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10.09.11

Inside the Trial of Dr. Conrad Murray

From the searing image of Michael Jackson's "condom catheter" to a mysterious thumbprint on a syringe, the trial of the pop star's doctor has onlookers riveted. Amy Ephron reports.

Covering a trial is a little bit like watching a tennis match. There are good shots, bad shots, aces, volleys, and certain times when one side seems to have taken the lead. But then, there’s always the next set ...

As day seven of the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray for the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson ended on Oct. 5, a small pharmacy full of prescription drug bottles and medical apparatus, all seized by the coroner’s office from MJ’s bedroom after his death, were lined up on the prosecution’s table for the jury to see. Additionally, a number of other chilling details have emerged that those in the legal industry would call “bad facts."

  • The searing image from numerous witnesses’ testimony about the presence of a condom catheter in Michael Jackson. A condom catheter is a device attached to the penis to collect urine because a patient is unconscious, or unable to urinate or physically make it to the bathroom. One seasoned Beverly Hills internist consulted by this journalist stated only once has he ever prescribed a condom catheter in a “home setting,” and that was to a stroke victim.
  • The striking absence of appropriate sophisticated monitoring and resuscitation equipment in the event of a bad reaction to any of the drugs (notably propofol) Murray was prescribing and administering to MJ. (Even the oxygen tank that was by the bedside was empty.)
  • Dr. Conrad Murray’s absence from his star patient’s bedside (and bedroom) for more than 30 minutes, a fact confirmed by Murray’s email and cellphone records entered into evidence, and a veritable “parade” of witnesses who were on the other end of the phone—not to make light of it, but if Conrad Murray had a Facebook page, it would be safe to say his relationship status would be: "It’s Complicated." It was during this critical absence that Jackson had what Dr. Murray referred to at the time as a “bad reaction.”
  • A play-by-play (though nobody’s testimony quite matched) of a curious Keystone Kops–style episode, apparently prior to anyone calling 911, where Murray instructed two members of the security staff to put numerous vials on the bedside table into plastic bags, then brown bags, then luggage bags (almost as if the bags were Russian dolls) and remove and conceal a saline bag from the IV stand at the bedside that appears to have had a propofol bottle set up inside, which the prosecution attempted to display as if it were a makeshift continuous drip system.
  • The presence of the IV stand in the bedroom itself.
  • The testimony about the presence of Prince and Paris in the bedroom crying uncontrollably at the sight of their father’s seemingly lifeless body, eyes open, pupils dilated and fixed, condom catheter, mouth open, lying flat on his back with his palms up as Dr. Murray attempted one-handed chest compressions.
  • Conrad Murray’s failure to reveal to EMT first responders and staff at UCLA Medical Center that he’d administered propofol to MJ, despite the fact that he was asked repeatedly what drugs the patient might have taken. Murray continued to insist that all he’d given MJ was a small amount of lorazepam, a mild sedative commonly known as Ativan. And though the treatment and the protocol might have been the same in their attempts to revive him, the omission itself is a “bad fact.”

But days eight and nine were a little bit of a game-changer. As lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff successfully hammered Elissa Fleak, the coroner’s investigator in charge of the “crime scene," about her handling of certain evidence and her failure to observe certain protocols, a couple of “bad facts” were revealed on the prosecution’s side, as well:

  • It was not until almost two years later, in January of 2011, that Ms. Fleak first “mentioned” that she’d discovered a propofol bottle “inside” a saline bag (the makeshift IV drip system that the prosecution is trying to enter into evidence) and that she removed it. The photograph taken by Fleak shows a propofol bottle laid on top of a saline bag, both of which were recovered from one of the aforementioned luggage bags on June 29, 2009. There is no mention in her official report filed with the coroner’s office in 2009 that she observed a propofol bottle in a saline bag and that she removed it prior to photographing it.
  • She did not take the IV stand present in the bedroom the night of MJ’s death into evidence until four days later. And she made no mention of it in her initial evidence report.
  • She destroyed her original handwritten notes from the night of Michael Jackson’s death.
  • She testified that she believed she said that “I had additional details to add to the report that I did not add in the first narrative.” (I have not been able to verify whether or not that statement appears in the official coroner’s evidence report, as presiding Judge Michael Pastor has issued a gag order that prohibits the attorneys on both sides and their staffs from speaking with any members of the press. When I contacted the Public Information Office for the Los Angeles Superior Court, I was informed that Judge Pastor is also “refusing to allow the press to review any of the exhibits presented until after the end of the trial, if then.”)
A number of other chilling details have emerged that those in the legal industry would call “bad facts."
  • The night of MJ’s death, Fleak removed a bottle of pills from the floor and photographed them on a nightstand. And though Ed Chernoff didn’t make much of this, it could lead a jury to wonder what if anything else was “staged” as well.
  • Perhaps the most glaring fact of all is Fleak's own thumbprint identified on a syringe. She testified she didn’t know how that could have happened since she always wore latex gloves.
  • On leaving the Carolwood residence the night of Michael Jackson’s death, she did not seal the crime scene. In all fairness, Elissa Fleak didn’t realize it was a potential crime scene at the time, but nonetheless it, too, is a “bad fact.”

The jury is presently being treated to a two-hour audio recording of Dr. Murray’s first interview with the LAPD, which was conducted two days after MJ’s death with his attorneys present, in which he voluntarily admits administering propofol and a small amount of lorazepam and another sedative, Versed (midazolam), to his star patient. Notably, he does not inform the detectives that he was out of the bedroom for more than 30 minutes. To the contrary, he states that he left the bedroom for only two minutes to go to the bathroom.

The presentation of the recorded interview will continue on Tuesday but, between the various anomalies in the evidence reports and the witnesses’ testimony, it’s a little too early to call the game.