Rodney Melville moved to Santa Maria for its small-town charm and rodeo, but ended up presiding over one of the most publicized trials in recent history — that of the late pop superstar Michael Jackson.
Melville, who retired in 2007 as a judge of the Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria, was a guest speaker Saturday at The Valley Speaks event in Shepard Hall at the Santa Maria Public Library.
The monthly speaking engagement is co-hosted by the library and the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society.
Melville said he had handled many interesting cases in his legal career, but acknowledging that the Jackson trial was of greatest public interest, focused most of his talk on that case.
Speaking in an unusually candid way for the soft-spoken former judge, Melville also talked about his family, his love of horses and photography, among other hobbies, and his journey to Santa Maria.
While serving as a deputy district attorney in San Bernardino County early in his career, Melville sought out a job in a small town with a rodeo. He had fallen in love with the rodeo and its parades while residing in Monte Vista previously.
“Santa Maria had everything that I wanted. A small town, a parade and a rodeo,” he said.
Melville met his wife and raised his two daughters in Santa Maria, where he worked first as an attorney and then as a judge.
“I never doubted that I made the right decision,” he added of his move to Santa Maria.
Toward the end of Melville’s legal career, the presiding judge in Santa Barbara County assigned Melville to preside over the Jackson trial.
At the conclusion of the 2005 trial for child molestation, Jackson was acquitted of the charges against him.
Some calculated that the trial would draw 10,000 fans and 300 satellite trucks for TV news channels.
“Fortunately for us, the estimates were greatly exaggerated,” Melville said.
In overseeing the Jackson trial, Melville said he concentrated on ensuring fairness and dignity while not allowing personal agendas to overrun or divert the judicial process.
“When you’re faced with what you’re faced with at that time, it’s like those are all new concepts,” Melville said.
To prepare for the high-profile trial, he said he contacted judges on the celebrity trials of Scott Peterson and Kobe Bryant for advice on maintaining decorum in the courtroom.
The media presence was so heavy at the Santa Maria court complex that Melville said he and other court officials asked the media to set up a committee to “control themselves.”
The court issued more than 200 media credentials to representatives of more than 32 countries during the trial, Melville said.
In addition, a lottery held daily allowed some members of the public to enter the courtroom and watch the trial.
Melville said he issued a gag order that prevented case attorneys from making statements to the press without consulting with him first.
“What I did was stop the senseless volleys to the press by each side,” he said.
Jackson’s trial drew celebrities to the Santa Maria courthouse who wanted to take advantage of the abundance of media outlets, Melville said, as well as drawing some interesting citizens.
The retired judge displayed slides of some of the celebrities and regular citizens who came to the courthouse, including a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) dressed in a lettuce bikini and handing out free vegetarian burgers.
“Of all the people that visited, my maintenance crew voted her their favorite,” Melville said with a chuckle.
Melville recalled being sued by media representatives over his decision to seal motions in the case.
The Courts of Appeal sided with Melville.
“The appellate court said not only is he doing it right, he’s doing a damn good job of it,” he added.
Melville’s practice of continuing Jackson’s trial through the lunch hour each day, instead having three 10-minute breaks each court day, caused some reporters to refer to the practice as the “Melville diet.”
The retired judge was clearly amused as he recalled eating dinner at The Hitching Post Restaurant one night, where he spotted someone wearing a T-shirt bearing his picture that said “we beat the Melville diet by eating at The Hitching Post.”
Melville praised local government for its “tremendous undertaking” of handling the Jackson trial, and spoke especially highly of the case attorneys.
“Other attorneys under similar circumstances could have changed the entire face of this trial,” he said.