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Did British documentary pay for Murray's costly defense?

Michael Jackson's physician, convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the singer's death, was deeply in debt when he began working for Jackson. NBC purchased the film for broadcast this weekend.

November 10, 2011|By Harriet Ryan and James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson.
Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death… (Reuters )

The verdict is in, the jury has been dismissed, and Dr. Conrad Murray sits behind bars, but one question about the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor remains: Who paid for the defense?

Speculation about how the cash-strapped physician funded an expansive legal team focused Wednesday on a British documentary made with Murray's cooperation and purchased recently by NBC for broadcast on its cable network MSNBC this weekend. Representatives of Jackson's estate demanded the network cancel the program, entitled "Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship," in part because of unanswered questions about whether Murray was compensated for giving filmmakers interviews and allowing camera crews to follow him and his lawyers.

"We would like to know how much money in total was paid for this privileged 'access,' " estate co-executors John Branca and John McClain wrote in a letter Wednesday to executives at NBC, MSNBC and its parent company, Comcast. "It doesn't matter to us if it was a production company, Comcast, NBC Universal or MSNBC that paid for access to Dr. Murray because all are morally culpable."

Full coverage: The trial of Conrad Murray

Murray was in debt close to $800,000 on the day Jackson died and his financial circumstances worsened in the months that followed as intense media coverage hurt his ability to earn money as a cardiologist. But after signing a deal with a British producer in 2009, he was able to assemble a defense team that included four attorneys, a jury consultant, a publicist, and a host of medical experts. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Monday.

Those involved in the documentary refused to discuss details of the deal with Murray. They repeatedly reiterated a statement by October Films, the London-based production company, that it paid only a nominal $1 fee to Murray. Left unaddressed, though, were questions about whether the doctor received a portion of fees paid by television outlets in Britain, Australia and at least 10 other countries that will air the program.

The circumstances surrounding the documentary raise a host of thorny issues, including how carefully NBC investigated the provenance of a film that offered exclusive interviews and footage in a highly competitive news story, and whether the doctor violated a court-imposed gag order, even as he shielded from his own lawyers the extent of his cooperation with the filmmakers.

In the final days of his manslaughter trial, Murray sat for wide-ranging interviews about Jackson's death with NBC and a British outlet as part of the documentary package those networks purchased. Murray's criminal attorneys said they were never told of the interviews, given despite their warnings about "the dangers of talking about June 25th" — the day the singer died

"They just didn't tell me because they know I'd freak out," said lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff, who said he learned of the interviews the morning after the verdict when portions aired on NBC.

Murray, who decided not to take the stand in his own defense, is in jail pending sentencing later this month and could not be reached for comment.

All payments to Murray's lawyers came directly from the doctor, not the filmmakers, Chernoff said. He acknowledged telling Murray shortly after they met that financial resources were crucial to a court case in which the prosecution seemed to have an unlimited budget for forensic experts and investigators.

"I told him early and I told him often that the only way he was going to be able to defend himself was to have money. He had to fund his case or he would never be able to defend himself," Chernoff said.

At the time Murray's Las Vegas home was in foreclosure. He was behind on child support and student loan payments. He owed money to credit companies and a medical equipment supplier. And because Jackson never signed his contract, Murray never received any of the $150,000-a month fee he was supposed to get as the singer's personal physician.

Subsequently, Murray was approached by Leon Lecash, a British photographer turned entrepreneur whose ventures included a butler service that, according to one press report, "promises to solve any problem." Lecash was among hundreds of outlets begging Murray for an interview, but according to the doctor's former publicist, Miranda Sevcik, Lecash's company – what's it all about? productions – was the only one willing to delay broadcast until after a verdict.

"This was the only group that approached us that agreed to that caveat — until all litigation was complete," Sevcik said.

Camera crews began trailing Murray to church, his charity clinic in Houston and meetings with his lawyers. Chernoff said he sought advice from the California State Bar before agreeing to be filmed. The doctor began providing him money, he said, but he never asked about the source.

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