Michael Jackson trial: Did Conrad Murray act as a doctor or an enabler?

Conrad Murray, doctor of the late Michael Jackson, will stand trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter this month, a judge ruled Tuesday. The case could offer insight on legal gray areas.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters/File
Doctor Conrad Murray, the late Michael Jackson's personal physician, arrives at the Los Angeles Superior Court Airport Branch Courthouse to face involuntary manslaughter charges in this February 8, 2010 file photo.

The upcoming trial of Conrad Murray, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop star Michael Jackson in June 2009, could provide clarity on what constitutes medical negligence, legal experts say.

Moreover, it could offer insight into if it is a doctor’s duty to act in the best interest of client’s health rather than the client’s wishes to avoid pain.

“Frequently, performers are enabled by their handlers and managers and doctors because the recording and film companies want to get more and better performances out of them. Going after Murray is a clear break with that tradition,” says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern Law School. “It provides a deterrent to the entire medical fraternity in getting involved in overprescribing.”

After a six-day preliminary hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor ruled Tuesday that there is sufficient evidence to try Dr. Murray on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The judge also stripped Murray of his California medical license. Murray’s arraignment will be Jan. 25 in Los Angeles.

Mr. Jackson died from an overdose of the surgical anesthetic, Propofol, which Murray acknowledged to police that he had used for two months in treating Jackson’s insomnia. Later he said he had administered only a tiny amount that should not have killed Jackson – 25 milligrams. Autopsy results showed the amount of Propofol in Jackson's system to have been 10 to 100 times that.

At the preliminary hearing, Murray’s defense attorneys introduced the idea that Jackson caused his own death either by injecting himself with Propofol or drinking it when Murray wasn’t looking. Prosecutors countered by telling reporters that it would have been impossible for Jackson to inject himself, because the drug is so powerful that he would have passed out before finishing the syringe.

“This will be a battle of experts that will end up depending on who is the most believable,” says Ron Washburn, professor of legal studies at Bryant University. “What I hope this trial shows is whether or not Jackson acted alone or under the supervision of a doctor.”

Many legal experts suggest that Murray has an uphill legal battle in convincing a jury that Jackson contributed to his own death. But Professor Washburn says Murray’s attorneys don’t have to prove that Jackson killed himself or anything close to it.

“All they have to do is plant a seed of doubt in juror’s minds that at least some of the blame should go to Jackson,” he says. “They have to convince them not to be 100 percent sure that it was all Murray’s doing. Otherwise they must find Murray not guilty.”

Prosecutors must show that something Murray did or did not do was the actual cause of death.

“If they cannot make this showing beyond a reasonable doubt, Murray will be acquitted even though he may have provided awful medical care,” says Ellyn Garafalo, the criminal defense attorney who represented a doctor in the drug death of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith.

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