The criminal trial of Houston, Texas cardiologist Dr. Conrad Murray, 58, began this week in Los Angeles Superior Court. Murray is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the June 25, 2009 death of the famed pop singer Michael Jackson, who died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50 after Dr. Murray administered the powerful sedative Dipravan, (more commonly known as “propofol”) to help Jackson sleep. Reportedly, Jackson referred to propofol as his “milk.”
Under the California Penal Code 192 (b) PC, involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unlawful killing that takes place:
1. during the commission of an unlawful act (not amounting to a felony), or
2. during the commission of a lawful act which involves a high risk of death or great bodily harm that is committed without due caution or circumspection.
Prosecutors started off the case with powerful evidence, including photographs of Jackson from June 24, 2009, during a rehearsal for Jackson’s tour “This Is It”, and a photograph from the following day, depicting Jackson’s lifeless body laying on a gurney. Additionally, the prosecution played a May 10, 2009 recorded message from Jackson (ironically, from Murray’s own cell phone—perhaps he was worried about future liability), in which an incoherent and obviously drugged Jackson discussed his excitement about the upcoming tour.
In opening statements on September 27, 2011, prosecutors claimed that Michael Jackson was abandoned by Dr. Murray after propofol was administered, with Ativan, Valium and Versed in his system, and that Murray “left this vulnerable man, without monitoring equipment, or resuscitative equipment…to fend for himself.”
One of Murray’s defense lawyers, Ed Chernoff, noted in his opening statement that Jackson had 8 Lorazepam (Ativan) pills in his system, “enough to put six of you to sleep”, that Jackson self administered an additional dose of propofol in a fit of frustration when Dr. Murray left the room, which created a “perfect storm in his body that killed him instantly.” Chernoff also continuously referred to what the “science will show you”, clearly in an effort to warn the jurors against deciding Murray’s fate solely on sympathy for Jackson rather than on the admissible evidence presented in Court.
Lorazepam (Ativan) is generally used to relive anxiety, and is in the class of medications known as benzodiazepines. It is generally not supposed to be taken more than 2-3 times per day, and is very addictive. Tolerance is known to develop with long term or excessive use, which it is fairly clear was the situation with Michael Jackson. Further, the literature for Lorazepam advises that the medication should not be taken for longer than 4 months at a time.
Prosecutors contend that Dr. Murray:
1. Gave Jackson propofol as a sleep aid (approximately 4 gallons over the last six weeks of Jackson’s life), knowing that the singer was taking several other sedatives including Valium, Ativan, and Versed;
2. Administered these sedatives without proper monitoring equipment and in a non- clinical environment, such as a hospital where Jackson’s vital signs could be monitored;
3. Was not sufficiently trained in the properties of the various medications that Jackson was taking, in that Dr. Murray is a cardiologist, not a anesthesiologist;
4. Abandoned Jackson by leaving the room to take personal phone calls and to go to the bathroom after he gave Jackson the dosage of propofol at 11:56 am on June 25, 2009;
5. Did not call for an ambulance until 12:20 PM, a full 24 minutes later, instead calling Jackson’s personal assistant at 12:13 PM and leaving a message “call me right away…[Jackson] suffered a bad reaction.”
6. When ambulance and emergency personnel arrived at the Jackson home, Dr. Murray allegedly did not inform them that he had administered propofol, nor that Jackson also had Ativan, Valium and Versed in his system.
Propofol is an anesthetic which is utilized to produce relaxation and sleep in surgical patients. It is also used for patients in intensive care and on a ventilator. Propofol is supposed to be infused into a vein at a hospital or clinic, and only by trained medical professionals. In the contraindications for this medication, patients are warned not to take propofol if they are also taking “barbiturates for sleep and seizures, medicines for depression, anxiety, or psychotic disturbances, or medicines for sleep.” This will be a difficult issue for Dr. Murray to overcome with a jury, in that he knew Jackson was taking a number of contraindicated medications which could negatively interact with the propofol.
Dr. Murray was reportedly being paid $150,000.00 monthly for his services as Jackson’s personal physician, and it is well known that Jackson had a proclivity for using numerous drugs to fight insomnia.
The defense claims that Michael Jackson was a drug addict who retained various doctors in an effort to provide him with a continuing supply of powerful medications and prescriptions. Further, because autopsy results indicated that there was a small amount of propofol in Jackson’s stomach contents, the defense contends that Jackson took some of the drug himself, which contributed to the fatal reaction. According to defense counsel, Jackson had a tremendous volume of benzodiazepines in his system, each of which could easily have caused Jackson’s cardiac arrest, alone or certainly in combination with the propofol.
If Dr. Murray is convicted of the involuntary manslaughter charges against him, he could face up to 4 years in prison. Under New York’s Penal Law, there is no specific charge of involuntary manslaughter, but rather, the equivalent charge is known as criminally negligent homicide pursuant to Section 125.10:
“A person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.”
Criminal negligence is defined in Section 15:05 (4) of the New York Penal Law as:
“A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”
Criminally negligent homicide in New York is an E felony, punishable by up to 4 years in prison. We will report further on the Murray criminal trial as the case proceeds for the next several weeks.