Jackson Doctor’s Defense Looms In Trial’s 4th Week

The trial of Michael Jackson’s personal physician will enter a new phase this week, with the doctor’s attorneys trying to counter three weeks of damaging testimony and attempting to show that the singer somehow caused his own death.

Lawyers for Dr. Conrad Murray have told jurors that the involuntary manslaughter case will hinge on the science of what killed Jackson in June 2009. They will call their own experts to counter prosecution witnesses who have repeatedly told the panel that Murray was reckless and beyond the fringes of medicine when he administered the anesthetic propofol to help Jackson sleep.

Photo: AP Photo
Looks over some notes during his involuntary manslaughter trial in downtown Los Angeles.

It was not clear when the defense would get to start its presentation. Monday’s testimony was canceled because the government’s final witness, Dr. Steven Shafer, will be unavailable. Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn said Sunday the trial’s resumption would be announced when more information becomes available.

The Houston-based cardiologist has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys continue to maintain that Jackson somehow gave himself the fatal dose of medication. They have abandoned the theory that Jackson died after swallowing propofol, but now contend he was killed after taking several pills of the sedative lorazepam and possibly giving himself a shot of propofol after Murray left the singer’s bedroom.

Before the defense lays out its case – expected to consist of 15 witnesses and last until the end of the month – it will have to contend with Shafer. The Columbia University researcher and professor helped write the warnings and directions included with every vial of propofol – warnings a prosecutor said in opening statements that Murray ignored.

Defense attorney Nareg Gourjian declined to say Friday who Murray’s team would call to testify, but told the judge they would include police officers, experts and some character witnesses. He was not asked, nor did he mention, whether Murray would testify in his own defense.

It seems unlikely that Murray will testify. Jurors have already heard his more-than-two-hour interview in which he laid out his version of events before Jackson’s death to a detective who acknowledges he wasn’t conducting an interrogation.

If Murray takes the stand, he would undoubtedly be asked by prosecutors about several unanswered questions, such as why he never told paramedics or ER doctors about giving Jackson propofol, why he never told police he was on the phone for long stretches of the morning Jackson died, and why he recorded the singer when he was impaired, stumbling his way through his plans for a children’s hospital and cementing a legacy larger than those attained by Elvis Presley or The Beatles.

In his opening statement to jurors, lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff said Murray’s team would try to answer two fundamental questions:

“First, how did Michael Jackson get to this point, this desperate point,” Chernoff said. “And second, what happened when Dr. Murray was out of the room?”

Prosecution witnesses have acknowledged that only Jackson and Murray know what really happened, but two medical experts testified last week that Murray was grossly negligent. Even if Jackson somehow was able to give himself medication after Murray left the room, the doctor should have been closely monitoring the singer and should have never left any medications within arms’ reach, the doctors said.

Ellyn Garofalo, who last year won an acquittal for one of Anna Nicole Smith’s doctors charged with improperly prescribing pain medications, said Murray’s team should focus on their expert testimony and not start calling character witnesses.

“If they start to call character witnesses, they don’t have a great deal of faith in their defense,” she said.

She said the experts should be able to show that the case isn’t as simple as prosecutors have claimed, and that it is filled with “all kinds of shades of gray.”

Murray’s attorneys should also try to argue that prosecutors should not be second-guessing medical decisions. “Do we really want the DA’s office making medical decisions for doctors,” she asked.

Murray’s case, she noted, differs in one major respect from the case against her client, who was never accused of causing Smith’s death.

Garofalo said Murray’s case will be harder to win, and prosecutors so far have done a solid job of showing that the doctor shouldn’t have been giving Jackson propofol as a sleep aid in the superstar’s bedroom.

“It’s a strong case because you have somebody dead after somebody did something that is unheard of,” Garofalo said.

Murray’s defense strategy also appears to involve calling hostile witnesses, including police officers who prosecutors did not call during their case. The defense scored some points early in the trial by getting a coroner’s investigator to acknowledge that she moved some evidence around in Jackson’s bedroom before photographing it and that she didn’t keep all her notes. The officers would likely undergo the similar harsh questioning about their decisions.

They may also call doctors who previously treated Jackson but have never been formally accused of wrongdoing. They are barred from calling one doctor whose name has been repeatedly mentioned during the trial – Jackson’s longtime dermatologist Dr. Arnold Klein.

Murray’s team may also call Jackson’s hairdresser, Karen Faye, who they have said will testify that the singer was distraught at the prospect of performing 50 comeback concerts at London’s O2 arena. Such an account would be in contrast with several other witnesses who said Jackson was excited about the concerts and that his three children would see him perform.

The trial, which is entering its fourth week, has moved rapidly, with 33 witnesses so far and both sides presenting more than 250 pieces of evidence. At its current pace, jurors should receive the case next week.