Jackson persona to hang over trial of doctor

AP News
Posted: Sep 26, 2011 5:55 PM
Jackson persona to hang over trial of doctor

In the small crowded Los Angeles courtroom, 6-foot-5 Dr. Conrad Murray is an imposing figure. Another imposing figure will loom over the room on Tuesday: the persona of the man he is accused of killing, Michael Jackson.

One of the most famous pop stars of all time will be present in the words of those who knew him, in snippets of video and in the faces of his famous family watching from the courtroom gallery.

The somber-faced Murray has said little in public, except that he most definitely did not cause Jackson's death.

"Your honor, I am an innocent man," Murray said quietly at his arraignment last January. "I definitely plead not guilty."

Murray, 58, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, could face four years in prison and lose his medical license.

Prosecutors will portray him as a greedy, incompetent doctor with a messy personal life who signed on as Jackson's personal physician for $150,000 a month to save himself from financial ruin. The defense says he was Jackson's friend, a capable protector of the singer's health, prepared to travel with him to Europe on his tour, and is still mourning the death.

One of Murray's greatest assets may be what prosecutors say he wasn't good at: being a doctor.

"Jurors generally believe doctors," said attorney Harland Braun, who has defended many doctors in court. "They have had to trust doctors over a lifetime. What the defense has to do is wrap him in the general feeling that doctors are good people. They care about their patients and he was not indifferent to Michael's welfare."

When the trial starts, Jacksons' family will sit in a row in the courtroom. They wanted Murray charged with murder.

Edward Chernoff, the lead defense lawyer, said Murray feels the pressure.

"He feels like David in the David and Goliath story but he doesn't have a slingshot because of the rulings that took his slingshot away," said Chernoff, reacting last month to decisions barring chunks of evidence the defense wanted to present about Jackson's history of drug use.

Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor, who is presiding over the trial, has since instructed lawyers to refrain from commenting on his rulings.

While witnesses will come and go, Chernoff is aware that the superstar's shadow will be hanging over the trial. He's concerned too about the fans who have demonized Murray and are expected to demonstrate outside the courthouse.

"If they love Michael Jackson, what do they think Michael would say about all this?" he asked. "I think he would say, `Leave the man alone.' And that's one of the reasons they love Michael."

Following opening statements by both sides, the first prosecution witness, choreographer and director Kenny Ortega, will take jurors into Jackson's life during the crucial weeks he was rehearsing for his landmark "This Is It" concert. Video clips from the posthumous rehearsal film could be included in his testimony.

Will Murray testify in his own defense? Nobody is saying. Although considered a dangerous strategy, it might be the only way for him to show jurors his personality.

Murray told his story in a three-hour interview with police two days after Jackson's death but the transcript remains sealed. Early on, he posted a short video on YouTube saying, "I have done all I can do. I told the truth, and I have faith the truth will prevail."

The truth, in one way or another, involves the drug propofol, which caused Jackson's death. Prosecutors say Murray was grossly negligent in administering the hospital drug in a private home. Defense lawyers will try to prove that Jackson caused his own death by drinking a dose when Murray was out of the room.

It's a risky strategy that requires depicting Jackson as a self -centered, demanding celebrity while portraying Murray as a kindly doctor victimized by his patient. "They will be doing a little balancing act trying to devalue Michael without attacking him," said Thomas Mesereau Jr., the lawyer who won Jackson's acquittal in a 2005 molestation trial.

The defense team also will be fighting what jurors may have heard about Murray's complicated love life and his distressed financial affairs.

Murray has been portrayed in the media as a womanizer who frequented strip clubs and dated cocktail waitresses, a man who has seven children by various women and has been sued for failure to pay child support. His troubled financial affairs included foreclosure on a Las Vegas country club home.

The defense won a ruling barring testimony about strip clubs and Murray's personal life. The judge sees it as irrelevant to the central question of whether Murray was negligent in his treatment of Jackson. The doctor has many patients who sing his praises, but it is unlikely they can testify.

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On Monday, Pastor ruled that jurors couldn't see a recording of a press conference by the singer promoting his final concerts, saying it wasn't relevant. The defense had wanted to show it, claiming it showed that Jackson wasn't healthy.

Murray's official biography paints him as a self-made man who climbed out of a poverty stricken childhood in the Caribbean to become a highly educated, well-respected doctor with loyal patients who defend him as someone who would not harm Jackson.

Born in St. Andrews, Grenada, he lived with his poor farmer grandparents, going to school barefoot because they could not afford shoes for him. At the age of seven, he moved to Trinidad and Tobago to live with his mother and stepfather. He never met his father, a physician, until he moved to the U.S. in search of higher education in 1978.

After getting his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., he trained at various hospitals and then pursued a specialty in interventional cardiology. In 1999, Murray moved to Las Vegas, opened a storefront medical practice and another in Houston where his father practiced. He also had a license in California, which is now suspended.

Former patients speak of his kind, reassuring manner. "He would go over tests with me. He would say, `There's nothing to be afraid of.' He cares about his patients, that old-fashioned care, like a real doctor," said Donna Digiacomo of Las Vegas.

Murray met Jackson when the singer took one of his children to see him for treatment in 2008. Murray quickly became his doctor and friend. At the time, Murray was in a $780,000 financial hole, with unpaid debts and bill collection lawsuits. Then, the $150,000-per-month job came along.

Mesereau, the lawyer who won Jackson's acquittal, said of Murray: "I think when he met Michael Jackson he thought he had hit the lottery and was not going to do anything to jeopardize his role. Because he refused to say no, in my opinion, he cost Michael Jackson his life."

Murray was never paid a cent.


Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this story.