'Propofol madness': Conrad Murray gets 4 years for Michael Jackson death

A judge, citing 'propofol madness,' sentenced physician Conrad Murray Tuesday to four years, the maximum punishment allowed, for his role in the 2009 death of pop superstar Michael Jackson. 

Mario Anzuoni/AP
Dr. Conrad Murray sits in court after he was sentenced to four years in county jail for his involuntary manslaughter conviction in the death of pop star Michael Jackson on Tuesday, in Superior Court in Los Angeles.

Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, was sentenced Tuesday to the maximum available punishment – four years in the Los Angeles County Jail – for his role in the death of the pop superstar in June 2009.

The former cardiologist in Las Vegas and Houston was convicted Nov. 7 of a single count of involuntary manslaughter after a six-week trial. He was charged with giving Mr. Jackson a fatal dose of the powerful anesthetic propofol in combination with other sedatives to treat Jackson’s chronic insomnia.

In a sentencing hearing at the Los Angeles County courthouse, Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor lambasted Dr. Murray for violating the trust of his famous patient, for lying to various medical officials, and for later showing no remorse for his crime.

He said Murray engaged in “propofol madness” in which he abandoned his sworn obligation as a physician in exchange for hopes of money, fame, and prestige as the private doctor to an entertainment legend.

“Michael Jackson died not because of an isolated one-off incident, he died because of a totality of circumstances that are directly attributable to Dr. Murray,” Judge Pastor said. “This is an unacceptable, egregious departure from an accepted standard of care – a disgrace to the medical profession.”

Pastor said Murray’s administration of propofol as a sleep aid on a nightly basis in the bedroom of Jackson’s rented mansion amounted to human experimentation.

“It should be made very clear that experimental medicine will not be tolerated,” Pastor said. “Mr. Jackson was an experiment. The fact that he participated in it does not excuse or lessen the blame of Dr. Murray, who could have said no and walked away as many others did.”

Prosecutors had asked that Murray receive the maximum four years in prison, while defense lawyers requested probation and community service.

Deputy District Attorney David Walgren also asked that Murray be ordered to pay restitution to Jackson’s estate and to his children, Prince, 14, Paris, 13, and Blanket, 9.

Mr. Walgren said the estate had spent $1.8 million for a memorial service, funeral, and associated expenses. In addition, he said Jackson stood to earn $100 million from 50 sold-out concerts in London that were scheduled to begin shortly after his death in 2009.

Pastor said the Jackson estate had not provided enough documentation to support a $101.8 million restitution order. He set a Jan. 23 hearing to determine the amount of restitution, if any.

Although the judge specified that Murray should be incarcerated for four years, it is unclear precisely how long he will remain in the county jail.

Normally, Murray would be sent to state prison. But because of prison overcrowding and the ongoing budget crisis in California, nonviolent offenders are sent instead to county jails, where many are released early.

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley complained after the sentencing that recent laws passed to ease prison overcrowding had made it impossible to know with certainty how long a convicted criminal would remain behind bars.

“The sheriff has a bigger role in sentencing than judges do,” Mr. Cooley told reporters. “This is going to be a real test of our criminal justice system to see if it has any meaning at all.”

In addition to the conviction and jail term, Murray is expected to lose his license to practice medicine.

Earlier in the hearing, defense attorney Edward Chernoff urged the judge to consider the totality of Murray’s life – the fact that he’d risen from poverty in Grenada, put himself through college and medical school, and had built a successful medical practice. Murray opened a clinic in a poor neighborhood in Houston as a community service.

“I think it should matter what Dr. Murray has done with his life,” Mr. Chernoff said.

He added that regardless of any sentence meted out by the court, Murray would face open-ended punishment. “Dr. Murray, whether he is a barista or a greeter at Wal-Mart, for the rest of his life will be the man who killed Michael Jackson.”

Walgren, the prosecutor, emphasized the seriousness of Murray’s actions. “The defendant was playing Russian roulette with Michael Jackson’s life every single night,” he told the judge.

Perhaps the most effective advocate against showing mercy for Murray was Murray himself. Judge Pastor noted that Murray and his defense lawyers allowed a documentary film crew to follow them behind the scenes during Murray’s trial.

At one point, Murray was asked on film whether he felt guilty that Jackson had died. Murray replied: “I don’t feel guilty because I did not do anything wrong.”

The judge seized on the statement. “You can’t have probation when there is no acknowledgment of responsibility [for the crime],” Pastor said.

At trial, prosecutors presented testimony and evidence that showed Murray agreed in 2009 to suspend his private practice as a cardiologist to serve as Jackson’s personal doctor during Jackson's expected year-long concert series in London. Murray was set to receive $150,000 a month.

In the run-up to the concerts, Jackson, 50, faced extreme pressures in rehearsals and was unable to sleep. He persuaded Murray to give him nightly infusions of the surgical anesthetic propofol his bedroom. The nightly infusions continued for two months until his death.

Propofol is not a recognized treatment for insomnia, and medical experts testified that it should be administered only in a hospital-like setting with a full array of vital signs monitoring devices and resuscitation equipment.

Jackson’s bedroom was equipped with an IV stand and oxygen, but lacked alarmed monitoring devices and standard emergency equipment.

The jury at Murray’s trial heard evidence that the doctor had ordered more than four gallons of propofol during the two-month period he was caring for Jackson.

Prosecutors told the jury that after Jackson was sedated on June 25, 2009, Murray turned his attention elsewhere to make and return phone calls and e-mails. At about noon, while talking on the phone to one of his girlfriends, Murray realized Jackson was no longer breathing. Prosecutors say Murray attempted to conceal evidence of the propofol use before calling 911 for paramedic assistance. They say he waited at least 20 minutes before asking someone to summon help.

In addition, prosecutors say, Murray failed to disclose to paramedics and emergency room physicians fighting to save Jackson’s life that the pop star had been given doses of propofol earlier that morning.

The medical examiner later concluded that Jackson died of “acute propofol intoxication” enhanced by sedatives also administered by Murray.

Murray’s lawyers argued at trial that the doctor had given Jackson only a relatively small dose of propofol on June 25. They said Jackson, frustrated by his inability to sleep, administered the fatal dose himself.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for 10 hours before declaring Murray guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

In a statement at the start of the Tuesday’s hearing, a Jackson family spokesman delivered a brief message to the court.

“There is nothing you can do to bring Michael back,” the spokesman said. But the family urged the judge to issue a sentence that would remind physicians of their responsibility to promote the health of their patients rather than “sell their services to the highest bidder.”

The statement concluded: “The Bible reminds us that men cannot do justice, we can only seek justice. That is all we ask.”

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