The proceeding felt like the final chapter in the long and complicated story of Michael Jackson’s life. His yearlong “This Is It!” concert tour replaced with a criminal-court session that lasted six weeks and was broadcast live, via the Internet, to millions of viewers worldwide. In the end, it felt like “this was it,” even though in death Jackson left behind controversy and questions that will never be definitively answered.
After testimony from 49 witnesses and the introduction of more than 330 exhibits, the main question for the Los Angeles Superior Court jury was simple: who killed Michael Jackson?
Was it his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, who broke several standard medical protocols by administering the hospital anesthesia propofol in a private home without the proper monitoring and resuscitation equipment? Or was it the demanding, doctor-shopping, drug-dependent Michael Jackson who helped himself to a final dose of medicine that stopped his breathing and caused his death?
Prosecutor David Walgren’s opening statement was unforgettable.
Two minutes into his multimedia presentation, he projected onto the courtroom’s screen a shocking, ghostly photograph of Jackson lying dead on a hospital gurney. Spectators gasped at the sight. Block letters spelling out the word “HOMICIDE” hovered over Jackson’s prone figure. Below was the date June 25, 2009. That eerie image then slid to the right of the screen, and on the left the jury saw Jackson dancing in a robust rehearsal for his upcoming “This Is It!” tour. The superimposed date: June 24, 2009. Prosecutor Walgren explained that the two images were captured just 12 hours apart.
“What happened during that time frame is that the acts and the omissions of Michael Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, led to his premature death at the age of 50,” Walgren said.
The prosecutor told the jury that Murray had first sought a $5 million fee to go on the tour with Jackson but ultimately settled on a contract for $150,000 per month. (Ironically, Murray never realized a penny, as Jackson didn’t live long enough to sign the deal.)
Walgren then walked the jury through a long list of heavy-duty narcotics, from propofol to midazolam and lorazepam, that Murray had ordered for his celebrity patient. And then he played a profoundly sad audiotape of a clearly drugged and slurring Jackson talking about his upcoming tour.
“When people leave this show, when people leave my show, I want them to say, ‘I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life. Go! Go! … It’s amazing. He’s the greatest entertainer in the world.’”
The barely understandable clip (it required subtitles) was recorded by Murray on his iPhone for some unknown reason on May 10, 2009. That was proof, the prosecutor said, that Murray had known for weeks the extent of his patient’s declining health and drug dependence.
“What does he do with that knowledge?” Walgren asked. “He orders [more] shipments of propofol and midazolam … and lorazepam.”
The paper trail of pharmacy orders was the first in a string of evidence Murray left behind that would come back to haunt him and help persuade the jury to convict.
Murray’s own phone records from June 25, 2009, reveal that the morning of Jackson’s death he couldn’t possibly have been paying close attention to his patient because he made several phone calls to his Houston office and to girlfriends in Las Vegas and Texas. Records show he was also busy reading and answering emails, including correspondence with a London insurance company. Just hours before Jackson died, Murray was assuring the firm that Michael Jackson was “healthy” and media reports to the contrary were “fallacious.”
That email left the distinct impression that Murray wasn’t truthful about Jackson’s state because he didn’t want to jeopardize his anticipated astronomical paychecks.
Murray locked himself into a storyline during an interview with LAPD detectives recorded just two days after Jackson’s death. That tape was played in full for the jury, and Murray’s version of events handcuffed his lead defense attorney, Ed Chernoff, throughout the trial.
Murray told detectives that during that last overnight, after giving Jackson other sleep-inducing drugs like Valium and lorazepam, he finally gave in to his patient’s pleas for “his milk,” the pet name Jackson gave to propofol. The doctor admitted having given Jackson the milky anesthesia “every night for two months,” but he said he had been trying to wean Jackson off propofol, so on that last occasion he administered only 25mm. After monitoring Jackson for a safe period, Murray said, he left the room for “just two minutes” to go to the bathroom.
