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Conrad Murray: Michael Jackson case and celebrities' doctors

Prosecutors say they'll file charges Monday against Dr. Conrad Murray in the death of pop star Michael Jackson. The case focuses attention on how celebrities like the late Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, and Brittany Murphy may get special treatment from physicians.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / February 5, 2010

Dr. Conrad Murray, left, the cardiologist under investigation in the death of pop star Michael Jackson, greeting a supporter as he arrives at his clinic in Houston in November. Authorities say charges will be filed against Murray on Monday.

Pat Sullivan/AP/File

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Los Angeles

However the legal case against Dr. Conrad Murray proceeds, legal experts say the case will have major impact, perhaps setting legal precedents. Dr. Murray is the physician who told police he gave pop star Michael Jackson a powerful anesthetic and other sedatives in the hours before his death last June.

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The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said Friday it would file charges against Murray on Monday.

The legal gamesmanship over Murray’s surrender followed several days of negotiations in which his lawyers tried to arrange with prosecutors the terms of the doctor's booking and arraignment. Those plans were derailed by haggling between prosecutors and law enforcement officials over whether Murray should be arrested or be allowed to turn himself in.

Murray’s attorneys have said they expect the Texas cardiologist to be charged with involuntary manslaughter for administering drugs to Jackson before his death on June 25. The sentence would be two to four years, aside from other considerations that could include temporary or permanent loss of license. Attorneys familiar with such cases say Murray’s career as a doctor is probably finished, no matter what is decided in court. Others are not so sure.

How strong is the D.A.'s case?

“It’s very interesting to me that the Los Angeles D.A. [district attorney] has not proceeded by way of indictment but is rather serving a criminal complaint,” says Joseph DiBenedetto, a criminal attorney who has represented several high-profile clients in drug-related cases. “It says to me that they were worried that they have potentially weak evidence and feared that a grand jury would not indict or would be swayed by their own bias in the case.”

Whether or not the case goes to trial, it could have a chastening effect on the doctors of celebrities who sometimes accede to their clients’ request for prescription drugs, despite their own medical judgment. It will open to public scrutiny such legal issues as involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence, and the tactic of using medical experts. It will shine the spotlight on the responsibilities of doctors to act in their patients’ best interest, regardless of fame or profession.

“Because of the fame of Michael Jackson, this case will be scrutinized by medical licensing boards across the country and will help define the terms due diligence, gross negligence,” says Pace University professor Elizabeth Fentiman, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and a member of the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics. “It will also say to physicians, you need to be careful not just with the potent effects of these anesthetic drugs, but also with their interactive effects with other drugs.”

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