Conrad Murray, who'll plead not guilty, faces up to four years in prison if convicted

By Howard Breuer
February 08, 2010 02:40 PM
Credit: Houston Chronicle/AP

Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was charged Monday with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly giving Jackson lethal levels of an anesthetic while treating the pop singer at his bedside for insomnia.

He later surrendered to court, where he entered a not guilty plea through his attorney. Murray, 57, has denied any wrongdoing.

The charge filed by the Los Angeles District Attorney alleges Murray did unlawfully, and without malice, kill Michael Joseph Jackson.” The county coroner says Jackson was given an overdose of the hospital-strength anesthetic propofol last June.

Although prosecutors have repeatedly declined to discuss the matter, the investigation was law enforcement’s worst-kept secret. Police and DEA agents in California, Nevada and Texas searched Murray’s and Jackson’s homes, Murray’s clinics, his storage unit and even the pharmacy where Murray may have obtained the drug.

An Addiction to Propofol?

  • In court documents, police claimed Murray told them that Jackson referred to propofol as his “milk” and that he was giving Jackson 50 mg of the drug “every night via intravenous drip (IV) to assist Jackson in sleeping.” He also claimed, according to the documents, that he suspected Jackson had formed an addiction and tried to “wean Jackson off the drug.” The documents suggested Murray had been deceptive about the extent to which he administered propofol, and that he was the subject of a homicide investigation.
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  • But prosecuting doctors for a patient’s death is difficult, according to legal insiders. The prosecutor will have to show that Murray not only was negligent – an offense that would, on its own, merit administrative action by a state medical board and possibly lead to the doctor losing his license – but that he went too far outside the standard of care and acted with extreme negligence.

“They have to show that a reasonable doctor would not have taken the risk and [Murray] should have known he shouldn’t have taken the risk,” says Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, who expects that Murray’s attorneys will argue that accidents and terrible tragedies happen, that Murray did care about Jackson’s well-being, and that Murray was only giving Jackson something other doctors administered as well without problems.

Died on the Doctor’s Watch

Levenson suggests that Murray’s biggest error was “that legendary pop star Michael Jackson died on his watch. A case under other circumstances might have fallen under the radar screen and wound up in civil court.”

  • That said, potential penalties range from probation to four years, which isn’t nearly as stiff as if the prosecutors had gone for second-degree murder, a charge that’s seldom brought against doctors and much less frequently proven to a jury’s satisfaction.
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  • Even if Murray is acquitted, the family can sue Murray for millions.

“This is absolutely a slam-dunk malpractice case simply because of the alleged use of propofol,” says Bill Newkirk, an L.A.-based attorney specializing in medical malpractice. “If the drug was indeed in his system, no competent doctor could justify why it was used. You can bet the Jackson family will be filing a civil claim soon against any doctors implicated in Jackson’s medical care.”