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Doctor's trial may avoid Michael Jackson's past

Michael Jackson's former doctor faces a tough challenge clearing himself of involuntary manslaughter charges in the pop star's death as his trial begins with jury selection due this week.
/ Source: Reuters

Michael Jackson's former doctor faces a tough challenge clearing himself of involuntary manslaughter charges in the pop star's death as his trial, which promises to avoid many dark aspects of Jackson's life, begins with jury selection due this week.

While it is Dr. Conrad Murray, who will be on trial when attorneys are expected to start selecting a panel on Thursday, the "Thriller" singer's infamy will loom large over the proceedings.

Jackson was one of the world's most recognizable singers, dubbed the King of Pop, when he died in June 2009, at age 50. He also was known to have battled an addiction to painkillers, and Murray's attorneys had hoped to present evidence of his past drug use at the trial.

But in an obstacle for the defense, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor barred testimony from a half-dozen doctors whom Murray's attorneys had indicated in court papers would portray Jackson as drug-dependent.

"The deck is, for various reasons, stacked against the defense here," said Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Jackson stopped breathing at his Los Angeles mansion on June 25, 2009, in what authorities say was an overdose of the powerful anesthetic propofol and various sedatives.

Murray, who pleaded not guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter, has admitted giving Jackson propofol, a drug normally used for surgery, as a sleep aid.

During a series of court hearings earlier this year defense attorneys suggested that when Murray was out of the room, Jackson could have given himself a large, fatal dose of the drug, possibly by swallowing it.

Murray faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

Finding a jury
As for choosing an impartial jury, legal experts say it will be impossible to find anyone who knows nothing of Jackson. Some will adore him, while others will abhor him. So attorneys will have to work to find the most unbiased jury possible under the circumstances.

"It's going to be like a Ouija board, it's going to be guess work," Goldman said.

Murray's defense team has filed a last minute appeal demanding that the jury be sequestered and asking for a halt to proceedings pending a ruling.

But Pastor said on Tuesday that jury selection would go ahead as planned "absent a mandate from the court of appeal staying proceedings."

Once a jury is selected, opening arguments are expected to begin the last week of September.

Jackson's family has faithfully attended all the court hearings in the case, with his mother, Katherine, 81, often sitting with his father, Joseph, 83.

The King of Pop's supporters also will be on hand, and if earlier hearings are any indication they will wear black as a sign of mourning over their fallen idol. At earlier court hearings, some fans hired a plane to fly a banner over the courthouse that read "Change charges to murder."

"If the jurors walk through, on the way to the courthouse, a massive amount of fans who are declaring the guilt of the defendant in the case, I find it hard to believe it won't have some impact," Goldman said.

But some trial watchers say the circus atmosphere that is expected outside the courthouse may, in fact, never materialize. Indeed, Jackson's fans failed to jam the streets of downtown Los Angeles during his 2009 memorial, as had been widely expected.

Laurie Levenson, a colleague of Goldman's at Loyola Law School, said she does not believe the proceedings will become anywhere near the public and media frenzy that accompanied the 1995 murder trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson.

For one, the Grenada-born Murray is not a celebrity, just a doctor with patients in Nevada and Texas.

"We have a 'trial of the century' about every six months here in Los Angeles," Levenson said wryly.