Inside the Latest Michael Jackson Trial—The One With $40 Billion on the Line
The King of Pop is dead. His doctor is in jail. Is there anyone else to blame? By Diane Dimond.
When prospective jurors step into Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday after the Easter recess, 12 of them will suddenly find themselves key players in the latest sensational twist of the Michael Jackson saga: a wrongful-death suit that promises to dredge up the late singer’s darkest moments, including his 2005 molestation trial; feature testimony from at least one of his sheltered children; and put on trial the very nature of the star’s personal legacy. And all of it with $40 billion on the table.
That’s the amount that Katherine Jackson, the 82-year-old matriarch of the Jackson family, is seeking from AEG Live, the concert promoter that worked with her son on his ill-fated This Is It comeback tour shortly before his death. It’s the money she believes Michael could have earned over the years had he not suddenly died June 25, 2009, at age 50.
The price tag is over the top in true Jackson style, according to most experts. “It’s a money grab,” L.A.-based attorney and trial strategist Marshall Hennington told The Daily Beast. “Forty billion? Come on, he never made that in his lifetime, and we know the debt he was in when he died. This is what lawyers do. They throw up those kinds of numbers to see what they can really get.”
Several of Katherine Jackson’s claims against AEG Live and its parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, have already been dismissed by Judge Yvette Palazuelos. What’s left is the single complaint of “negligent hiring,” a charge succinctly summarized in the court documents: “At the time of his death, Michael Jackson was under the immediate care of a doctor selected by, hired by, and controlled by AEG. Indeed, AEG demanded and required that Michael Jackson be treated by this particular doctor to ensure that [Jackson] would attend all rehearsals and shows on the tour. Due to AEG’s actions and inactions, three loving children lost their father.”
Conrad Murray, the doctor referred to in the complaint, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison in 2011 for giving Jackson massive doses of the hospital anesthetic Propofol, which contributed to the singer’s death.
Essentially, Mrs. Jackson’s lawyers maintain that by working with Murray, AEG put its desire for profits over the health and safety of Michael Jackson and that he died as a result, robbing his children of future earnings. In response, AEG maintains it consistently acted in Jackson’s best interests, but that the entertainer simply couldn’t be saved from himself. Palazuelos has allowed the company to raise Jackson’s molestation trial as part of its defense, since it could be relevant to his history of alleged drug abuse and depression. (Jackson was acquitted on all 10 charges in that trial.)
The late star's two oldest children—Prince, who recently turned 16, and Paris, who will celebrate her 15th birthday the day after jury selection begins—have given depositions in the case, and it's expected that one or both will testify at trial. Jackson's last son, affectionately called Blanket, is 10.
On AEG’s side: no clear evidence has surfaced that proves the concert promoters knew what Murray was doing. Perhaps more important, there never was a signed contract between Murray and AEG. The cash-strapped Murray had jumped at the offer to earn a reported $150,000 a month caring for Jackson, but the fact remains that he never saw a dime of it. Neither Jackson nor AEG ever paid him. It will certainly come up in trial as well that it was Michael Jackson himself who brought Murray into his inner circle. The two men met years ago in Las Vegas, where the Jackson children had fallen ill with colds and flu. Their father asked friends (specifically, Dr. Tohme Tohme, who is on AEG’s witness list) for a physician referral, and in entered Murray. AEG executives are expected to testify that since the comeback concerts were scheduled to take place at the O2 Arena in London, they had wanted a London-based physician to care for Jackson. Ultimately, they will have to admit, they acquiesced to Jackson’s choice.
On the other hand, AEG may have a hard time explaining a raft of interoffice emails the Jackson team collected during discovery, which were mysteriously leaked to the Los Angeles Times in September. The emails make it apparent that top executives at AEG Live were aware of Michael Jackson’s fragile physical and emotional state.
The day of the news conference to announce the This Is It tour in March 2009, AEG Live president Randy Phillips was with Jackson in his hotel suite in London. He wrote a frantic email to his boss, AEG president Tim Leiweke, back in Los Angeles. “MJ is locked in his room drunk and despondent. I am trying to sober him up. He is an emotionally paralyzed mess riddled with self-loathing and doubt now that it is show time.” Jackson appeared at the news conference more than 90 minutes late, wearing dark glasses and speaking in a slow, slurred voice. “I just want to say that these will be my final show performances in London. This will be it, and when I say this is it, I really mean this will be it!” And he began to giggle.
