02.04.10

Can This Man Save Jacko's Doctor?

With Conrad Murray now expected to be indicted in the death of Michael Jackson, meet the tattooed former prosecutor from Houston who will seek to keep the doctor out of jail.

With Conrad Murray now expected to be indicted in the death of Michael Jackson, meet the tattooed former prosecutor from Houston who will seek to keep the doctor out of jail. Plus, Gerald Posner on the L.A. District Attorney’s office battles that helped delay the charges expected against Murray.

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, one sentence was copied from a Texas Lawyer report without attribution. The Daily Beast has attributed the sentence and regrets the error. 

Now that Dr. Conrad Murray is expected to be indicted for involuntary manslaughter, it seems likely there will be another Los Angeles-based “trial of the century.” Celebrity defendants in previous media-saturated trials were sometimes represented by celebrity attorneys: F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, Johnnie Cochran. But Murray’s defense lawyer, Ed Chernoff, probably wasn’t even on the Rolodex of any Court TV producer.

Murray and Chernoff had never met before Jackson’s death. The morning after the pop star died last June, and police began questioning Murray at the UCLA Medical Center, Murray called an attorney he knew in Houston. (Murray has medical clinics there and in Las Vegas.) That lawyer called another, who in turn recommended Chernoff.

“He’s so damn smart, and the juries like him and find him trustworthy.”

“When I first heard it, I thought it was a con,” recalls Chernoff, a bodybuilder and former star prosecutor whose three-person Houston firm has carved out a business in DWI’s, sex crimes, domestic disputes and murder. After several phone calls, Chernoff was willing “to make the leap of faith and fly to Los Angeles, but I said that someone has to get money in our account so I don’t go out naked to L.A. on some boondoggle.”

Murray paid for Chernoff’s $1,200 last-minute flight by credit card. “I didn’t even have time for a Google search before heading to the airport,” recalls Chernoff. Sitting in the rear of a packed plane, he did a lot of “you’re kidding me” to two strangers who turned out to be Jackson-obsessed; he got enough details during the four-hour flight to realize how serious the situation was for his new client.

Gerald Posner: Jackson Prosecutors’ Internal WarChernoff and Murray met the next morning at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, a spot they picked to avoid the paparazzi. They created a makeshift office in a private room near the hotel’s restaurant. When the police came to interview Murray that night at the hotel, he laid out a timeline of what happened the night Jackson died, and what medications he had administered to the singer. While Chernoff won’t discuss the details of that meeting, he told The Daily Beast "that what Murray told the police hasn’t changed and what he told them he did isn’t a crime.”

On Dateline NBC and in other TV interviews over the next few days, Chernoff got out four main messages: Murray was cooperating with the police; he did not prescribe Oxycontin or Demerol to Jackson; he had only briefly been Jackson’s doctor; and many other physicians had treated and prescribed medication for Jackson.

Then Chernoff flew to Las Vegas and gave Murray, who had returned to his home there, a secure cell phone to prevent electronic eavesdropping. “I wasn’t going to wake up one day and find that what I told the doc was on the front of some paper,” Chernoff told me.

The 46-year-old Chernoff looks like a fitter and younger Sam Shepard. He’s got a local reputation for being a tough lawyer to beat in court. He also has, according to former colleagues to whom I spoke, a wicked sense of humor and an independent streak. He hides a battery of tattoos under his conservative business suits. One arm sports the word “FATE,” the name of his son from his first marriage. Another son, Chance, was born to his second wife earlier this summer. “I better stop having kids or I’m going to run out of room for tattoos,” he tells me.

Chernoff founded a solo practice in 1991, and soon brought in two partners, Matt Alford and Bill Stradley, themselves former prosecutors. I met Chernoff at the firm’s offices in the Republic Building which was built in 1907 to house federal courts, prosecutors and marshals. The offices are Texas-comfortable: exposed brick walls, oversized leather furniture, and a down-home style. In the waiting room, two large scrapbooks are stuffed, not with newspaper clippings about the firm’s success, but with handwritten thank-you notes and Christmas cards from former clients.

“Welcome to the brave and sometimes contemptible world of criminal defense,” said the opening line of a blog the firm used to host on its Web site. In the last decade, the firm had over a hundred cases involving alleged sexual assaults on children, and had a remarkable 90% acquittal rate. The lawyers also handled thousands of DWI’s and went to jury trial on hundreds of them. “If you want to cut a deal and plead guilty to your DWI,” says Alford, “then we’re not for you.”

