Those who have been eager to follow the upcoming manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, charged in the death of superstar Michael Jackson, may be disappointed at what they don’t hear. The judge in the case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor, has already issued a string of rulings that greatly limit what kind of testimony will be allowed. Judge Pastor knows all about celebrity trials, and he’s not intimidated by tabloid-driven, saturation-media coverage. In other words, Judge Lance Ito he’s not.
In 2000, Pastor accepted actor Jason Priestley’s contrite no-contest plea in a DUI case and promptly sentenced the Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob to spend five nights in jail and attend a drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment program.
In 2005, the judge presided over the trial of photographer John Rutter who was accused of trying to extort $3.5 million from actress Cameron Diaz in return for topless photos she had posed for when she was 19 and hungry to break into Hollywood. After Rutter was convicted, Pastor sentenced him to nearly four years in jail.
So, when the Murray case landed on Pastor’s docket, the judge took command, making it clear to both the prosecution and defense teams that his courtroom will not be the forum for trying Michael Jackson’s lifestyle.
There will be no mention made of the entertainer’s 2005 child-molestation trial. “That is no-go territory,” Pastor has declared.
There will be no intensive digging into Jackson’s past financial woes, as that would be a “salacious … battle of the accountants,” according to the judge. The jury will not get to see estate documents showing the entertainer was more than $400 million in debt when he died, nor the multimillion-dollar contract Jackson signed with AEG–Concerts West for a series of up to 50 comeback concerts in London. Lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff wanted to introduce such information to the jury to show the kind of financial stress Jackson struggled with at the end of his life—stress the defense claims that, when coupled with his long-time drug abuse, led Jackson to make bad choices in his life.
Even though Jackson’s ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, and his mother, Katherine Jackson, admitted during separate Oprah Winfrey interviews that Jackson had a profound drug problem, Pastor has ruled that the jury will hear only limited medical testimony. Neither of the women is on the witness list, nor is Jackson’s second wife (and mother of his two eldest children), Debbie Rowe.
Among those the judge struck from the witness list are some of Michael Jackson’s most intimate associates:
• Grace Rwaramba, the Jacksons’ longtime live-in nanny, who spent more alone time with the entertainer and his three children than anyone else. According to court documents, Rwaramba told investigators she once got a frantic call from the children after they found their father on the floor unconscious and unresponsive. She also said she repeatedly had tried to stage interventions in a vain effort to stop Jackson’s drug abuse. Her warnings to the boss about his sobriety got her fired, and two months later Jackson was dead.
• Jackson’s most often-visited doctor, dermatologist Dr. Arnold Klein, who is reported to have been the source of his frequent Demerol injections and some of his narcotic prescriptions, will not be allowed to testify about his most famous patient’s drug use. This, despite the revelation that in the three months before Jackson’s death, Klein injected him with Demerol 51 times. (Some of Klein’s medical records on Jackson will be allowed.)
• Klein’s former office manager, Jason Pfeiffer, who was set to testify that Jackson had called him just two weeks before he died looking for a source of Propofol—and a willing anesthesiologist.
• Jackson friend Dr. Susan Etok, who told me in an interview after Jackson died that she had visited with him at the Lanesborough Hotel in London in March 2009 and had been stunned to find his bathroom a veritable pharmacy of narcotic drugs. Dr. Etok also said Jackson begged her to “find someone to supply him with antidepressants, hypnotic drugs, and Diprivan,” (the trade name for Propofol). Etok told detectives this happened just three months before Jackson died.
Judge Pastor also has rejected the idea that the jury should see outtakes of the film This Is It!–a compilation of video taken of Jackson during rehearsals for his anticipated London concert stand. The prosecution had wanted the jury to see up to a dozen hours of outtakes (out of a stockpile of more than 100 hours) to underscore that the star looked healthy and in command in the weeks and days before his death.
Murray’s defense team, aware that the camera wouldn’t have been rolling during Jackson’s worst moments, had isolated about four hours of video that they claim showed the singer as distracted, disoriented, and feeble-looking. That video might have been the best evidence to buttress the defense theory that Jackson was a man worn down by his struggle with drugs, faltering finances, and performance anxiety—a man who may have been desperate enough to drink extra Propofol from a juice bottle at the side of his bed or inject it into his thigh, causing his own demise.
Judge Pastor will allow one member of Jackson’s inner circle to testify. Makeup artist Karen Faye worked with the singer for 27 years and will be allowed to tell the jury her observations of his condition in the week before he died. She is on record telling detectives that Jackson openly worried about whether he was physically strong enough to complete 50 concert dates and he “was weak, extremely thin, and seemed to be under the influence of drugs.”
It is not clear whether the judge will allow Faye to testify about Jackson’s reaction to a confrontational meeting with AEG officials and lead chorographer Kenny Ortega, held just five days before the singer died. During the session (described to this reporter as a “come-to-Jesus meeting” by a source who asked to remain anonymous), Jackson was reminded of his $40 million liability should he fail to perform. Dr. Murray’s defense say they believe this meeting was the catalyst to final irrational acts by a desperate Jackson—acts that include overdosing himself with various prescription drugs when Murray wasn’t watching.
Pastor has made it clear he wants this trial, scheduled to get underway Tuesday, Sept. 27, to focus primarily on what happened (and what didn’t happen) inside the bedroom of Jackson’s rented Holmby Hills mansion on June 25, 2009, the day the King of Pop was declared dead.
Some veteran court watchers believe the state has the upper hand in this case, and if prosecutor David Walgren’s medical experts repeatedly hammer on one simple fact—that no ethical medical practitioner would ever use the hospital-only anesthetic Propofol in a private home, and especially not without the proper monitoring equipment—then the seven-man/five-woman jury will surely see Murray as a guilty man.
“This case is about Murray’s (overall) substandard care of his patient,” says Beth Karas, former prosecutor and senior correspondent for In-Session on truTV who has followed the case since the beginning. “Murray left an anesthetized Jackson alone for about 45 minutes—taboo in the medical profession. It’s called abandonment—an anesthetized patient must never be abandoned. Murray did not call 911 as soon as he found Jackson not breathing. He did not disclose to the paramedics (and two ER doctors) all the medications he had given Jackson.”
Murray also ordered and received four gallons of Propofol in an apparent attempt to stockpile the anesthesia, not available to him in London, in advance of the approaching concert tour.
L.A.-based jury consultant Marshall Hennington agrees that Murray’s team has an uphill battle, and that it will be difficult for them to convince the jury that Jackson accidentally killed himself with Propofol. “Most medical professionals have no idea on how to properly administer the drug … so how would MJ know how to do this? The argument will be weak, but I have seen weaker arguments create reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds.”
Questions remain about how jurors can arrive at the truth if they don’t fully understand Jackson’s world, his pattern of behavior and the various stressors he faced as he readied himself for what would be a grueling set of concerts. There are already whispers that the judge’s restrictions on witnesses could make an appeals point for Murray’s team should the doctor be convicted.
During voir dire every juror candidate admitted he or she was familiar with the facts surrounding the Murray/Jackson case, and while they are instructed to put aside all prior knowledge, Jackson’s money and drug problems have been widely reported for years. That information may already be indelibly ingrained in jurors’ minds. And so they may wonder why they aren’t hearing more evidence about Jackson’s personal circumstances. The lack of such testimony could cause the jury to have reasonable doubt—the prosecution’s worst enemy.
Just ask the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony case.