At that point in his career, Jackson hadn’t had a hit song in more than a decade and had a reputation for substance-abuse problems. Nonetheless, AEG entered into a contract agreement with Jackson that gave him a considerable amount of money up front and an expensive mansion in which to live. In return, Jackson agreed that if he failed to perform, AEG could legally seize his assets, including his portion of the Sony/ATV song catalogue with its lucrative future residuals from songs by the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and the Jackson family, among others. He was some $400 million in debt. The pressure was on.
So that spring, when L.A. director and choreographer Kenny Ortega reported to the company that Jackson had failed to show up for rehearsals, AEG executives seemed to panic. They had a face-to-face confrontation at Jackson’s home with both the star and Murray. The pair promised better attendance. But the problems continued, and it looked as though the sold-out concert tour might have to be postponed—for a second time.
During this period, an email from AEG co-CEO Paul Gongaware to Phillips read in part: “We are holding all the risk.” Gongaware had past dealings with Jackson, though, and he had a plan to handle their uncooperative star. “We let Mikey know just what this will cost him in terms of him making money ... We cannot be forced into stopping this, which MJ will try to do because he is lazy and constantly changes his mind to fit his immediate wants.” This and other emails could be central to Katherine Jackson’s charge that the company knew of her son’s defenselessness and pressured him to the point where he had to resort to Propofol to deal with his chronic insomnia.
But the Jackson team likely believes that its smoking gun is in another email, this one sent 11 days before Jackson died, in which Gongaware wrote to Ortega: “We want to remind Murray that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him.” Calls to AEG’s legal team regarding this article were not returned, but lead lawyer Marvin Putnam told the Los Angeles Times in September, “Michael Jackson was an adult ... And it is supercilious to say he was unable to take care of his own affairs.” Putnam also stated that the emails leaked to the Times were incomplete in a way that purposefully showed the company in a negative light.
The Daily Beast has learned that AEG’s legal team has been concentrating on documenting Michael Jackson’s past bad behaviors to show that his own family was not able to stop his self-destructive acts. In October Putnam and his associate Adam Hunt traveled to Pennsylvania to interview author Stacy Brown. Brown, a former Jackson family friend, worked with Michael’s brother Jermaine on a tell-all book circulated in New York publishing houses in 2001 and 2002, but never published. Titled Legacy: Surviving the Best and the Worst, it was a shockingly candid look at what the family thought of their most famous member and his troubles with young boys and various substances.
Brown says the AEG lawyers zeroed in on this passage, written in Jermaine’s voice: “Michael’s drug use, I’m afraid is going to be a part of his legacy and there’s nothing we can do any longer to hide it. The Demerol, the vicodin, the percocet, codeine, the cocaine, the Jack Daniels, the wine. Does he really know what he does with these kids? ... [I]t is something that has concerned this family for more than two decades.” (Jermaine Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.)
The AEG lawyers asked repeated questions, according to Brown, about whether the family ever tried to force Michael to deal with his problems. “I told them that to my knowledge there were at least three interventions,” Brown said. The lawyers seemed particularly interested in the one that took place in New York in December 2001. “Katherine and Jermaine told me that M.J.’s words were, ‘Leave me alone. I’ll be dead in a year.’ And right there he ordered his security team to never allow his family near him again, or they’d be looking for other jobs.” Brown told the AEG team he did not want to testify at the trial. “I just don’t want to be in the same room with those people again,” he said. AEG’s lawyers could subpoena him.
Might Katherine Jackson, facing yet another slog of a trial dragging her family through very public mud, including details from her son's salacious child-molestation trial, seek to shield her grandchildren from the unpleasantness and agree to settle out of court? After all, the children are already guaranteed an estate of about a billion dollars due to a postmortem spike in Jackson music, film, and book sales.
“Settle? I doubt it,” says attorney Hennington. “AEG will likely never give in. They’re planning to show they did everything humanely possible to save Michael Jackson from himself. M.J. was M.J.’s own worst enemy.”