The King of Pop’s Killer Thriller Trial

A step-by-step preview of how the People vs. Murray trial is going to go down

Last Updated: February 19, 2010 @ 3:32 PM

You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight.
There’s no escapin the jaws of the alien this time –
This is the end of your life.
– Michael Jackson, “Thriller”

This April, in what many predict will be the most watched criminal proceeding since O.J. Simpson’s, Dr. Conrad Murray will be tried for involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Meanwhile, the California Medical Board is filing a motion to revoke the cardiologist’s medical license

Thirty years ago, Dr. George Nichopolous, was tried on the same charges in the death of Jackson’s father-in-law, Elvis Presley. The Tennessee Medical Board also moved to pull his license. Nichopolous was acquitted of manslaughter charges, and the board suspended him for three months.

In spite of the acquittal, Vernon Presley insisted that Dr. Nick had murdered his son. In "The Death of Elvis," authors Thompson and Cole assert that the star’s father made an unsuccessful attempt to have the doctor assassinated at the Memphis Liberty Bowl.

The Jackson family has repeatedly stated its belief that Michael was murdered by Murray, in league with “a shadowy entourage.” Father Joe has denounced the manslaughter charge as inadequate, saying that Michael himself had predicted he might be murdered.

Should Murray, like Nichopolous, be acquitted, the Jacksons’ only remaining option may be in a Wrongful Death civil action, such as that the Goldmans filed against the acquitted O.J.

Meanwhile, in the next months Dr. Conrad’s defense team will be pouring over “thousands of pages of evidence,” according to litigator, Michael Flanagan. His colleague, Ed Chernoff, has pledged that they will “fight like hell.”

A former prosecutor, Chernoff is now a defense specialist who has lost only one felony jury trial out of 40. The third member of Murray’s team, Joseph Low, has never lost a murder case.

In spite of their collective talents comparable to O.J.’s Dream Team, the Murray team faces no easy task in proving to a jury that their client is not guilty of “gross negligence.” 

In presenting evidence of this, the Prosecution will claim:

1. Murray left the room after giving Jackson the anesthetic, propofol.

2. He failed to intubate Jackson.

3. He improperly administered CPR.

4. He failed to immediately call 911.

The Defense will have difficulty disproving the first two allegations. It will challenge the third with Murray’s own sworn statement that he placed a hand under Jackson’s back while administering CPR. Lastly, it will try to make credible Murray’s claim that he had no immediate landline to call 911, and that he couldn’t remember his street address for a cell phone call.

Chernoff will likely assert that his client made diligent efforts to substitute propofol with less potent sedatives. Similarly, Dr. Nicholopous’ lawyers successfully persuaded the jury that he had tried to “wean” Elvis off narcotics by using placebos.

Though unable to make the same claim, Chernoff will stress that his client strenuously resisted Michael’s demands for “my milk” – his propofol.

Now Murray’s team will hammer on Jackson’s history of drug abuse and “doctor shopping.” It will remind the jury of the star’s own 1993 admission of painkiller abuse. It will outline the history of the Jackson family’s many unsuccessful drug interventions. It will enter into evidence documentation of the singer’s failed foreign dry-outs (Mexico, ’93; Seoul, ’99).

The defense may also call to the stand Jackson’s first rehab doctor, Steven Hoefflin. In ’93 he warned the star’s managers: “Either the drugs are going to kill him or he’s going to die by flying out of a window, because he thinks he’s can fly.” Then the defense may call Michael’s favorite physician, Dr. Arnold Klein, who stated that, during the’96 HIStory tour, the singer had traveled with an anesthesiologist who “took Michael down at night and brought him back up in the morning.”

Countering this evidence, the district attorney might point out that Jackson did not die on this anesthesiologist’s watch, as he did on Murray’s, because he was not grossly negligent. To prove that not all Michael’s doctors were “enablers,” the DA could call to the stand Dr. Eugene Aksenoff who refused him the stimulants he wanted, and his nurse, Cherilyn Lee, who refused to give him propofol.

Presenting evidence from the searches of Murray’s offices, computers, and car, prosecutors may try to prove that he ran a “pill factory.” Enumerating the half a million dollar court judgments against him, as well as his credit card defaults, and child support nonpayments, prosecutors will portray the defendant as a scofflaw and financial desperado.

