Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Conrad Murray

The Defense Case

Murray's lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff's defense was simple: Michael Jackson was responsible for his own death. For years, Jackson had been beset by creditors, law enforcement, and critics in the media. He had not take the stage in 12 years, and while his best days creatively might have been behind him, the "This is It" tour in London represented a chance at redemption for the "King of Pop." Although a ruling by Judge Michael Pastor prevented the defense from delving into Jackson's finances (or his previous tangles with the law over alleged child molestation), when Chernoff called the 50-show tour Jackson's "absolution", the meaning was clear to all.

Defense Attorney Ed Chernoff
Defense Attorney Ed Chernoff

Furthermore, the defense maintained in its opening statement, Michael Jackson had a secret medical history that Conrad Murray was not aware of when he accepted the position of personal physician to the pop star — Jackson's frequent visits to dermatologist Arnold Klein had left Jackson dependent on the powerful narcotic Demerol. A common symptom of Demerol withdrawal is powerful insomnia — a complaint of Jackson's for many years. And in fact, Murray found that the bulk of his work for Jackson consisted of spending nights by his side, giving him sedatives to help him sleep. What Murray did not realize, according to the defense, was that this was not ordinary insomnia — and that he could not have anticipated how the Demerol dependence and anxiety over "This is It" would drive Jackson to endanger his life in pursuit of healthy sleep.

In the early morning hours of June 25, 2009, the defense theorized, Michael Jackson found himself unable to sleep and worrying about the toll of a sleepless night on the next day's rehearsal and the future of the concert tour itself. After hours of pleading with his doctor for "milk" (the powerful anesthetic, propofol, which has a milky color), Dr. Murray finally relented and gave Jackson a small 25 mg dose to help him sleep. However, Chernoff said, when Murray stepped away Jackson swallowed eight tablets of the sedative Lorazepam and then self-administered a dose of propofol. That combination of drugs killed him instantly, and left Murray confused about how the small doses of sleeping drugs he gave Jackson that night could possibly have killed him. The answer, the defense would try to prove, is that Murray's medical care was not the cause of death.

Murray: a Victim of Conspiracy?

Alberto Alvarez
Alberto Alvarez

The most damning witness at the scene was Jackson security guard Alberto Alvarez, who told jurors that Murray had told him to stash a bottle of propofol and a cut-open saline bag even before they called 911. The defense attacked Alvarez' credibility by calling LAPD detective Orlando Martinez, who said that Alvarez did not tell police about Murray's directive to stash medical items until two months after Jackson's death. Furthermore, fingerprint analysts could not find any Alvarez prints on the evidence at issue. Murray's defense attorneys accused Alvarez of creating the story to implicate Murray.

In fact, Alvarez interviewed in the same lawyer's office on the same day (at different times, of course) as Jackson employees Michael Amir Williams and Faheem Muhammad. All three men had critical things to say about Murray's actions on June 25 — Williams said Murray called him first, but never told him to call 911; Muhammad recalled that Murray wanted to be taken from UCLA Hospital to Jackson's mansion shortly after Jackson died. Prosecutors implied this was because Murray wanted to conceal evidence, but the defense countered that all three men had tailored their stories to make Murray look guilty.

What Kind of Doctor was Conrad Murray?

While the prosecution portrayed Conrad Murray as a corner-cutting money-grubbing doctor who would risk his famous patient's life to keep secure his $150,000 per month salary, the defense called a series of Murray's patients from Houston and Las Vegas to testify about their doctor's good character. Gerry Causey, a patient of Murray's from Las Vegas, recalled that Murray implanted stents in Causey's arteries after a heart-attack, calling the defendant "the best doctor I've ever been to." He added that Murray didn't even make Causey pay his insurance deductible.

