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Michael Jackson's doctor's case may hinge on his police statement

Cardiologist Conrad Murray's comments about giving the singer the anesthetic propofol as a sleep aid could make or break the involuntary manslaughter case.

February 10, 2010|By Harriet Ryan and Jack Leonard
  • On Monday, Dr. Conrad Murray pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
On Monday, Dr. Conrad Murray pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

On a Saturday evening last summer, Dr. Conrad Murray met with two police detectives at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey. Outside, the world was in shock over the death of Michael Jackson, and inside a room at the posh waterfront hotel, the investigators wanted answers from the last person to see him alive. With his lawyer by his side, Murray talked for more than three hours. The interview ended with him a free man.

More than seven months later, Murray faces an involuntary manslaughter charge in a case that legal experts said may hinge on the physician's own words.

In that June interview, Murray volunteered information expected to form the backbone of the prosecution's case: That he gave Jackson the surgical anesthetic propofol as a sleep aid and left the singer alone and under the influence of the dangerously potent drug.

"If there had been no admissions, you would be left wondering what happened and the prosecution would have to come up with their own theory," said Vesna Maras, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who tried medical legal cases, including one involving a propofol death. "He's the one who laid out exactly what happened. It doesn't get better than that."

On Monday, Murray pleaded not guilty. His lawyer said the doctor's willingness to talk with police shows he had nothing to hide.

"In some respects, it's vital to the defense," attorney Ed Chernoff said. "If the first time Dr. Murray would've explained what happened in that room was to the jury, then . . . they would've said, 'Why didn't you tell this to the cops right away?' "

He added that the parts of the interview cited in public records were "cherry picked" by investigators and failed to give a complete picture of what the doctor told police.

When Murray sat down with detectives June 27, two days after Jackson died, the cause of the singer's death remained unclear. Murray's attorney said the doctor agreed to an interview because he was as baffled as the rest of the world as to what killed Jackson and wanted to help police.

But, Chernoff said, Murray, 56, would have become a suspect whether he talked to police or not. He had identified himself to paramedics as Jackson's personal physician, and propofol bottles found in the singer's bedroom could easily be traced to him.

"If he hadn't spoken to them, the police would only be left with the impression that the doctor recklessly pumped a large amount of propofol into Jackson without any precaution, without any reason," Chernoff said.

Murray told the officers he had been giving Jackson propofol nightly for six weeks, starting about the time he began working for the performer, according to police affidavits filed in court. He said Jackson told him that, for years, other doctors had been treating his chronic insomnia with propofol. Murray said he eventually became concerned that the singer was addicted and tried to wean him off the anesthetic.

According to court records, Murray told police that on the day Jackson died, he tried to get the performer to sleep using Valium and later two other sedatives. But Jackson remained awake, demanding propofol. The doctor said that after nine hours, he finally relented and gave the singer 25 milligrams -- half the regular dose. He said he sat next to Jackson's bed as the propofol took effect and after 10 minutes left to use the restroom. He said he was gone for no longer than two minutes and when he returned, Jackson had stopped breathing.

Paramedics were not summoned immediately. Murray's attorney said it took nearly half an hour because of difficulties contacting the singer's security in the house; the police affidavit suggests it was closer to an hour and 20 minutes. Cellphone records indicate that Murray also talked on the phone for 47 minutes around the time he told police he was trying to revive the singer, according to the affidavit. His lawyer said police got the timeline wrong.

Prosecutors are likely to seize on differences between what Murray told police and what he told medical personnel trying to revive Jackson. According to the affidavits, Murray told paramedics and emergency room doctors that he had given the singer one sedative, the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, but never mentioned propofol.

"That's a telling omission. He knows it's wrong. He knows he is not supposed to be fooling around with propofol," said Dr. Bryan A. Liang, a physician and California Western School of Law professor.

To prove involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must show that Murray killed Jackson in the commission of a crime "not amounting to a felony" or while acting "without due caution and circumspection." Experts say prosecutors are likely to focus on medical protocols that Murray, a cardiologist, allegedly ignored in his use of propofol as a sleep aid. The drug is so dangerous that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says only those trained in anesthesia should administer it.

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