Murray Trial Begins
Inside the compact, wood-paneled courtroom that will soon host the trial of Michael Jackson’s personal physician, many of the tabloid-worthy elements of the singer’s life will go unspoken.
Outside, however, many Jackson fans say they expect a media free-for-all that will dredge up discredited allegations and salacious story lines, once again tarnishing the singer’s legacy.
Jackson, they fear, will once again be on trial.
Around the globe, the King of Pop’s supporters are already scanning headlines and airwaves for stories that contain inaccuracies about the singer’s life, brand him a pedophile or describe him by the dismissive moniker “Jacko.”
The items quickly result in calls to editors, reporters, producers and a flurry of Facebook and Twitter posts to press for changes. In some instances, the references are removed.
As the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray draws closer — jury selection resumes on Friday and opening statements are scheduled for Sept. 27 — concerns about Jackson’s portrayal are growing.
“We don’t want Michael Jackson to be put up on a pedestal like he never made any mistakes,” said Erin Jacobs, a founder of the Southern California-based group Justice4MJ.
But she said the focus should remain on Murray, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter and who authorities allege gave Jackson a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol and other sedatives. The Houston-based cardiologist has pleaded not guilty.
Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor has already limited what information Murray’s defense attorneys can introduce about Jackson during the trial, excluding any details from the singer’s 2005 child molestation trial, which ended in acquittal, his financial troubles, and witnesses who might describe the singer as a drug addict.
The rulings have drawn praise from fans and court watchers alike, but may have limited effect in the era of blogs and social media.
“For some salacious news organizations and the blogosphere, there won’t be a check on fairness,” said Ben Holden, director of the Reynolds National Center for the Courts and Media.
Editors and producers have long acted similar to judges by deciding what details are necessary or irrelevant for news coverage, said Holden, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and attorney who attended Murray’s preliminary hearing.
Blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which are now news sources, present new challenges.
“It has always been the case that the juror’s neighbors had information that the juror didn’t have,” Holden said. Yet nowadays, the neighbor “doesn’t just get Walter Cronkite, he also gets Nancy Grace and TMZ.”
Potentially skewed posts from fans also have to be considered, Holden said.
Many fan groups have active Twitter profiles and Facebook pages, including those aimed at providing explanatory content on the trial.
One such site, PositivelyMichael.com, has a forum focused on the Murray case and other aspects of Jackson’s death that has nearly 9,500 posts. Moderator Lynn Mathis said the site has become an international destination for updates on the case.
“We have members all over the world,” Mathis said. “This trial will not be covered there the way it is here.”
Similar to the efforts by U.S.-based fans, international groups are closely watching their domestic media for stories they feel treat the singer unfairly. One such group, MJ4Justice, has founders from three nations: the U.S., Ireland and Canada.
Grace, who has been criticized for comments advocating the conviction of Florida mother Casey Anthony in her recent murder trial, is one of the television pundits Jackson fans say they are concerned about.
A jury acquitted Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter earlier this year and Murray’s attorneys have cited Grace’s commentary as a primary reason jurors in Murray’s case should be sequestered. Pastor refused.
HLN, which airs Grace’s show, is already offering significant coverage of the Jackson manslaughter trial. The network also airs a show hosted by commentator Dr. Drew Pinsky, who has devoted several segments to the trial and who Jacobs and other fans criticized for focusing on sensational aspects of Jackson’s life.
“We don’t feel that it’s relevant that these talking heads like Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew get on every night and further degrade a dead man’s legacy,” Jacobs said.
Pinsky addressed the fan reaction on a recent show: “Please, guys. I don’t have a strong feeling about this. I’m not trying to protect anybody. I’m just trying to make sense of it so we can all understand this case as we go through it.”
The group Team Michael has distributed a press release calling for coverage of the Murray case that does not malign the pop superstar. “It is NOT Wacko Jacko, It is MICHAEL JACKSON!” the release reads in part. “It is NOT Pedophile, It is Humanitarian!”
Taaj Malik, who helped coordinate the release, said the point is to keep the media focused on what’s happening in Pastor’s courtroom. “It’s not Michael on trial, it’s Conrad Murray,” she said.
In addition to fans wanting to protect Jackson’s memory, also potentially at stake is the image behind continued success of the singer’s posthumous marketability, which has generated more than $310 million since his death.
Manny Medrano, an attorney and former television reporter who regularly comments on high-profile cases, said he expects most of the media overall to report Murray’s trial fairly. Despite the issues the Anthony case raised with punditry shaping public opinion of a trial, Murray’s case won’t be a repeat, he said.
“This case is not of that level,” Medrano said, noting that prosecutors aren’t seeking a murder conviction against Murray and that despite Jackson’s international stardom, the singer is a different type of victim than young Caylee Anthony.
Pastor’s rulings have limited Murray’s defense, but Medrano said that won’t mean that the portrait that emerges of Jackson is pristine. “There is negative evidence about this pop star that the jury is going to hear,” he said.
A former federal prosecutor, Medrano now practices criminal defense and said the physician’s attorneys have an ethical obligation to raise any viable theory that may exonerate Murray.
“They’re doing their job,” he said.
That won’t make it any easier on Jackson’s supporters, or his family, who are expected to attend most of the proceedings.
Jermaine Jackson told The Associated Press that he expects Murray’s attorney to try to smear his brother. “They are going to try that,” he said, adding that he penned his new book “You Are Not Alone” in part as a rebuttal to defense arguments that his brother was weakened by an addiction to the painkiller Demerol.
“There may have been dependency on Demerol, which was for pain, but that’s not what killed Michael,” Jermaine Jackson said.
Jackson fans have a similar mission, one they expect will lead to long hours of fact-checking reports in the coming weeks.
“Michael’s not here to defend himself,” said Millie Freeman, the New York-based co-founder of the group MJ4Justice. “It’s up to his family and up to his fans.
“This is a matter of the man’s legacy at this point,” she said. “It needs to be respected.”