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Prosecutor says law won't allow Jackson to pay off accuser before trial

LOS ANGELES — The prosecutor in the Michael Jackson case praised a law that can halt civil lawsuits during related criminal cases, saying it would prevent a scenario where the singer's accuser accepted a settlement and then refused to testify in the criminal trial.

The state law was passed because another child backed out of a 1993 molestation case against Jackson after the singer reportedly paid him a multimillion settlement, Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon said.

"It is an irony. The history of the law is that the L.A. district attorney's office carried the legislation as a direct result of the civil settlement in the first investigation," Sneddon told The Associated Press in an interview.

Sneddon had baffled legal experts Wednesday when he seemed to imply at a nationally televised news conference that the new law lets prosecutors force minors to testify.

"The law in California at that time provided that a child victim could not be forced to testify in a child molest proceeding without their permission and consent and cooperation," Sneddon had said. "As a result of the (first) Michael Jackson case, the Legislature changed that law, and that is no longer the law in California."

But Sneddon later told the AP he was referring to a change that lets prosecutors intervene in a civil action, removing the monetary incentive for someone to wait for the outcome of a civil case before deciding whether to testify in a criminal trial.

"The practical effect is that they cooperate" with prosecutors in the criminal case, he said.

Sneddon said he was aware that children cannot be forced to testify, and that reporters and other attorneys had misinterpreted his remarks at the news conference.

Loyola University Law Professor Laurie Levenson said she was fielding calls all day from members of the legal community and other professionals who deal with molestation victims who were baffled by the district attorney's comments.

"I think he misspoke and he was confusing," Levenson said. "In a case of this magnitude with this much media attention, there is a responsibility to be more precise."

"This could affect other potential victims who wonder if they come forward will they be forced to testify. It is a bad message and it's not a good first impression. ... Everyone interpreted him as saying he could now force witnesses to testify. It was a disservice in that what he said may be scaring off other victims."

Sneddon's mention of compelling testimony was especially puzzling, legal experts said, because he also stated that the child now making allegations against Jackson is willing to testify and has no plans to bring a civil suit.

Associated Press Writer Tim Molloy contributed to this report.