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Drama of Jackson case hides simple ruling for jury

The first week of the manslaughter trial of Michael Jackson's doctor has had all the trappings of other courtroom spectacles involving the King of Pop: Dozens of sign-toting fans, TV crews, Jackson lookalikes and the familiar faces of the Jackson family enduring yet another public crucible.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The first week of the manslaughter trial of Michael Jackson's doctor has had all the trappings of other courtroom spectacles involving the King of Pop: Dozens of sign-toting fans, TV crews, Jackson lookalikes and the familiar faces of the Jackson family enduring yet another public crucible.

Inside the courtroom, jurors heard intimate, riveting details of the pop superstar's life, including recordings of his drug-slurred voice, his hopes for a major comeback tour, even his love of spinach cobb salad with organic turkey breast.

But jurors have been reminded regularly that someone else is on trial here. And despite all the courtroom drama, the involuntary manslaughter case against Dr. Conrad Murray is relatively straight-forward. To win a conviction, prosecutors must simply prove that Murray acted with gross negligence as Jackson's personal physician in the days and hours before his death.

Murray, 58, a Houston cardiologist, has pleaded not guilty.

Murray sat silently as prosecutors called witnesses who said he never told them to call the emergency dispatcher after Jackson was found unconscious in the bedroom of his rented Los Angeles mansion. They suggested Murray could have instructed security guards, a chef and Jackson's personal assistant to make the crucial call, but he didn't.

One security guard said Murray delayed the call while telling him to bag vials of medicine.

In the eyes of prosecutors, Murray did nearly everything wrong and even abandoned the singer in his hour of extreme need when he left his bedside to make a phone call. Defense attorneys are aggressively challenging such claims.

Attorney Adam Braun, who briefly represented a doctor charged with overprescribing drugs to Anna Nicole Smith, said the first requirement for prosecutors is to prove the cause of Jackson's death.

A coroner's report said he died on June 25, 2009, of acute intoxication from the powerful anesthetic propofol, with the presence of sedatives known as benzodiazepines.

Prosecutors "have to show it was reckless both to prescribe and administer propofol and to leave it next to the bed," Braun said.

Thus far, prosecutors have focused their evidence on alleged serious acts of omission by Murray. Witnesses said he delayed asking others to make the emergency call; failed to have the proper lifesaving equipment on hand; and didn't tell paramedics that he had given Jackson propofol.

Central to their case is Murray's decision to provide the star with propofol, the drug Jackson called his "milk," delivering it in a cozy home bedroom rather than a hospital room where it is meant to be given with an anesthesiologist on hand and life-saving equipment such as a cardiopulmonary resuscitation machine available for any emergencies.

In pictures shown to jurors, there are fluffy pillows and a thick down comforter on Jackson's bed, but no CPR machine or oxygen monitoring equipment. A lawyer for the producer of Jackson's ill-fated "This Is It' concert said the doctor had ordered a CPR machine to be provided when they arrived for the shows in London but not before.

In his opening statement, prosecutor David Walgren said Murray told police he gave Jackson a small amount of propofol on the day he died and provided doses every night for about six weeks before that as a sleep aid.

Defense attorney Ed Chernoff countered that Jackson did not die because Murray gave him propofol; he died because he stopped giving it to him. Murray was actually trying to wean him from the drug when Jackson downed a fatal dose while Murray was out of the room, the lawyer said.

With no one present in the room when that would have occurred, lawyers will be asking jurors to infer it from circumstantial evidence.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Murray denied important information to paramedics who arrived at the house. Paramedic Richard Senneff testified Friday that Murray didn't reveal he had given the singer propofol that morning, saying only that he had given Jackson the sedative lorazepam.

Prosecutors claim all those circumstances indicate that Murray's standard of medical care was below the level that would have been practiced by a reasonable physician.

Murray may be the only person who can tell jurors why he did what he did. But experts say it would be risky for him to testify and open himself up to accusatory questions from the prosecution.

Former federal prosecutor Marcellus McRae, who has been monitoring the trial, said the defense claim that Jackson killed himself is a risky strategy, and calling Murray to the witness stand would be a mistake.

"Dr. Murray doesn't have to prove he's innocent," McRae said. "If you take the stand, the impression is you're worried. You have some explaining to do. You only do that when you have to."

The one thing neither Murray nor his attorneys can address is the constant presence in court of the famous Jackson family and the message sent by their presence.

McRae said much of the drama swirling in the courtroom may not determine a verdict. But the presence of the Jackson family is a powerful factor.

"I don't think people compartmentalize the emotional and the rational," said McRae. "When you see that a person had a family and that family is in the courtroom, the basic instinct is to want there to be some responsibility."

He also notes the need for a sense of immediacy since Jackson died over two years ago.

"There's a linkage for people to see the wreckage caused by his death and the sense of devastation," he said. "All these people living and breathing in the courtroom makes it immediate."

Jackson's mother, Katherine, his father, Joe, and up to six of their famous children have been present daily.

Jurors have also seen a large photo of Michael Jackson's three children taken at his memorial. They have heard about his daughter crying out, "Daddy," when she saw him dying.

And during that poignant testimony, they have seen his mother's tears.

If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of four years behind bars and the loss of his medical license.