It's been a revelation-filled first week at the preliminary hearing of Dr. Conrad Murray, accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Murray’s superstar patient, singer Michael Jackson.
The question is, are those revelations enough?
A large Santa Claus doll stood above the bailiff’s station in Judge Michael Pastor’s courtroom, as though listening to the case being presented against Murray. Four sheriff’s deputies were present that opening day of the preliminary hearing, an unusually high number, considering this was not a gang-related murder trial.
Although Santa has been removed since, the deputies remain and will be in Department 107 of the Criminal Courts Building when court resumes Monday.
By the end of an expected eight days of testimony, Judge Pastor will have heard from about two dozen prosecution witnesses, whose words could, in the trial to follow, ultimately send Murray to state prison for four years.
At the heart of the District Attorney’s case is the accusation that Murray routinely gave the King of Pop propofol at Jackson’s Holmby Hills mansion and that the potent anesthetic, in conjunction with a cocktail of benzodiazepines, was responsible for Jackson’s death.
Murray has admitted to investigators that he administered propofol as a sleep aid to Jackson on the morning of June 25, 2009, the day the singer died. Jackson, he said, was under the strain of rehearsing for a pending comeback tour.
Neither defense lawyers Ed Chernoff nor Michael Flanagan made an opening statement Jan. 4, presumably so as not to reveal their strategy. They also apparently do not plan to present their own witnesses during the hearing.
(At right, Jackson's parents Joe and Katherine enter the courthouse.)
Last week several witnesses who were the first on the scene in Jackson’s bedroom claim the singer appeared dead and that Murray, a cardiologist, asked if any of them knew CPR. They recalled that Murray scooped up several medical vials which he removed from the room. Paramedics and a doctor at UCLA Medical Center, where Jackson was later pronounced dead, testified Murray stuck to a story about having only prescribed Jackson the sedative lorazepam leading up to his death.
Friday ended with the prosecution’s 16th witness, Elissa Fleak, a young, round-faced coroner’s investigator, testifying that she recovered a dozen bottles of propofol from Jackson’s home at 100 N. Carolwood Dr. Some bottles, which ranged from 20 to 200 ml in volume, were full, others had been opened.
Of special interest was an empty saline-drip bag which, Fleak noted, was slit in the middle – the unspoken speculation in court being that it was through this opening that the propofol found its way into the bag that may have, in turn, been connected to Jackson.
Despite the numerous objections raised by counsel for both sides during direct and cross examinations, testimony has unfolded so quickly that several times the prosecution has temporarily run out of witnesses. Witness No. 17 will appear Monday.
Although the D.A.’s office won’t divulge who’s on deck in the witness chair this coming week, some figures are bound to appear. These would include more Coroner’s Office staff to explain Jackson’s autopsy, whose report was signed by the county’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran.
Other witnesses will probably include anesthesiologists, the LAPD investigators who interviewed Murray, along with several other doctors to whom Jackson was a patient.
Still, with all that, the prosecution has its work cut out for it.
Preliminary hearings involving “celebrity justice” cases (Robert Blake, Anna Nicole Smith, et al) have increasingly rivaled most full-court trials for their level of media spectacle, and present a kind of dress rehearsal for the real thing. Although some of the Murray-hearing testimony, especially from witnesses who first reached Jackson — or his corpse — has sounded damning, doctor-defendants traditionally benefit from an enormous amount of respect from juries who tend not to second-guess their judgments.
Indeed, just down the hall from Michael Pastor’s court last week, Judge Robert Perry was whittling away the relatively few convictions that jurors had brought against Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, who had been found guilty of conspiring to unlawfully prescribe sedatives and painkillers for the late Anna Nicole Smith.
Perry, who reduced Eroshevich’s four felony convictions to a single $100 misdemeanor, called the jury’s refusal to buy the vast majority of the accusations against Eroshevich, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor and Howard K. Stern “a stunning repudiation of the prosecution’s case.”
The D.A.’s office – and Judge Pastor – will undoubtedly have Perry’s words and actions in mind as the Murray case moves forward. The prosecution is headed by Deputy District Attorney David Walgren, whose hard-fought battle to put film director Roman Polanski on trial for his 1977 sex-with-a-minor charge was derailed by Swiss refusal to extradite Polanski to the U.S.