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Matt Semino

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Defending the Victim in the Conrad Murray Trial

Posted: 09/22/11 06:19 PM ET

Should Michael Jackson be blamed for his own death? Jury selection is underway and opening statements are set to commence in the Dr. Conrad Murray involuntary manslaughter trial. International headlines are shouting, "Michael Jackson drank propofol moments before he died!" These questionable pronouncements allude to the defense theory that Murray's legal team is expected to soon present in a Los Angeles courtroom. Symptoms of a "blame the victim" syndrome are already showing.

While sensational, it should be of no surprise that Murray's lawyers may argue that Michael Jackson took his own life by either injecting himself with propofol or ingesting it. Story-making is surely nothing new when it comes to the King of Pop. Turning the tables on the voiceless is also now in vogue with high-profile criminal defendants. It worked for Casey Anthony, why shouldn't it also work for Conrad Murray? While "blaming the victim" may be a tempting and ultimately effective defense strategy, it is morally suspect when based in fabrication and driven by unsubstantiated factual claims.

Although attorneys are charged with representing their client's best interests in court, ethical boundaries can be crossed in their dogged pursuit of that goal. As seen before, a clever defense lawyer can twist scraps of evidence, public perception and ingrained social stereotypes about a victim and the alleged crime into a convoluted narrative that lacks any element of truth. This unscrupulous practice can become the legal weapon of choice when the only objective is to place just a shred of reasonable doubt in the mind of one impressionable juror. It is a weapon that can be lethal if taken too far, denigrating the victim with each cut and ultimately corroding justice to its bone.

The Casey Anthony saga is just one recent, glaring example of where such defense tactics went overboard in the courtroom. Anthony's legal team introduced an outlandish explanation of the victim's cause of death and leveled severe accusations at family members during their opening statement. All of their distorted claims eventually went uncorroborated during the trial. In the process, the victim's memory was soiled and witnesses' reputations were destroyed under the guise of an impassioned client defense. The judicial process is only cheapened when such machinations run unchecked in a court of law. The Conrad Murray trial also risks running amok if precaution is ignored.

While millions of trial observers thought Anthony's defense theory was pure fantasy, it stuck in the minds of the jurors who ultimately acquitted her. As Casey Anthony enjoys her freedom, Caylee Marie Anthony will never able to tell us whether she actually climbed up that ladder into the pool and drowned. Her cause of death remains a mystery. Similarly, Michael Jackson will also never be able to tell us how he departed from this earth. When it is only the words of the accused against the silence of the deceased, who is there to defend the victim from false accusation and innuendo?

While it may become easy for some to forget, Dr. Conrad Murray is currently the individual on trial, not Michael Jackson. Use of the same Machiavellian strategies that were employed to defend Casey Anthony will need to be corralled and monitored vigilantly by judge, jury and the viewing public as the Murray case proceeds. The disastrous obfuscation of truth that occurred in Orlando only a few months ago can be prevented from repeating itself in Judge Michael Pastor's courtroom.

Unfortunately, Murray's legal team seems to have already taken more than a few pages from Jose Baez's playbook. In several pretrial hearings, it became evident that Murray's attorneys had intently studied the dynamics of the Anthony trial and the procedural factors that would ensure a favorable outcome for their client. They referenced the global media attention that the Anthony proceedings garnered and the potentially harmful influence of commentary from legal pundits as a way to rationalize sequestering jurors and preventing the trial from being televised. Judge Pastor made the intelligent decision to deny these requests which would have placed unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of the public, press and jury. Complete transparency is one positive step toward preserving the rights of the victim during this trial.

If Conrad Murray's legal team is planning to use a "blame the victim" defense strategy, their opening statement and witness questioning will likely conflate negative perceptions and stereotypes of Michael Jackson into a twisted theory of death. Attempts were already made by Murray's attorneys to drag Jackson's financial affairs, physical and mental health, as well as past legal battles into the vortex of controversy. Witnesses were expected to testify for the defense on these salacious and highly irrelevant topics. Judge Pastor wisely ruled to exclude many of these witnesses, arguing that their testimony lacked sufficient probative value in addressing the primary legal questions of the case. A thorough examination of Dr. Conrad Murray's medical practices, ethical choices and standard of care is what really needs to take center stage in a court of law at this time. Michael Jackson's past has no legitimate place in this present trial.

Asserting the appropriate element of judicial control through the pretrial phase, Judge Pastor has made a strong effort to prevent the impending court proceedings from devolving into a tawdry examination of Michael Jackson through unnecessary character assassination. He has attempted to act fairly toward both sides while also standing firmly to protect the victim. Pastor will continue to play a pivotal role in the coming weeks by ensuring that the prosecution and the defense act within the boundaries of professional ethics and follow proper trial procedure. It is also imperative that he clearly impress upon the jury their important role, responsibility and obligation in seeking the truth even through all of the smoke and mirrors.

Ultimately, it will be up to members of the jury to keep all that is stated at trial by the prosecution and particularly the defense, in its proper perspective. Inflated proclamations are just hot air if not grounded in provable facts. Jurors shouldn't be distracted by such hyperbole. They must think critically and logically about whether the hard evidence that is presented in court actually comports with the claims made by the lawyers in their opening statements and witness questioning. It is only then that justice can be properly served without the victim ever being victimized again.

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