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Another setback for Murray's defense strategy

Judge excludes the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses the physician's attorneys had hoped would convince a jury that Michael Jackson was so drug-addled that he accidentally overdosed on a surgical anesthetic.

August 29, 2011|By Harriet Ryan and Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Jackson's personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, right, with one of his attorneys, Edward Chernoff. A large point of our defense has been gutted, Chernoff said, but if we have to go to a tank battle with a switchblade, that is exactly what well do.
Michael Jackson's personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, right,… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

To hear lawyers for Michael Jackson's personal physician tell it, the pop star lived his last days in a state of physical and financial desperation. Hooked on Demerol and starved for sleep, he worried constantly about pulling off a comeback attempt that offered him one last chance to pay off his mountain of debt and reclaim a place in the music industry, the lawyers have said.

It's a portrayal that attorneys for Dr. Conrad Murray say is vital to understanding what led to Jackson's death, but it's one unlikely to reach the ears of jurors at the doctor's upcoming involuntary manslaughter trial after a series of court rulings Monday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor excluded the testimony of more than a dozen defense witnesses, including Jackson's longtime dermatologist, his business manager and the nanny of his three children.

The defense had hoped the testimony of these confidants and other insiders would convince a jury that the singer was so drug-addled and experiencing so much pressure to perform that he accidentally overdosed on a surgical anesthetic.

But the judge said these witnesses, some of whose accounts of Jackson's drug use went back two decades, would confuse jurors.

"Discussions of these subject matters are sufficiently convoluted, distracting and detracting as to substantially outweigh any probative value whatsoever," Pastor said.

It was the second major setback for Murray's defense strategy. The judge barred his lawyers in April from delving into Jackson's money problems during the case. He said that evidence threatened to turn what should be a focused trial into a "battle of accountants" and "a salacious analysis of personal financial issues."

A lawyer for Murray said the defense planned to file a motion later this week asking the judge to reconsider.

"A large point of our defense has been gutted," lawyer Edward Chernoff said, "but if we have to go to a tank battle with a switchblade, that is exactly what we'll do."

Although prosecutors have not made their witness list public, testimony and court discussions indicate that the bulk of evidence presented to jurors will be from medical experts.

Prosecutors contend that Murray, hired as Jackson's $150,000-a-month concert doctor, bears criminal responsibility for his death. They have said he injected Jackson with a drug, propofol, that should never be used outside a surgical setting and then left him unattended. Prosecutors urged the judge Monday to keep testimony focused on the medical care Murray provided the singerbefore his June 25, 2009, death and not Jackson's mental state or drug use.

"The People are very concerned about this trial deteriorating into an attack on Michael Jackson," Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren said.

The most prominent name the judge removed from the defense witness list was Jackson's Beverly Hills dermatologist, Arnold Klein. The defense planned to blame Klein for Jackson's Demerol addiction, writing in a filing Monday that the dermatologist provided the singer with large amounts of the painkiller "for no valid medical purpose." The defense maintains the singer sought propofol to deal with severe insomnia, a side effect of the painkiller that was hindering rehearsals for his make-or-break comeback effort.

The prosecution, however, complained that Murray was trying to misdirect the jury's attention onto Klein, who was not on trial. The judge agreed but will allow the defense to present medical records detailing Klein's treatment of Jackson.

An attorney for Klein did not return a message for comment.

The judge also prohibited any witnesses connected to Jackson's 2005 prosecution for child molestation. Murray's lawyers intended to call a Santa Barbara County sheriff's detective who found propofol and Demerol in the performer's Neverland estate in 2003. A jury acquitted Jackson of all charges.

"That is no-go territory as far as this criminal trial," Pastor said.

The witnesses the defense intended to call would have provided an intimate window into Jackson's world. One longtime friend, Susan Etok, told police the singer expressed doubts about performing in the "This Is It" shows and asked her to help him get propofol and other drugs, according to a defense filing.

The nanny, Grace Rwaramba, told investigators she had repeatedly tried to stage interventions and once fielded a call from Jackson's children after their father had passed out on the floor. She was fired two months before the singer's death after complaining about his drug use, the filing states.

One member of the inner circle who will testify is Jackson's makeup artist, Karen Faye, a friend of 27 years. Pastor ruled that she could recount her observations of the last week of Jackson's life. She told detectives that the recording star "was weak, extremely thin and seemed to be under the influence of drugs" and told her he didn't think he could "physically complete" a 50-show comeback attempt in London, according to the filing.

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