal accusations against the deceased.
US-based lawyers representing Robson and Safechuck said the pair had no comment to make on the case. Officials at the court in the northern city of Orleans, where the case was heard earlier this month, confirmed that the pair were not present and had no legal representation.
Robson and Safechuck are being sued for a symbolic sum of one euro ($1.13) each, for “damaging the memory of the dead,” the case claims.
“It is not about money, it is an affair of the heart,” said Emmanuel Ludot, the lawyer representing the fans.
Walter, president of one of the groups, MJ Community, which has 600 members, attended the first court hearing. Referring to Jackson, she said: “He had a great heart. It is not right to make these claims against someone who isn’t even alive to defend themselves.”
The other groups, On The Line and MJ Street, accuse the documentary of revisionism and point to errors in the timeline of abuse provided by Safechuck.
Brice Najar, president of On the Line and author of multiple books on Jackson, explained: “I wouldn’t defend someone whatever the evidence, but he has already been acquitted and there have already been inquiries. I am in my 40s. I have kids.”
The tribunal said a decision would be delivered on October 4.
‘Their pain is sincere’
The accusations in the documentary were not the first made against Jackson. In 1993, a 13-year-old boy accused the King of Pop of sexually molesting him over a five-month period. The case was settled when Jackson paid close to $25 million.
In 2013, Jackson was acquitted of abusing another child, also 13, who had cancer at the time of the alleged offense.
Among the evidence presented by Ludot in court were written testimonies from tens of group members: several fans were diagnosed with depression and mental problems following the release of the documentary.
“I believe their pain is sincere,” said Ludot, who in 2014 won a symbolic euro from Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, who was ruled to have caused fans distress for his part in the star’s death.
While the lawyer did not disclose his fee for the case, Walter confided that it was “expensive.”
Many of the French fans had booked tickets to Jackson’s mammoth 50-show run, scheduled to take place in London’s O2 arena in 2009-10. The concerts were canceled following the singer’s death. Although tickets were around 800 euros, most of the fans did not ask for refund. “They held onto the tickets, like relics,” explained Ludot. “For them, he is like Christ.”
Walter set up MJ Community, with the help of her first daughter, following Jackson’s death. While pregnant with her daughter, she listened extensively to his music. “Jennifer [the daughter] has known Michael all her life,” she said.
That same year, MJ community helped organize a gathering of close to 4,000 fans in Paris to celebrate the life of the star. In 2010, the organization gained the legal status of a religion — the first fan group in France ever to do so according to the group’s lawyer and local media reports.
“I would do anything for him [Jackson]”, said Walter, adding: “I would defend him until the end.”
Ludot said the legal battle has the full support of the Jackson family, who have previously called the film a “public lynching.” The family also described Jackson’s accusers as “admitted liars,” in reference to sworn statements made by both Safechuck and Robson while Jackson was alive that he did not molest them.
Ludot says he has been approached by Jackson fan groups from Switzerland, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere, to clear the pop legend’s name via the French legal system.
In a statement, John Branca, co-executor of Jackson’s estate, wrote: “We remain hopeful that a victory in France will soon fuel a movement in the United States to finally explore changes in the law to afford defamation protection for the deceased.”
HBO, which made the documentary, shares a parent company (AT&T) with CNN.