Other patients extolled Murray's compassion and generosity, and they said he took the time to explain complex medical procedures. Eighty-two-year-old Ruby Mosley of Houston was the most charming of the patients. She told the court in no uncertain terms that Murray was not a greedy man — that he had opened a clinic in Mosley's neighborhood to replace the one his father ran until his death. Murray knew full well that 75% of people in the are were on welfare and Social Security, but treated them anyway even though it was not lucrative to do so.

Dr. Klein: The Dermatologist with Demerol

In a pre-trial hearing, Judge Michael Pastor ruled that Dr. Arnold Klein would not be allowed to take the stand because his role was too far removed from the circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson's death. But that didn't stop Murray's defense team from portraying Klein as a shadowy figure providing Demerol on demand to feed Jackson's habit.

The defense asked several witnesses about Dr. Klein's effect on Michael Jackson, including Randy Phillips, the CEO of AEG Live, who was promoting the "This is It" tour. Phillips recalled a meeting in which Jackson was less focused than normal. Phillips said he asked Jackson's personal assistant Michael Amir Williams what was wrong, and that Williams just shrugged and said Jackson had been to see Dr. Klein. Although Phillips never admitted knowing about the Demerol causing Jackson's drugged state, he said he made a point to mention Klein appointments to Murray. As Jackson's physician, Phillips just thought Murray should know.

While other witnesses hinted around the negative effects of Jackson's Demerol use, the defense's addiction medicine specialist Dr. Robert Waldman addressed the issue head-on. Citing extensive medical records from Jackson's visits to Dr. Klein, Waldman showed that in the months before Jackson's death, the singer was visiting his dermatologist every week, often several times a week — and always received large doses of Demerol.

The medical records showed that Michael Jackson received as much as 375 mg of Demerol in a single appointment, and there were weeks where he received over 1000 mg of the drug — Dr. Waldman said a normal dose was 50 mg. Dr. Waldman's opinion was that Jackson was physically dependent on Demerol at the time of his death — and that he may well have been suffering withdrawal symptoms, including crippling insomnia, on the night he died.

An Alternate Theory of Propofol Administration

The defense's star medical expert was retired anesthesiologist Dr. Paul White — who some called the "Father of propofol" for his early studies of the drug. Dr. White studied the toxicology reports from autopsy and the police statement by Conrad Murray and came up with a new theory of Jackson's death that labeled the singer as the cause of his own death.

First, Dr. White addressed the elevated levels of Lorazepam in Jackson's system. Murray admitted giving Jackson only a few pills' worth of the drug in IV form, but the autopsy results suggested that Jackson took eight more pills — so Dr. White suggested that Jackson must have taken the pills without Murray's knowledge. Similarly, because Jackson died with high blood levels of propofol and Murray had only admitted giving 25 mg, Dr. White surmised that Jackson could have injected himself with another 25 mg dose when Murray was in the bathroom. That dose, in conjunction with the other drugs in his system could have killed him quickly, which would explain the high levels in Jackson's blood and the relatively low levels of propofol in Jackson's urine — Dr. White concluded that Jackson died too quickly for the drug to work its way through his system.

Will he Murray Take the Stand?

With the defense's theories firmly established, there was only one question remaining, and it was one that had been speculated about since the trial began: Would Conrad Murray take the stand and address the jury in his own defense.

Judge Pastor excused the jurors and addressed Dr. Murray directly — informing him that it is a defendant's right to testify in his own defense, and that the decision was his alone. News reports explained that Murray's defense team was split on the issue; one side thought he could convince the jury of his innocence, while another faction thought he would hurt his own case under withering cross examination. After a dramatic pause during which Murray turned to face all of his attorneys with their conflicting advice, he finally addressed the court: "My decision is that I will not testify in this matter." "You are making this decision of your own free will?" asked Judge Pastor. "Yes," Murray said. And with that, the defense ended its presentation of evidence.

On November 1, 2011, after seven days of testimony from 16 witnesses, the defense rested its case. On November 3rd, jurors would hear closing arguments from both sides before settling into the deliberation room to decide Conrad Murray's fate.

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