Jacksons v AEG Timeline Legal Top Stories

Guilty: Murray trial update

By | Published on Tuesday 8 November 2011

Conrad Murray

So, I don’t think anyone was surprised by this one really, Dr Conrad Murray – the medic caring for Michael Jackson on the day he died – was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter yesterday after a jury decided in just two days that his negligence caused the pop star’s death.

The verdict brings to an end a six week trial, the majority of which was taken up by the prosecution’s arguments, during which they presented various experts who criticised Murray for administering the drug propofol – which ultimately killed Jackson – in a non-hospital environment, and for failing to properly monitor his patient after doing so. Questions were also asked as to why it took Murray half an hour to call paramedics, suggesting the doctor had a guilty conscience and used that time to cover his tracks and hide evidence.

Despite presenting other patients to talk about Murray’s caring nature, and one expert who claimed the evidence suggested Jackson self-administered the fatal shot of propofol, the defence failed to tackle some key questions posed by the prosecution – why had the doctor ever agreed to administer a surgical anaesthetic in a domestic environment with no monitoring equipment, why had he left his patient unattended with the drug in his system and next to his bed, and why had he taken so long to call paramedics? All three of those actions, the prosecution successfully argued, constituted gross negligence, enough to secure a conviction for involuntary manslaughter.

As the verdict was read out in court – a longer process than normal as Judge Michael Pastor asked each juror individually to confirm they agreed with the ruling – Murray sat solemnly without speaking or showing any real emotion. It was his chief lawyer, Ed Chernoff, who looked most distressed by the ruling, though he can’t really have been that surprised.

The defence were always fighting an uphill battle. Their initial strategy seemed to be to pursue a ‘big picture defence’ summarised in Chernoff’s conclusion by the line “Dr Murray was just a little fish in a big, dirty pond”. In Chernoff’s mind Jackson had become dependent on various prescription drugs to relieve pain, anxiety and insomnia, and he had been securing those drugs from various sources for months maybe years. Regular use of – and possible dependency on – those medications, meant Jackson was playing with fire, and it was inevitable that at some point he’d consume the right combination of those drugs to threaten his life.

Murray entered the scene late in the day, the defence would argue, inheriting a patient reliant on a dangerous combination of medications, and working for a client – AEG Live – who demanded the singer be fit enough to rehearse for a gruelling fifty night residency in London. Murray was desperately trying to wean Jackson off these drugs, they would add, but was doing so in tricky circumstances: Jackson was too busy to go cold turkey for a month, plus he had access to some of the drugs on which he had become dependent from other sources.

Following this argument to its conclusion, it was Murray’s attempts to wean his patient off propofol, ie by giving him a smaller shot than usual, that led to Jackson’s accidental death – when the singer regained consciousness sooner than normal while the doctor was out of the room and helped himself to another shot of the dangerous drug.

There were two key problems to this defence.

Firstly, Judge Michael Pastor banned most of it from being presented in court. For him much of the background was a distraction from the key question, what happened in the hours immediately before and after Jackson’s demise. Given only drugs provided by Murray were found in Jackson’s system after his death, a long discussion about the singer’s other and past medical treatments would be irrelevant, and an unfair invasion on the deceased’s privacy.

Secondly, even if you believed that Jackson had become dependent on various prescription drugs and had access to them from various sources before hiring Murray, and even if you accept that the defendant was trying to wean his patient off these drugs, and that, unbeknownst to the doctor, Jackson was responding by topping up his drug supply himself, it doesn’t alter the fact that to administer propofol in a domestic environment, to fail to monitor his patient, to leave Jackson with access to the drug, and to not call paramedics immediately on discovering the singer had stopped breathing were all acts of negligence.

That said, if you accept the defence’s full argument there is a subtle point that may not affect the doctor’s legal liability for Jackson’s demise, but which might ease his conscience. In Chernoff’s mind the chances of Jackson dying from an overdose of prescription drugs were always high with or without Murray as his personal doctor, and even if his client had never met the singer by chance in Las Vegas one day, the late king of pop may have died by consuming the perfect storm of prescription drugs one day anyway, eventually.

Though it seems certain neither the Jackson family nor the singer’s always loyal fanbase would accept that argument, for them Murray is and will remain the doctor whose negligence caused the death of their son, brother or hero. Many of the singer’s more loyal fans had gathered outside the courthouse in LA waiting for a verdict yesterday, and they cheered when the word ‘guilty’ was delivered.

Despite Chernoff’s protestations, at the request of the prosecution Murray was remanded in custody yesterday, and will now await sentencing on 29 Nov. He faces up to four years in prison, though with no previous criminal record many expect him to get away with less, and given LA’s overcrowded jails some or all of that may be served under house arrest. Perhaps more devastatingly for Murray, he is likely to lose his medical licences – he currently has the right to practice in both Texas and Nevada – depriving him of income just as he faces one, maybe two, and possibly three civil lawsuits in relation to his role in Jackson’s death.

And so the case rests. See you back here later this month for the sentencing and subsequent civil cases.