Michael Jackson's doctor may spend as little as a few months behind bars despite being convicted on Monday of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of the "Thriller" singer.
Legal experts said that Dr. Conrad Murray was ultimately likely to benefit from a new California law that deals with chronic overcrowding in the state's jails.
Trial judge Michael Pastor could sentence Murray on Nov. 29 to probation, home confinement or up to four years in state prison. He was found guilty of gross negligence by giving Jackson the anesthetic propofol — normally used to sedate patients for surgery — that was deemed the main cause of the singer's 2009 death.
But California adopted a new law last month that sends low-risk prison inmates to county jails, and the officials who run Los Angeles county jails have been releasing inmates early because of a lack of space.
"It will be very difficult to achieve an appropriate sentence of incarceration for Dr. Conrad Murray," Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose office prosecuted the case, told reporters on Monday.
Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School, said he was surprised that judge Pastor ordered Murray to jail for three weeks before sentencing. The physician has been free on $75,000 bail for the past two years.
"It's pretty obvious by putting him in custody, which was the biggest surprise of the entire trial, that we're probably looking at a sentence of three to four years," Goldman told Reuters.
But Goldman added: "I'd be surprised if a year from today, Conrad Murray was still behind bars."
Beverly Hills-based defense attorney Mark McBride said Murray's actual time served could be even less. That is partly because the crime of involuntary manslaughter is not considered a serious felony under California law, and carries a stipulation that only 50 percent of any sentence must be served behind bars.
Add in jail overcrowding and "what that means is that Murray could do three or four months," McBride told Reuters.
Troubled actress Lindsay Lohan is one high profile example of the vagaries of busy Los Angeles jails. She was locked up for less than six hours of a 30-day sentence this past weekend for probation violations for jewelry theft and drunk driving convictions.
The three weeks that Murray will serve in jail before sentencing will likely be counted against any term he might receive, the district attorney's office said.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which controls jails, declined to speculate on how much actual time Murray would be locked away.
"We have to wait to see what the judge orders. Then we will know," spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
Cooley said he also expected that Murray's California medical license would be automatically suspended, and he hoped other states would follow suit.
Cooley said the fact that superstar Jackson was the victim had no bearing on how his office pursued the case. He added that the case sends a message to doctors "that this sort of conduct does rise to the level of criminal negligence."