Not surprisingly, it’s Chernoff, who lost only one felony case when he was on the other side, who handles the violent crimes, complicated federal indictments and intricate state cases. “I see dead people all the time,” he tells me. A look at Chernoff’s trial calendar shows it packed with attempted murders, assaults, and intoxicated manslaughters. He’s had three murder trials in the last six months.

“He’s so damn smart, and the juries like him and find him trustworthy,” says Johnny Sutton, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, who worked with Chernoff when they were assistant DA’s in the late 1980s. Houston’s Rusty Hardin, who has represented Arthur Andersen LLP and baseball player Roger Clemens, supervised Chernoff at the DA's office and has said he is an “excellent attorney.”

Chernoff grew up in a Hollywood, Florida, household dominated by an alcoholic mother. The most intimate details of his childhood come from a blog that was part of the firm’s Web site—and which was removed shortly after Dr. Murray hired them. It included an intimate posting from Chernoff, in which his own family problems helped him better understand what happened when one of the firm’s clients committed suicide. The remarkably private Chernoff no longer wishes to discuss his family’s early history and never posted them publicly expecting one day he’d be the subject of intense scrutiny because of a high-profile client.

In his office, he has a picture of his mother, who battled alcohol and prescription problems until the last few years of her life. On his sister’s 11th birthday, as party guests began arriving, Chernoff’s mother took an overdose of sleeping pills. As his father frantically tried to keep his mom awake, Chernoff was responsible for telling the guests the party was cancelled. Most didn’t believe him until the paramedics rushed in.

His mom survived, but his father left soon after that suicide attempt and started a new family. Chernoff stayed on for another four tough years, but at 17, he said, “I ran….I never looked back.”

Student loans, combined with four years working at an ice cream shop, got him through college. For law school, he managed with a scholarship from the University of Houston Law Center and a job in a pest-control company’s accounting department. He was 33 before he spoke to his mother again, when she called from Atlanta wanting to make amends. By that time he had already set up his defense practice, after spending four years as an assistant district attorney.

“You get burnt out prosecuting people, it’s too much a numbers game,” he tells me, cutting a cigar as he sits in a brown leather armchair, with an enormous computer screen mounted on the wall behind him. He tells of how, during a three-month leave from the DA’s office, he bought a used Yamaha motorbike (“I couldn’t afford a Harley”) and drove around the country to “clear my head.” It didn’t matter that he had never driven a motorbike before. “I learned how to drive on my first ride to New Orleans.” He made a loop to New York City and then “through the Badlands” to San Francisco and San Diego. “There I met a chick on the beach and stayed a month.”

By the time he got back to Houston, he spent another six months as a prosecutor, but knew it was time for change. “He was a very free spirit,” recalls Sutton. “We were all single then, and we worked hard but played real hard too.” Chernoff and a group of fellow DAs spent their free time skating through the deserted downtown streets and garages of Houston at night, or in games of rough street hockey, or days at the beach in Galveston.

“It was fun, but I wanted to get into human lives and stories, “ Chernoff told me. Defense work allowed him to do just that. Chernoff rattles off a list of names of former clients who now consider him a friend. His sons are the “center of his life,” but when he’s not with them, he says he “works, works out, works, sleeps, contemplates the fate of society, works and then works out some more. I’m pretty useless without some goal to focus on.” As a result he runs the Houston Marathon each year, despite the fact that “running bores me to tears.”

But he’s not thinking of marathons now. The Murray case is his focus. One advantage is that the L.A. prosecutors are likely to underestimate a Houston lawyer they never heard of until a few months ago.

Chernoff says the deck is stacked against him. “For some reason, special rules seem to apply in Los Angeles. It’s a different way of doing things. I’ve never seen a coroner’s office that operates at the prosecutor’s behest, but that’s what is happening here. And I’ve never seen a case in which there’s a pattern of incremental leaks meant to manipulate public opinion so they get a jury that thinks he’s already guilty. A lot of the stuff leaked has nothing to do with the case, but is just meant to paint the doctor in a bad light. I just want a level playing field.”

Chernoff estimates his team will need a minimum of $500,000 just for the expert witnesses needed for an aggressive defense. It seems unlikely the doctor has that type of money. “I don’t even know if we will get paid for our work,” says Chernoff.  “And I know there’s tremendous pressure out there to get somebody. They can’t get everybody so they have to get somebody and they’ve settled on my client. Well, they might be in for a surprise. If the doc walks out of that courtroom a free man, it’s a David vs. Goliath story. And that’s precisely what I’m planning on happening.”

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's former chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.