Enabler or scapegoat? Jackson's doctor in the dock as trial finally starts


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The Independent US

The charge contained one word every defendant dreads: homicide. The plea: not guilty. Conrad Murray, the private doctor caring for Michael Jackson at the time of his death, spent yesterday in the dock of a ninth-floor courtroom in Los Angeles, accused of involuntary manslaughter in relation to his client's fatal cardiac arrest.

Day one of "The People versus Conrad Robert Murray" came more than two years after the 50-year-old singer lapsed into unconsciousness in the upstairs bedroom of a rented mansion, several miles away. He had been staying there during the final stages of rehearsals for a comeback tour.

In surprisingly dramatic opening statements, both the prosecution and Dr Murray's defence team laid out their case yesterday, offering wildly differing interpretations of the string of events that led to Jackson's sudden death, on the morning of 25 June 2009.

They agree that the singer took a cocktail of sedatives, painkillers, and other prescription drugs to help him combat insomnia, in the hours before he passed away. They also accept the conclusion of coroners that he was killed by an overdose of Propofol, a powerful anaesthetic known as "milk of amnesia".

Where the two sides differ regards the all-important question on which the case will eventually turn: how and why the drugs found their way into Jackson's system. Prosecutor David Walgren spoke for more than an hour, using audio recordings and reading transcripts of police interviews in an effort to paint Dr Murray as an "enabler" who cynically accepted an inflated salary of $150,000 (£96,000) a month to feed his client's addiction to medications.

He said Dr Murray injected Jackson with Propofol to help him sleep, and then failed to properly monitor him or administer competent first aid. He further accused the doctor of waiting too long to call emergency services, and misleading paramedics about the substances in his client's system.

In a moment which drew gasps, he showed the court a previously unpublished photograph of the singer's lifeless corpse on a hospital trolley.

"Misplaced trust in Conrad Murray cost Michael Jackson his life," said Mr Walgren. "He left him there, abandoned him to fend for himself."

The defence, for its part, claimed that Dr Murray is being made a scapegoat for the personal failings of Jackson. Lawyer Ed Chernoff told the jury that the singer gave himself the fatal dose of Propofol in a desperate effort to combat insomnia. Dr Murray was trying to wean Jackson off an addiction to the drug, and had kept him away from it for several days. By the time he realised his client had fallen off the wagon, it was too late to intervene. The singer died so quickly, said Mr Chernoff, that "he didn't even have time to close his eyes".

Dr Murray cried during his lawyer's statement. He faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison along with the loss of his medical licence, if found guilty by the jury, which contains seven men and five women.

The trial is expected to last between four and six weeks. In a curious move, given the acute public interest in the case (and the controversial history of televised trials) the Judge, Michael Pastor, has allowed cameras into his court.

A large media scrum spent the day outside court. More than 50 satellite trucks were parked outside, along with scores of placard-wielding fans. Jackson's parents and siblings La Toya, Jermaine and Tito were there to witness proceedings.

The witnesses

Kenny Ortega

The first Prosecution witness, who began giving evidence this afternoon, Ortega is responsible for setting the scene. He told how Dr Murray assured him that Jackson was fit and healthy, and to stop worrying about his physical condition – despite the fact that the singer appeared to be off colour in rehearsals several days before his death. Ortega is a famous choreographer, who directed Dirty Dancing and High School Musical, and was in charge of the “This Is It” comeback concerts Jackson was preparing for at the time of his cardiac arrest.

Alberto Alvarez

The security guard says Dr Murray instructed him to remove IV bags and other drug paraphernalia from the scene before emergency services arrived. A colleague, Faheem Muhammad, will testify that Dr Murray did not seem to know how to administer basic first aid.

Prince Michael Jackson

The 14-year-old witnessed his father's final moments. No one knows how Prince Michael will cope under hostile cross-examination, and he could unwittingly aid Dr Murray's defence by discussing his father's drug abuse.