LOS ANGELES — First, prosecutors showed a photo of Michael Jackson’s pale and lifeless body lying on a gurney. Then, they played a recording of his voice, just weeks before his death.
Slow and slurred, his words echoed Tuesday through a Los Angeles courtroom at the start of the trial of the doctor accused of killing him. As a worldwide audience watched on TV and Jackson’s family looked on from inside the courtroom, a drugged Jackson said:
“We have to be phenomenal. When people leave this show, when people leave my show, I want them to say, ‘I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life. Go. Go. I’ve never seen nothing like this. Go. It’s amazing. He’s the greatest entertainer in the world.’”
Prosecutors played the audio for the first time during opening statements as they portrayed Dr. Conrad Murray, 58, as an incompetent physician who used a dangerous anesthetic without adequate safeguards and whose neglect left the superstar abandoned as he lay dying.
Defense attorneys countered that Jackson caused his own death by taking a drug dose, including propofol, after Murray left the room.
Nothing the cardiologist could have done would have saved the King of Pop, defense attorney Ed Chernoff told jurors, because Jackson was desperate to regain his fame and needed rest to prepare for a series of crucial comeback concerts.
A number of Jackson’s family members were in the courthouse, including his father Joseph, mother Katherine, sisters LaToya and Janet, and brothers Jermaine, Randy and Tito. LaToya Jackson carried a sunflower, her brother’s favorite flower.
The family’s most emotional moment came when the prosecutor played a video excerpt from Jackson’s “This Is It” rehearsal in which he sang “Earth Song,” a plea for better treatment of the environment.
As Jackson sang the words, “I used to dream. I used to glance beyond the stars,” his mother, Katherine, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
Prosecutor David Walgren noted it was Jackson’s last performance.
Murray, who arrived at court holding hands with his mother, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, he could face up to four years in prison and the loss of his medical license.
Speaking for more than an hour, Walgren relied on photos and audio recordings to paint Murray as an inept and reckless caretaker.
Walgren showed a photo of a lifeless Jackson on a hospital gurney. He juxtaposed the image with those of Jackson performing. Walgren also played the recording of Jackson speaking to Murray while, the prosecutor said, the singer was under the influence of an unknown substance roughly six weeks before his death.
The prosecutor said that Murray recorded the conversation with his groggy patient on his cell phone.
Jackson trusted Murray as his physician, and “that misplaced trust in Conrad Murray cost Michael Jackson his life,” Walgren said.
The recurring theme was Jackson’s never-ending quest for sleep and propofol, the potion he called his “milk” and that he believed was the answer. Jurors were told that it was a powerful anesthetic, not a sleep aid, and the prosecutor said Murray severely misused it.
The prosecutor said while working for Jackson, the doctor was shipped more than four gallons of the anesthetic, which is normally given in hospital settings.
Chernoff, the defense attorney, claimed the singer swallowed several pills of the sedative lorazepam on the morning of his death and that was enough to put six people to sleep. After taking a self-administered dose of propofol, Jackson did not even have a chance to close his eyes, Chernoff said, claiming he died instantly.
Chernoff, who had long hinted that the defense would blame Jackson for his own death, added a surprise. He claimed that Jackson died not because his doctor continued to give him the drug but because he stopped it, forcing Jackson to take extreme measures.
“What we will hear is that Dr. Murray provided propofol for two months to Michael Jackson for sleep,” Chernoff said. “During those two months, Michael Jackson slept. He woke up and he lived his life.
“The evidence will not show you that Michael Jackson died because Dr. Murray gave him propofol. The evidence is going to show you Michael Jackson died when Dr. Murray stopped,” the attorney said.
He said Murray was trying to wean Jackson off of propofol and had been giving him other sleep aids known as benzodiazepines trying to lull him to sleep.
On June 25, 2009, the last day of Jackson’s life, Chernoff said, he was in the third day of a weaning process and it didn’t work.
“Michael Jackson started begging. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t sleeping.... When Michael Jackson told Dr. Murray ‘I have to sleep. They will cancel my performance,’ he meant it,” Chernoff said.
Murray, in a recording of his interview with police detectives, acknowledged that he relented and agreed to give Jackson a small dose of propofol.
Walgren said Murray’s claim that he gave the singer a minuscule dosage, enough to keep him asleep perhaps five minutes, was not true. He also accused Murray of deception when he hid from paramedics and hospital emergency staff that he had given Jackson propofol. He said they were desperately trying to revive him but didn’t know about the drug.
He returned repeatedly to the fee Murray was to be paid — $150,000 a month — and pointed out that he first had asked for $5 million.
“There was no doctor-patient relationship,” Walgren said. “... What existed here was an employer-employee relationship. He was not working for the health of Michael Jackson. Dr. Murray was working for a fee of $150,000.”
Chernoff countered with a description of Murray’s history of treating indigent patients for free. At times during the defense attorney’s opening statements, Murray appeared to be crying and wiped his eyes with a tissue.
Jackson’s family members appeared pained as Walgren described the singer as a vulnerable figure, left alone with drugs coursing through his body.
“It violates not only the standard of care but the decency of one human being to another,” he said. “Dr. Murray abandoned Michael when he needed help.”
Following opening statements, Jackson’s choreographer and friend, Kenny Ortega, testified that Jackson was in bad shape physically and mentally less than a week before his death.
He said he sent a message to Randy Phillips, producer of the “This Is It” concert, telling him that Jackson was ill, probably should have a psychological evaluation and was not ready to perform.
“It’s important for everyone to know he really wants this,” he wrote. “It would shatter him, break his heart if we pulled the plug. He’s terribly frightened it’s all going to go away.”
In response to the email, Ortega said, a meeting was called at Jackson’s house where Ortega clashed with Murray, who told him to stop playing amateur psychiatrist and doctor.
“He said Michael was physically and emotionally capable of handling all his responsibilities for the show,’” said Ortega, “I was shocked. Michael didn’t seem to be physically or emotionally stable.”
Within a few days, he said, Jackson had recouped his energy and was full of enthusiasm for the show.
During the defense opening statement, Chernoff referred to Dr. Arnold Klein, Jackson’s dermatologist, who the judge decided will not testify.
The attorney tried to blame Klein for some of Jackson’s woes, saying Klein gave Jackson the painkiller Demerol and he became addicted to it.
He told jurors that Klein would not be testifying but his records would be available and an addiction specialist would testify that one of the side effects of Demerol withdrawal is trouble sleeping. Chernoff said Murray was unaware of a Demerol shot administered to Jackson on June 16 and thus didn’t realize there could be a fatal interaction with propofol.
Klein’s attorney, Garo Ghazarian, later in the day issued a statement calling the allegations preposterous and “merely an attempt to whitewash the facts surrounding the death of ... Michael Jackson while under the management of Dr. Conrad Murray.”
He noted there were no traces of Demerol in Jackson’s autopsy or in his home, indicating he was not addicted. He also said Klein’s use of the drug was not excessive. He noted that Klein was cleared by authorities of any wrongdoing in Jackson’s death.