The legal case against Conrad Murray, the doctor who was with singer Michael Jackson when he died June 25 in Los Angeles, moves back into the spotlight this week with a preliminary hearing to formally decide whether Dr. Murray must face trial.
Legal experts across the United States say they will be watching the case not only to see if Murray can get a fair trial amid the media frenzy, but also to see what impact this will have on doctors for wealthy clients who will pay huge sums of money to get the drugs they want.
"Doctors and pharmacists across California are going to be watching this very, very carefully for signals about how to deal with rich celebrities who are willing to pay any price to get prescription drugs,” says Elizabeth Kelly, a criminal attorney in Cleveland.
For some, it could be a wake-up call. “Celebrity doctors will be reminded of the paramount need to protect their client’s long-term medical situation as opposed to their [own] short-term career medical goals,” says Ron Washburn, professor of Legal Studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.
Murray has pleaded not guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter, which, with a conviction, carries a sentence of as many as four years in prison.
In initial comments to prosecutors, Murray had claimed he administered 25 milligrams of the sedative Propofol to Jackson, a relatively mild dose. But autopsy results have since shown that the amount may have been 10 to 100 times that, according to Bruce Spiess, professor of anesthesiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The case is important “for what it means for potential defenses for doctors who prescribe strong, and potentially dangerous, sedatives and anesthesia," says Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Experts have thrown into doubt other statements made by Murray – from his claims that the Propofol was administered by intravenous tube to his suggestion that Mr. Jackson himself may have administered the final, lethal dose. This could make the job of Murray's defense team, already difficult, even harder.
“It appears that [Murray's] sole patient was Jackson, so he should have been very much aware of the medications Jackson had access to, and when he was taking them," says criminal attorney Martin Geduldig. "It would be difficult for him to claim that he had no idea what Jackson was doing."
California AG goes after Murray's license
Murray's financial situation may also be an issue.
State Attorney General Jerry Brown has filed a motion to take away Murray’s license during the trial. Granting the motion would mean the judge would have to appoint attorneys for Murray at the public expense, which would cause controversy, says Ms. Kelly, the criminal attorney.
“The best thing the judge can do for fairness is to not grant [Attorney General Brown’s] motion, but rather to allow Murray to retain his license so he can pay for the attorneys he needs,” she says.
Legal authorities say the bar to be met in getting the case to trial is fairly low – to show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Murray could have administered the drug.