The long sealed autopsy report will be hotly debated. Jackson was “fairly healthy” and had a “strong heart,” it concludes.

Also, according to his AEG concert promoter, he had passed his three-hour physical exam “with flying colors.”

So, contrary to all the rumors about suffering possibly terminal conditions, Jackson apparently was not on the brink of death at all, the DA will insist. Illustrating this, the jury will surely be shown an animated Jackson rehearsing at the Staples Center the night before he died.

Rebutting, the defense may remind the jury that the star had collapsed on stage in a previous rehearsal. As for the last, televised, event, the performer arrived three hours late, appearing listless and impaired, then apparently danced and sang energetically.

What perked him up? Chernoff might ask an expert medical witness. Could it have been amphetamines which the star had routinely used in the past?

If Jackson had used uppers to perform, getting to sleep that night would have been all the more difficult for him. Indeed, the sedatives Murray administered were inadequate, so Jackson begged him for surgical anesthesia.

Now the crucial question arises: Did the defendant administer a “safe” dose – a dose within accepted medical guidelines?

Experts will debate the “safe” dose issue based on the patient’s size, other drugs in his system, and his general health. The third variable is especially critical and could become Murray’s trump card. Why?

A doctor can competently and safely treat a patient only if he knows his true physical condition. Jackson had suffered many serious ailments over the years – some documented, others rumored – and kept his medical records closely guarded. Was Murray given access to the complete records? Unlikely. More likely, he was shown Jackson’s clean bill of health from the recent AEG physical. So, he administered a dose of propofol based on the reasonable assumption that Jackson was in good health.

The autopsy report itself confirmed this. But, paradoxically, it added that Jackson had suffered from “chronic lung inflammation, respiratory bronchiolitis… and patchy hemorrhage of right and left lungs.”

So the defense might ask: How could the AEG physical have missed this, especially for a singer? Or was the lung abnormality redacted from the report, since the producers knew it could cause the delay or cancellation of their lucrative London concerts?

Chernoff might subpoena Jackson’s medical records to see if any of his many doctors had independently diagnosed lung disease. But the records could be altered or missing. If so, Chernoff could call for testimony from insiders who have stated that Jackson suffered from alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and needed a lung transplant.

“Because Mr. Jackson’s severe pre-existing lung condition was not revealed to my client –by Mr. Jackson himself, his other doctors, and/or his producer’s medical examiners –he miscalculated a “safe” dose of propofol, assuming he was treating a ‘healthy’ patient,” Chernoff might tell the jury in closing. “As a result of their own negligent or deliberate failure to disclose a lung condition, Mr. Jackson’s suffered respiratory failure."

Should the defense risk taking this argument a step further, it could summon former Jackson employees who in recent years have said the star had threatened suicide and believed he had only a short time to live. In this way, a “suicide by doctor” scenario could be suggested. Murray would be portrayed as neither negligent nor unprofessional, but as an unwitting dupe. “A fall guy,” as Joe Jackson himself has insisted, but without a conspiracy behind him.

Even if conspiracy were a charge in People v. Murray, it would all but impossible to prove. But many Jackson managers and producers will be watching the trial closely since a king’s ransom in life insurance money will be at stake.

Sony, AEG, and untold other giants had multi-million dollar policies on the star. If he had been diagnosed with a terminal lung condition and concealed it, insurance pay-outs can be voided. If his drug abuse is deemed intentionally self-destructive, the pay-outs can also be voided.

Weeks after his death, his estate executors – worried about the upcoming toxicology report – settled for $3 million on one $20 million policy.

In sum, this trial will be about far more than the liability of a single doctor in the death of an individual. It will be about enormous sums of money, and about a celebrity subculture of dangerous substance abuse fed by enablers. Above all, it will be about a universally loved pop idol who became a prisoner of that suffocating popularity and, ultimately, its victim.

Whatever in fact happens during this historic trial, and whatever verdict is reached, justice will not be the only issue, but hopefully it will be served.


David Comfort is the author of three popular Simon & Schuster titles, and the recipient of numerous literary awards. His latest title from Citadel/Kensington, "The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead: The Fatal Journeys of Rock’s Seven Immortals," is an in-depth study of the traumatic childhoods, tormented relationships, addictions, and tragic ends of Elvis, Lennon, Janis, Morrison, Hendrix, Cobain, and Garcia.
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