That 25mm/two-minute scenario didn’t square with the coroner’s finding that the cause of death was from “acute propofol intoxication” exacerbated by the effects of other sedatives, like lorazepam. Where did all the extra medication found in Jackson’s system come from?
The prosecution maintained it was likely included in the IV saline drip Murray told police he hooked up for Jackson’s dehydration problem every night. The defense theory was that after Murray left the room Jackson must have awakened from the small dose of propofol and helped himself to more—or popped several lorazepam tablets—which caused his death. Experts testified that two minutes was not enough time for that to have happened.
“The doctor says he went to the bathroom for two minutes,” deputy medical examiner Dr. Christopher Rogers testified, “but [Murray] had no dose-monitoring devices, and it’s likely he gave more than he thought.” Rogers, who performed Jackson’s autopsy, concluded, “The less likely scenario is that Michael Jackson woke up and still under the effects of sedatives … managed to give himself another dose and that that dose had enough time to flow throughout his whole body and cause his death. To me that seems like the less reasonable possibility.”
More than a half-dozen medical witnesses testified that Murray was guilty of violating several standards of medical care. His “gross negligence” included: using propofol outside a hospital setting, failing to have an emergency crash cart of resuscitation equipment available, lying to paramedics and two emergency-room doctors about the medications he had given Jackson, and waiting nearly 25 minutes before calling 911 for help.
During the interview with detectives Murray said that when he returned to the bedroom Jackson wasn’t breathing but had a pulse of 122 beats per minute. State’s witness Dr. Alon Steinberg, a cardiologist, declared emphatically that if that were true, Jackson would still be alive if Murray had called 911 sooner. He cast doubt about Murray’s medical decision to start CPR chest compressions first.
“This was a respiratory arrest, not a cardiac arrest,” Steinberg said. “The heart was already working, he didn’t need chest compressions … the immediate response would be to get air into the patient’s lungs.” The impression was that Murray either lied about finding Jackson with a pulse or was an incompetent doctor.
During a pause in Steinberg’s testimony, defense attorney Michael Flanagan was caught on a courtroom microphone muttering to his colleague Chernoff in a deflated tone, “This is insane at this point.” Their client’s locked-in version of events was impossible to overcome.
But the defense team soldiered on. For some inexplicable reason Chernoff began his case-in-chief by calling four police officers to answer mundane questions about the 911 call and the surveillance tapes found at Jackson’s rented mansion, which revealed little. It wasn’t until LAPD detective Orlando Martinez testified that interest peaked when Chernoff asked about the evolving statements he’d gotten from Jackson’s bodyguard, Alberto Alvarez, the man who ultimately placed the 911 call. When first questioned on June 25, Alvarez had said nothing about Murray asking him to help hide propofol bottles, IV bags, and tubing. That incriminating version of events didn’t surface until a month later.
Court watchers prepared to see Chernoff skewer Alvarez about waiting so long to tell that story—had he made it all up?—but the defense chose not to call Alvarez to the witness box.
Many of the witnesses the defense called presented problematic testimony.
Two of Jackson’s past medical practitioners helped the defense begin to paint the entertainer as a manipulative doctor-shopper. Dr. Allan Metzger and nurse practitioner Cherilyn Lee testified about Jackson’s complaints of insomnia and his repeated demands for inappropriate intravenous drugs. Both witnesses said they immediately refused the celebrity’s requests. Lee checked her meticulous notes on Jackson and was able to say when he had specifically requested propofol. She had sternly warned him never to use it.
“Michael told me, ‘I will be OK. I only need someone to monitor me with the equipment while I sleep.’” The testimony underscored how a careful medical practitioner treats a demanding, substance-abusing patient. Not helpful to the defense.
Two of the people closest to Jackson’s anticipated concert tour, promoter Randy Phillips and director-choreographer Kenny Ortega, testified that they had become very concerned about Jackson’s health during June 2009. Ortega, the state’s first witness, described an “incoherent,” shivering-cold Jackson who hadn’t eaten properly and couldn’t participate in rehearsals. That buttressed the defense’s contention that Jackson was in failing health. But Ortega said that when he approached Murray to see if there were some health concerns, he got an arrogant response.
