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Dr. Conrad Murray Trial, a Bitter Pill to Swallow

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Matt Semino, 01.26.2011

Attorney and legal analyst

Brace yourself. It's starting again. The stage has been set for another legal drama featuring the King of Pop. Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's personal physician, was arraigned on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles Superior Court. Stating, "Your honor, I am an innocent man," Murray pled not guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the star's death. Jury selection for his trial is set to commence on March 28. If convicted, the maligned doctor could face a maximum of up to four years in prison.

Can anyone bear to watch Michael Jackson be dissected yet again in the court of public opinion? Fortunately, unlike the child molestation cases, there are socially prescient issues that will be addressed by a Dr. Conrad Murray trial. Issues that have the potential to generate useful policy discourse.

Michael Jackson will now be presented by the prosecution as the victim rather than the victimizer. This trial will unfold without the star ever having to personally defend his actions or perceived predilections. Instead, the focus will be on Dr. Murray, the man who was privy to Jackson's exclusive daily life leading up to precise moments of his death. Murray's attorneys will need to explain what exactly happened on June 25, 2009. Why did Michael Jackson die and who was responsible? The tables have turned, not out of vengeance brought by "crazy" Jackson fans, but by the law seeking truth where injustice has occurred.

Confident and seeking a speedy trial, Dr. Murray's defense team has already begun to draw their Michael Jackson portrait. Predictably, they will argue that he was a demanding, drug dependent pop star who was sick, suicidal and ultimately responsible for his own fate. Inevitably, certain media outlets will jump on this characterization with stories that blur the line between honest journalism and tabloid sensationalism. Of course, some will argue that every human being, including Jackson, should be held accountable for their personal decisions, actions and even their own death. But come on now! Let's not fool ourselves into believing that mantra is really the crux of this debacle.

While there are many actors in this story, the Michael Jackson tragedy is foremost a tale of the abysmal ethical choices, disastrous professional judgment and horrendous medical practices of a trusted caretaker. Dr. Conrad Murray exploited loopholes in the system, turned a blind eye, became sloppy, tried to cover up his mistakes and then got caught. It certainly could have ended differently.

Giving Murray the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was working in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong man. The cash and Hollywood allure though were too seductive for him to resist. Dr. Murray's reputation, livelihood and career now hang in abeyance. Even if acquitted, what he will have sorely learned is that when playing carelessly with a raging fire, you are guaranteed to get scorched.

Hired in 2009 by concert promoters AEG to serve as Michael Jackson's personal physician, Murray was paid the exorbitant sum of $150,000 a month for his position. He was charged with caring for the star and ensuring that Jackson was healthy enough to attend rigorous rehearsals as he prepared for a comeback tour. That spring, Murray promptly closed his Houston and Las Vegas medical practices and moved to Los Angeles to care for the music legend on a full-time basis at his rented Holmby Hills mansion. What eventually developed turned out to be a highly destructive patient-physician relationship.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office determined that Michael Jackson died of acute propofol poisoning. A powerful surgical anesthetic which is only to be administered in a hospital, propofol was being given to Jackson in his home as a sleep aid to combat chronic insomnia. Dr. Murray has claimed that he was unaware of Jackson's propofol use prior to accepting his post and that he eventually became concerned the star was becoming addicted to the drug.

Despite glaring red flags and against his sound professional judgment, Murray continued to administer propofol to Jackson regularly during the two months leading up to and on the day of his death. He allegedly left Jackson unattended under the influence of the drug on that fateful morning, failed to properly resuscitate the star when he stopped breathing and then delayed calling 911, all while seeking to hide evidence. When help finally arrived, Murray did not inform medics that he had ever given Jackson propofol. Negligence?

According to witness testimony from Murray's preliminary hearing, the doctor also crossed clear ethical boundaries on a number of occasions during the time period when he was caring for the star. Such testimony revealed that Murray employed tactics of blatant misrepresentation to obtain excessive amounts of propofol and other sedatives from a Las Vegas pharmacy for Michael Jackson's use. Large quantities of these drugs were later found in Jackson's home after his death. Fraud?

If Dr. Murray believed that Michael Jackson was becoming an addict, why did he continue to administer potentially harmful and addictive drugs? If Dr. Murray was so concerned for Jackson's welfare, why didn't he proactively seek help from family members or handlers to stage an intervention on the star's behalf? Why didn't Dr. Murray just remove himself as Michael Jackson's physician? Whether or not Jackson demanded propofol, his "milk," is irrelevant in this case. Dr. Conrad Murray, a medical professional once licensed in three states, should have never given the drug to Michael Jackson.

The question of whether Murray was negligent in administering propofol to the pop icon will be the central legal issue in this case. However, this saga extends far beyond the universe of esoteric drug names, technical medical evidence and narrow interpretations of law. At its heart, it is a morality play ripe with classic, Shakespearean themes. The opiates of money and power, combined with the lust for celebrity and fame, drove a once respected member of the medical community to breach his responsibilities to his patient, his profession and ultimately to society. How did this happen?

Getting to the nut of the Dr. Conrad Murray case is going to be a dizzying affair. Enduring it though will possibly unearth a precedential jewel. Guilty or not guilty, it is highly questionable whether emotional justice will ever be served to the millions who seek it.

What can be the certain outcome of a Dr. Murray trial is that the legal system, the medical establishment and the public will begin to address some pressing policy questions. What are the acceptable parameters of the private patient-physician relationship? How can the fraudulent trafficking of potentially lethal pharmaceutical drugs be stopped? Through what institutional mechanisms can proper standards of medical professional ethics and practice be effectively enforced? Michael Jackson would undoubtedly want an element of humanity and positive social change to come from this imperfect storm. That is its simple potential.