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Conrad Murray trial: As case goes to jury, a pressing question (video)

How did a fatal level of the anesthetic propofol end up in Michael Jackson's blood? That's a key question as the jury in the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray begins deliberations Friday.

By Staff writer / November 4, 2011

Dr. Conrad Murray listens as defense attorney Ed Chernoff, not pictured, gives the defense's closing arguments during the final stage of Murray's defense in his involuntary manslaughter trial in the death of singer Michael Jackson at the Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday, Nov. 3, in Los Angeles, California.

Kevork Djansezian/AP

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To reach a verdict, jurors deliberating in the trial of Michael Jackson’s physician must confront a question that cannot be answered with scientific certainty. How did a fatal level of the anesthetic propofol end up in the King of Pop’s blood?

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Two people know the correct answer to that question. One is dead. The other, Dr. Conrad Murray, offered police an explanation that prosecutors find implausible.

On Friday at the Los Angeles County Courthouse, a jury of seven men and five women are set to begin their deliberations after a five-week trial that featured 49 witnesses and 330 pieces of evidence.

How the jury answers that single question about drug levels in Jackson’s blood could go a long way toward determining whether Dr. Murray is found guilty or is acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death in June 2009.

The medical examiner found that Jackson died of acute propofol intoxication in combination with other sedatives. But what experts were unable to determine conclusively was how the lethal combination of drugs entered the pop star’s system.

Prosecutors have offered the theory that Murray set up an open-ended intravenous drip that allowed a significant quantity of propofol to continue to flow into Jackson’s body until he was so sedated that he was no longer able to breath.

Defense lawyers have presented a competing theory that at some point Jackson self-administered a syringe-full of propofol in a fast push of anesthetic which, in combination with other drugs, killed him almost instantly.

In closing arguments on Thursday, Deputy District Attorney David Walgren told the jurors that Murray’s decision to treat Jackson’s chronic insomnia with nightly propofol infusions in the bedroom of Jackson’s rented mansion was far outside any recognized medical standards of care.

“This type of care has never been seen,” he said. “This was a pharmaceutical experiment in a bedroom.”

In a recorded statement to police two days after Jackson’s death, Murray told investigators that for nearly two months he had administered nightly intravenous drip infusions of propofol to help Jackson sleep.

Mr. Walgren seized on the admission and told jurors to recall how much propofol was being ordered – and reordered – by Murray during that period of time. Investigators discovered the doctor had received more than four gallons of the powerful anesthetic – enough to administer enormous doses of 2,000 milligrams each night.

In his recorded statement to police, Murray said he administered only a 25-milligram dose of propofol by injection, an amount of anesthetic likely to cause sedation for five to 10 minutes.  

Murray’s defense counsel, Edward Chernoff, urged the jurors to accept that Murray was telling the truth when he told police that he administered only a relatively small 25-milligram dose of propofol to Jackson roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes before Jackson was found unresponsive in his bed.

This issue is critical to the defense because propofol is both fast-acting and quickly depleted. If Murray injected only 25 milligrams into Jackson, that amount of the drug would be out of Jackson’s system in minutes, and the heightened risks to Jackson would have disappeared long before Murray found Jackson lifeless.

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