A longer list of drugs reportedly in Jackson's system makes it more difficult to prove manslaughter, experts say

By Howard Breuer
Updated August 15, 2009 12:10 PM
Houston Chronicle/AP; Globe

For authorities investigating Michael Jackson’s death, more could end up meaning less.

If the entertainer’s autopsy report reveals other potent drugs besides the powerful anesthesia propofol, as has been widely reported, prosecutors will have a more difficult time building a manslaughter case against Jackson’s private physician, experts say.

In short: more drugs, potentially less criminal responsibility for Dr. Conrad Murray.

“You have to show that the doctor knew about all of these other doctors prescribing these other drugs,” says one Los Angeles deputy district attorney who prosecutes doctors. “It’s a classic problem.”

Murray, who reportedly admitted to police that he administered the dangerous anesthetic in the hours before his death, has not been charged with any crime, and through his attorney he has maintained his innocence. But search warrants served on Murray in Nevada and Texas indicate he’s the target of a manslaughter investigation. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s spokeswoman says they are not yet involved in the case and have no comment on what, if anything, may be charged.

Multiple Drugs, Multiple Doctors?

Although many anesthesiologists say it’s extremely negligent and unusual for a doctor to administer propofol in a home setting and without proper monitoring, legal experts say that fact might alone not be enough to prosecute Murray for much more than an administrative-code infraction if it can’t be proven that the propofol alone was what killed Jackson.

According to the Los Angeles Times and other media, Jackson’s toxicology report revealed a few drugs, such as the anti-depressant Xanax, in addition to propofol. Legal experts say this helps explain why, more than seven weeks after Jackson’s death, no charges have been filed and authorities are keeping mum.

Police “don’t want the doctors who prescribed the other things running for cover,” suggests Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman, who agrees that it would be difficult to prosecute Murray alone for Jackson’s death.

But prosecutors have a few options. If they learn Murray and at least one other doctor conspired to prescribe some of the drugs under fake names, they can charge doctors in a similar fashion to the two doctors in the Anna Nicole Smith case who, after a two-year investigation, were charged with multiple felony counts of conspiring to prescribe dangerous narcotics to an addict using fraudulent means.

Federal Charges an Option

“That may turn out to be an easier charge to prove under some circumstances than manslaughter,” depending on what the investigation turns up, Goldman says.

Investigators also could ask federal prosecutors to indict Murray, and possibly other doctors, for improperly transporting the drugs across state lines, says Los Angeles attorney Robert H. McNeill Jr., who has defended doctors in criminal cases. Search warrants in the search this week of a Las Vegas pharmacy where Murray apparently obtained the propofol say authorities were looking for FedEx records relating to “the purchase, transfer, receiving, ordering, delivery and storage of Propofol to Dr. Conrad Murray.”

McNeill adds that, if Murray is charged with manslaughter, prosecutors “will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (Murray) knew everything about what drugs Jackson was taking and his whole medical history.”

He adds, “This will be a battle of medical experts and the most difficult thing to prosecute.”

No Need to Rush

Former Los Angeles prosecutor Robin Sax says she’s not overly concerned by the amount of time that’s passed without charges being filed, or by pervasive reports that Jackson died after taking several drugs.

“There’s an eight-year statute of limitations. The one thing L.A. wants to do is to let the media die down on it,” Sax tells PEOPLE. “They also might want to package things so they can get doctors to roll on other doctors. This is not an exorbitant amount of time by any stretch of the imagination.”

She adds that just because the toxicology results might make it harder to prove manslaughter against Murray doesn’t mean her former colleagues won’t try and won’t win.

“We’d file cases that are hard all the time,” Sax says. “The difference is this is hard in front of the media and in front of the public, so they are taking extra precautions.”