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Eighteen months on, the Jackson circus comes to town again

With a fanfare fit for the King of Pop, trial of singer's doctor opens in Los Angeles

The curtain rose yesterday on the opening round of the legal battle to determine whether Michael Jackson died in a sad accident, or if he was instead the unwitting victim of a criminally negligent doctor.

At a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles, prosecutors began outlining details of their manslaughter case against Dr Conrad Murray, who had been hired to attend to the 50-year-old singer during a series of comeback gigs at the O2 Arena in London.

Jackson died on 25 June 2009, after suffering a cardiac arrest at a rented home in Holmby Hills. At least six different drugs, most of them sedatives which should not usually be mixed, were later found in his bloodstream.

They had apparently been prescribed to help him overcome chronic insomnia. According to the coroner, the fatal dose was a 20ml shot of Propofol, an anaesthetic which can be highly-addictive and is known as "milk of amnesia". Dr Murray, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, denies administering the drug in dangerous quantities.

The case

This is not an actual homicide trial. Not yet, at least. Instead, the court is holding a "preliminary hearing" at which prosecutors hope to convince the judge that they have sufficient evidence to justify a jury trial. Normally, a preliminary hearing lasts only a few hours and features perfunctory evidence from a couple of witnesses. But very little about Michael Jackson is ever normal and the current hearing is scheduled to see almost 30 people called by prosecutors, over almost a fortnight. This has surprised legal experts.

"On one hand, the extended hearing might be PR for the prosecutors and the evidence they unveil could even persuade Dr Murray to cop a plea bargain," said Royal Oakes, a courtroom analyst for NBC. "But it gives the defence a huge chance to look for inconsistencies in their argument, so it's something of a gamble."

The defendant

Conrad Murray, 57, was paid $150,000-a-month as Jackson's personal doctor. He is accused of acting as an "enabler," paid an outrageously large salary to recklessly feed his client's addiction to prescription medication.

Although Murray claims to have carefully monitored Jackson in the hours before his death, mobile phone records reveal him to have been on the phone between 11.18am and 12.05pm on 25 June, roughly the time of the fatal heart attack.

The prosecution say this was criminally negligent. They claimed yesterday that in an effort to cover his tracks, Dr Murray tried to administer CPR, and delayed calling an ambulance until it was too late to save Jackson. The defence, for its part, hopes to argue that the singer may have killed himself, using a syringe left by his bed to take a oversized dose of Propofol while Dr Murray was briefly visiting the bathroom.

The witnesses

Don't expect the fireworks to start quite yet. This being a preliminary hearing, prosecutors will keep the biggest stars up their sleeve. The defence won't call anyone at all: they will merely sit and listen, looking for holes to pick when the case reaches a full trial.

The biggest cheese to speak yesterday was This is It's director, Kenny Ortega. He said that Jackson turned up at rehearsals in Los Angeles a week before his death seeming "lost" and too weak to perform.

"It was scary," he recalled. At an emergency meeting of the singer's staff and management the following day, Dr Murray insisted, however, that Jackson was well enough for the show to go on. "Murray... asked me to not act like a doctor or psychologist, and leave Michael's health to him," he said.

The lawyers

The star of the show is Michael Pastor, an experienced judge who has handled several celebrity cases, including one involving topless photographs of Cameron Diaz.

Prosecuting Dr Murray is David Walgren. He is LA's Deputy District Attorney and has recently made headlines for spearheading so-far-unsuccessful efforts to secure the extradition of film director Roman Polanski on charges of child molestation.

The defence is headed by Ed Chernoff, whose team intriguingly includes Michael Flanagan, one of LA's top drink-driving defenders who is famed, in legal circles, for his ability to pick holes in the evidence of police blood analysts.

The family

The opening day was attended by Jackson's mother, Katherine, along with his brother, Jackie, and sister, LaToya. Other relatives are expected to appear throughout proceedings.

Jackson Kremlinologists will perhaps be most fascinated to see whether father Joe, who was cut off from his will, puts in an appearance. The other important players are the late singer's children, Paris, Prince Michael, and Prince Michael II. They were not in court, but may eventually be called to give evidence.

The circus

Fifty satellite trucks, hundreds of reporters, and a smattering of fans descended on LA Superior Court yesterday, and are likely to keep up their vigil for as long as the case lasts.

There are only 15 spaces in court for journalists, but an overflow room, with a video link-up, will house the rest of the media circus. Sadly, for the nation's cable TV networks, Judge Pastor has ruled that cameras will be banned from the courtroom, to minimise the usual hooplah of a celebrity trial.

The victim

Like so many artists, Jackson found that dying was one of the best commercial decisions he could make.

Though he had barely performed or released a record in the final eight years of his life – and had fallen hundreds of millions of dollars into debt – his estate now has an estimated value of half a billion dollars. His old albums have returned to the top of the charts and a documentary of his final weeks made $260m at the box office.