“He said I should stop trying to be an amateur doctor and psychologist and be the director and allow Michael’s health to him,” Ortega said.
Randy Phillips recounted an emergency meeting they had at Jackson’s home just five days before the death. They confronted the entertainer about his inattentiveness and absences.
“Michael didn’t respond immediately,” Phillips testified. “Dr. Murray spoke for Michael on the situation [and] guaranteed us that Michael would get into it.” Phillips also said he discussed with Murray his concern about medications that Jackson was getting from his longtime dermatologist, Dr. Arnold Klein. The concert promoter said Jackson was “distracted, not focused,” after his dermatology appointments.
Klein was declared ineligible to testify during the Murray case, since his medical treatment was not on trial. So the defense team did the next best thing. They got their hands on Klein’s medical records for Jackson and put them up on the courtroom monitor for all to see. (Interestingly, they carried the pseudonyms Omar Arnold and Paul Farance.)
Addiction specialist Dr. Robert Waldman interpreted the records and noted the massive doses of Demerol that Klein gave the singer during routine dermatological procedures like Botox or wrinkle-filler injections. Waldman told the court that the average dose of Demerol is no more than 50mg. But during many of his last appointments with Klein—between March and June 2009—Jackson was receiving as much as 400mg per visit. In one three-day period in April 2009, Jackson got 775mg of the narcotic painkiller, which led Waldman to conclude, “I believe there is evidence that Michael Jackson was dependent on Demerol and was possibly addicted.” Jackson’s last appointment with Klein came just three days before he died.
Defense attorney Chernoff made it a point to stress to the jury that “one of the insidious effects of Demerol addiction is the inability to sleep—for some, the absolute inability to sleep.” Other side effects include anxiety, restlessness, and a feeling of always being cold. It was a clearcut effort to shift the genesis of Jackson’s problems away from Murray and on to Klein. It wasn’t a successful tactic.
During Murray’s taped interview with detectives, he let it be known he knew all about the dermatologist. “His production team told me that [Jackson’s] worst days were when he had gone to see Dr. Klein,” Murray was heard to say. “He was basically wasted for the next 24 hours. I wondered why he never shared with me that he was seeing another doctor.”
This from the man who sat in a chair by Jackson’s bedside nearly every night for two months, next to a nightstand filled with various prescription bottles from other doctors.
Chernoff declared in his closing statement, “The state has absolutely failed to prove a crime … For six weeks they’ve tried to prove there was a [propofol] drip” hooked up to Jackson and that’s what killed him. “They refuse to accept the obvious and most reasonable explanation of this: that Dr. Murray just gave Michael Jackson what he said [25mm]. They want to convict Conrad Murray for what Michael Jackson did.
“Dr. Murray,” Chernoff said with a flourish, “had no control over this situation … he was just a little fish in a big, dirty pond.”
Prosecutor Walgren’s closing apparently rang truer to the jurors.
“Conrad Murray is just a liar. He lied to paramedics, he lied to the emergency-room doctors, to Michael Jackson’s mother.” Walgren labeled Murray’s actions and treatments greedy and “bizarre” and said, “It was Conrad Murray who brought the lorazepam, diazepam, and propofol into the house in the first place. What Conrad Murray was doing was a pharmaceutical experiment on Michael Jackson, an obscene experiment by a doctor who had no training in sleep medicine. Michael Jackson trusted Conrad Murray—he trusted him with his life—he paid with his life.”
Few people were surprised when Murray decided not to testify on his own behalf. Even fewer were surprised by the jury’s verdict of guilty.
Judge Michael Pastor will pass sentence on the convicted felon on Nov. 29. The judge had already stripped Murray of his California medical license, and immediately after the verdict, citing the doctor’s reckless disregard for human life, he ordered him taken into custody to await sentencing. Murray faces up to four years behind bars, but given the state’s prison-overcrowding problem he could be sentenced to supervised probation.