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No good guys in the sad saga of Jackson vs. AEG Live

In the end, the trial over Michael Jackson's tragic death boiled down to what people will do for money and how bankrupt that can leave them.

October 04, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Jury foreman Gregg Barden, left, listens as juror Kevin Smith answers reporters' questions after the verdict in the civil trial over Michael Jackson's overdose death.
Jury foreman Gregg Barden, left, listens as juror Kevin Smith answers reporters'… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The verdict was delivered in the "Special Events Center" at the Los Angeles County courthouse, with dozens of people queuing up in the hallway as if they were there for a concert.

The case itself had been mostly mundane; rooted in the details of contract and credentials, it dragged on for five months.

But its finish was always destined to be a spectacle, because the man on trial was Michael Jackson, the King of Pop — never mind that the case was named "Katherine Jackson vs. AEG Live."

The billion-dollar lawsuit filed by Jackson's mother blamed the concert promoter for the pop star's death, claiming AEG employed an unfit doctor whose negligence led to her son's overdose on sedatives and propofol.

But the jury sided with AEG, ruling that the doctor, Conrad Murray, was competent to serve as the superstar's physician. Jackson orchestrated his death, jurors said, with bad behavior and poor choices.

"Whatever Michael wanted, Michael got," juror Kevin Smith told reporters. "If AEG had known what was going on behind closed doors, it might have made a difference. But they didn't."

And it looks like they didn't want to know. They just wanted their star on stage when the curtain opened in London on what was supposed to be a legendary, record-breaking tour.


It wasn't the legal responsibility of AEG Live to protect Jackson's health. That's the job they agreed to pay Dr. Murray $150,000 a month to do.

AEG execs might not have known that the physician — now in jail for killing Jackson — was ethically challenged.

But they did know that the entertainer had a long history of being drug dependent and emotionally unstable.

If they expected the cosseted superstar to suddenly shake decades of deep-seated problems, that's either shameful ignorance or cruelly dispassionate thinking.

After all, AEG Live's co-CEO had been the manager 20 years ago of Jackson's "Dangerous" world tour, which had to be abruptly cut short so the star could enter rehab for painkiller dependence.

Even casual fans knew that Jackson's career had been studded with drug problems, bizarre behavior and medical issues. He hadn't toured in more than 10 years.

His struggles were no secret, just an inconvenient truth the promoters seemed determined to disregard.

Getting Jackson the help he needed might have derailed the concert tour that had already cost AEG more than $30 million to arrange. Instead, there was lots of emailing among company leaders about Jackson's obvious disintegration.

He repeatedly missed rehearsals, was emaciated, incoherent, paranoid, obsessive. He couldn't manage signature dance moves or remember the words to songs he'd been singing for years.

One of AEG's top officials was warned by a rehearsal manager a week before Jackson died, "I have watched him deteriorate in front of my eyes over the last 8 weeks."

Another exec acknowledged as much in an email to the company's finance chief: "Trouble with MJ. Big trouble... He is having a mental breakdown."

Yet they treated Jackson not like a troubled man in crisis but like the "freak" that a mocking email from AEG's top lawyer made him out to be.

They questioned his work ethic, waved off his friends, warned Murray that his job was to get the superstar in shape, on stage, on time.

They even doctored Jackson's rehearsal calendar to fool the pop star into thinking he was getting the rest his failing body needed. "Figure it out so it looks like he's not working so much," ordered Paul Gongaware, AEG Live's co-CEO, who'd known Jackson for years.

Jackson was a caricature, a commodity, a cash cow — in death, if not life — for the company.

"Michael's death is a terrible tragedy, but life must go on," AEG Live concert chief Randy Phillips wrote to a business colleague several weeks after Jackson died. "AEG will make a fortune from merch sales, ticket retention, the touring exhibition and the film/dvd."

And it did. The celebratory documentary "This Is It," which AEG co-produced, has grossed more than $260 million worldwide since the superstar died.


The promoters weren't the only ones trying to cash in on the legacy of this talented and tortured soul. Katherine Jackson's lawsuit asked for at least $35 million for her and $85 million for each of Jackson's three children.

The greedy wealthy family going after the greedy wealthy firm. In such a mercenary battle, it's hard to know whom to root for.

Still, I found something unseemly about the crowing by AEG lawyers in their celebratory post-verdict meeting outside the courthouse with reporters.

There was lots of talk about how Jackson "made his own choices." But that's only true if you believe addiction is a choice.

This trial was not just about who gets paid but about what people will do for money and how bankrupt that can leave them:

An aging superstar will tempt his demons and push his body past its limits. A high-flying firm will ignore the needs of a troubled man to exploit his celebrity status. A secretive family will go public with painful private drama. There are price tags on all of that.

Jackson's mother said going in that she filed the suit because she wanted to know the truth.

I watched her shuffle out of the courtroom on Wednesday, as soon as the verdict was read. Her face betrayed nothing as she walked past rows of shell-shocked Jackson fans.

"I hope she'll find peace," said Dana Brenklin, an arts activist who covered the trial for radio station KJLH. "She didn't get justice, she didn't get money. But she got some answers about what was going on at the end of her son's life."

Now that the freak show is over, maybe Katherine Jackson's family can pull together and move on.

And her son can rest in peace.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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