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Even Jackson's burial gets caught in legal fight

Family struggle over plans for funeral and public memorial service that will allow thousands to grieve on streets of Los Angeles

Guy Adams
Monday 29 June 2009 00:00 BST

America expects its biggest funeral since Elvis. The world is ready for an outpouring of grief to rival the death of Princess Diana. But as fans of Michael Jackson lit candles outside his former homes, or queued to pay tribute at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they were greeted instead with the sight of battle lines being drawn over the singer's disputed legacy.

Friends, family and former business associates unveiled legal teams yesterday as they prepare to duke it out over everything from the shady events that led to the King of Pop's sudden death, to the billion-dollar question of how the estate should be divided and who should gain custody of his three children.

Even Jackson's forthcoming burial is the subject of legal wrangles. His parents and eight siblings, who spent the weekend at their home in Encino, are hoping to co-ordinate a private service and public memorial event that would bring hundreds of thousands of mourners to the streets of Los Angeles.

Creating a fitting tribute is proving tricky, however. For reasons that remain murky, Jackson's immediate family have so far had no luck in persuading his former entourage to grant access to his will, the one document that could reveal details of how the performer wished his funeral to be conducted.

In the meantime, several blocks of the city are closed to traffic. Some fans continue to converge on the UCLA Medical Center, where the singer was pronounced dead at 2.26pm on Thursday, but the main focus of public grief shifted to Jackson's "star" on Hollywood Boulevard, where visitors queued in 33C heat to add to the growing ocean of flowers, candles and children's toys.

LA's civic authorities are ready to shut down the surrounding area for a public funeral. The most suitable date for that would be next weekend, which coincides with the annual fireworks and pageantry of the Fourth of July holiday, when America celebrates independence from Britain.

Getting Jackson's affairs organised in time seems ambitious, though. In an interview with his father Joe, People magazine quoted a relative saying: "The family has no access to the will. [Michael's lawyers] won't let the family see it ... The family has no idea what to do. They don't even know when to bury him. They don't know what to do about anything."

Confusion still reigns about events that led to Jackson's death. Until yesterday, the performer was widely reported to have been taken ill at home in Holmby Hills immediately after receiving an injection of Demerol, a synthetic painkiller similar to morphine, from his personal physician, Dr Conrad Murray.

Last night, however, Dr Murray's lawyer denied the charge, saying it was "absolutely false" and telling the Los Angeles Times that he had never "furnished or prescribed" the drug to Jackson or his children, who he had been treating for almost three years.

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The lawyer, a criminal defence attorney called Edward Chernoff, said Dr Murray had "fortuitously" walked into the bedroom where Jackson had collapsed. After noticing that the star "wasn't breathing ... He checked for a pulse. There was a weak pulse in his femoral artery. [So] he started administering CPR." He predicted that laboratory toxicology tests on Jackson would support his client's version of events.

Mr Chernoff sat in on a three-hour interview Dr Murray gave to police late on Saturday. He told reporters that Dr Murray had been fully co-operative and had "helped identify the circumstances around the death of the pop icon and clarified some inconsistencies".

Those "inconsistencies" are likely to have included Dr Murray's response to Jackson's cardiac arrest. A tape of the 911 call suggests he decided to administer CPR while the singer was lying on a soft bed – even though CPR should always be carried out on a floor or other hard surface.

Despite his denials, Dr Murray has been widely held responsible for the cocktail of prescription drugs that the physically vulnerable star was reportedly taking at the time of his death. They included Dilaudid and Vicodin, two painkillers which are together with Xanax, a sedative, Prilosec, a heartburn pill, Soma, a muscle-relaxant, and Paxil, which treats anxiety.

Suspicion about Dr Murray's role was fuelled at the weekend by revelations concerning his tangled personal and financial history. His medical practice, Global Cardiovascular Associates, was recently served with more than $400,000 (£240,000) in court judgments and faces two further pending lawsuits and several unpaid tax bills.

Those legal affairs could soon become even more complex. Dr Murray is now in dispute with AEG, the firm promoting Jackson's comeback concerts, which had recently hired him to accompany the singer to London throughout the 50 gigs that were due to start at the O2 in just over a fortnight.

Mr Chernoff yesterday claimed that the concert promoter, which is already facing substantial losses from Jackson's death, now owes Dr Murray some $300,000 in "back-pay". AEG disagrees, with its lawyers saying they had not yet formalised their business relationship.

In the court of public opinion, Dr Murray continues to face an uphill struggle. Several of Jackson's former friends came forward at the weekend claiming that the star had for years surrounded himself with medical advisers who acted as "enablers", earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by prescribing painkilling drugs which he had been addicted to, on and off, since the mid-1980s.

Staff who attempted to intervene were frequently sacked. Grace Rwaramba, the nanny to Jackson's three children who was dismissed six months ago after one such "intervention", told yesterday's Sunday Times how she had been forced to pump his stomach "several times" to remove dangerous cocktails of drugs. "He always mixed so much of it..." she said. "There was one period that it was so bad that I didn't let the children see him ... He always ate too little and mixed too much."

The likely controversy over the substances in Jackson's system has persuaded his family to order a second autopsy. They hope to get results of toxicology tests before the LA County Coroner's office, which said that results to its official investigation may take between four and six weeks to arrive.

Jackson's mother, Katherine, whom he remained close to throughout his life, yesterday hired one of his lawyers to represent the family's legal interests. Londell McMillan, a founding partner of international law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, represented Jackson in last year's resolution of a breach of contact lawsuit filed in London by a Bahraini prince.

McMillan has had several high-profile celebrity clients, including Prince, and is the publisher of The Source, a hip-hop magazine. As well as protecting the financial interests of the singer's estate, he will co-ordinate the family's efforts to gain custody of his three children, Prince Michael, 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, seven, who is also known as Blanket.

The two eldest children are the offspring of Debbie Rowe, Jackson's second wife and former nurse. The youngest was born to a surrogate mother, who was picked from a catalogue. A judge will be called on eventually to decide who should bring up the children, and legal experts are divided as to whether Rowe or Katherine Jackson has the most persuasive claim.

The family has yet to publicly discuss the issue, but released an extended joint statement at the weekend, disclosing their sense of loss.

"In one of the darkest moments of our lives we find it hard to find the words appropriate to this sudden tragedy we all had to encounter," it read. "Our beloved son, brother and father of three children has gone so unexpectedly, in such a tragic way and much too soon. It leaves us, his family, speechless and devastated to a point where communication with the outside world seems almost impossible at times. We want to thank all of his faithful supporters and loyal fans worldwide, you – who Michael loved so much.

"Please do not despair, because Michael will continue to live on in each and every one of you. Continue to spread his message, because that is what he would want you to do. Carry on, so his legacy will live forever."

Meanwhile organisers of last night's Black Entertainment Television awards, which recognises the best in music, acting and sports, revamped the show to honour Jackson and his artistic legacy. Previously announced acts, such as Beyonce and Ne-Yo, changed their planned performances while other artists who had not planned to attend, including Usher and Justin Timberlake, tried to catch last-minute flights to the Shine auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles to participate.

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