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10.19.11

Murray Defense’s New Pet Theory

Conrad Murray’s defense has abandoned its theory that Michael Jackson drank propofol, and settled on a new idea—that the superstar died after taking eight lorazepam anti-anxiety tablets.

The involuntary-manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray has been delayed ostensibly due to the tragic death of the father of the prosecution’s star expert witness, Dr. Steven Shafer, but as was revealed in court Monday morning, there’s more to the “continued” delay than meets the eye.

The prosecution has been scrambling ever since Conrad Murray’s defense attorney, Michael Flanagan, announced in open court (although without the jury present) that they were no longer going to put forth the theory that Michael Jackson drank the last dose of propofol himself.

(PETA beware—if you are a dog lover or an animal-rights activist, you might not want to read any further...)

In the preliminary hearing, Steve Shafer unearthed a study that was done in the '70s on “baby pigs” (which presiding Judge Michael Pastor corrected for the record as piglets), where someone in Sweden administered propofol to piglets rectally and none of them fell asleep.

The defense then turned around and secretly commissioned their own study.  They hired a veterinarian to do a “test” on baby beagles (which I’m sure Judge Pastor would have referred to as “beaglets"), to see what the results would be if they administered propofol orally to the animals.

When asked by this reporter two months ago what happened with the baby beagles, one of the defense attorneys muttered under his breath disparagingly, “None of them died.”

“Really,” I joked in return, although I was only half kidding, “We were going to throw a party and have everyone drink propofol and invite a doctor and see what happened...”

“You can drink as much of it as you want,” he said, “it won’t even put you to sleep.” Disclaimer: The Daily Beast is not suggesting that anyone ever drink propofol!  Quite the opposite, i.e. do not try this at home.

However, Steve Shafer did just that apparently—used himself as a guinea pig, in order to prove what the science seems to support, that oral ingestion of propofol is not a successful method of delivering that drug.  (We hope he had a doctor present when he did it, and proper resuscitation equipment, as well.) But it is unlikely that he will be testifying to that now that the defense has changed its theory.

The defense’s new “pet” theory that Dr. Shafer will have to rebut is that Michael Jackson appears to have orally self-administered eight lorazepam (Ativan) tablets while Dr. Murray was out of the room, which created “a perfect storm” so to speak, and caused Jackson’s tragic death.

Shafer’s résumé is formidable (it took half a day to get through his credits, like an extended Oscar rant that curiously played quite well.)  The chair at Stanford Medical School in a rarefied branch of science that tracks how drugs are metabolized through your system (if you took a valium at 2 and had eaten a chicken sandwich, by 3 o’clock your blood level would be...etc.), Shafer is the person you would want as your teacher. He makes it all understandable. He has an excitement and interest in his field (as if it’s the most interesting thing in the world) that is rare to find—even the white-haired juror in the first row who has a tendency to doze has woken up for his testimony. 

Dr. Shafer is also the person who got propofol approved by the FDA for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and additionally is the author of the propofol-package insert. Expert, for sure.

Here’s the difference between me and my husband (who is a lawyer, by the way). When I told him about Steve Shafer, he said, “Gee, he must know a lot.”

The defense is suggesting lorazepam created the “bad reaction” that led to MJ’s untimely death.

My immediate reaction was, “Gee, he works for the drug company.” A response that, by the way, has also been voiced by three high-end medical professionals. “You bet he does,” said one also tenured/chair-of-his-department/invented-a-branch-of-medical science/state-of-the-art medical professional I consulted with last weekend.  Shafer’s web site, however, states that he has not had any consulting or funded research from (AstraZeneca) in more than 10 years. But as of March 10, 2011, Shafer was still listed as a Special Government Employee Consultant (Voting) for the FDA. Propofol, by the way, is not considered by the FDA to be a “controlled substance."

But propofol is no longer the subject at hand.  The defense’s new theory is that Michael Jackson took an overdose of lorazepam (an anti-anxiety drug), which is what created the “bad reaction” that led to MJ’s untimely death.

Late last week, Dan Anderson, the toxicologist in the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office, finally tested MJ’s stomach contents and blood for lorazepam levels and lorazepam metabolites (despite the fact that Anderson had testified a week before that he was not aware of any such test and that his lab did not know how to do it). Those results have been presented to the defense, who have asked for the additional delay so they can review those results against their own.

When the trial resumes, Shafer will go head to head in the courtroom with his friend of 30 years, Dr. Paul White, the defense’s star expert witness, who is considered the “father of propofol” and is a worthy opponent.

Not that any of it might matter. At the end of the day, the jury will have to decide if there was criminal negligence on the part of Dr. Conrad Murray, inappropriate use of propofol, lorazepam, midazolam (Versed), inadequate monitoring equipment, absence of required resuscitation equipment in the event of a “bad reaction,” failure to give care, failure to call 911, and also, if the science supports it, consider a more complex and ethical question. “If you leave a loaded gun on a table and leave the room and somebody shoots himself, are you to blame?”