Jurors in the involuntary manslaughter case against Michael Jackson’s personal physician were presented with two portraits of the pop superstar during the first day of testimony — one of an entertainer motivated to succeed at his first concerts in nearly a dozen years and the other of a man too damaged at times to perform.
The panel that will determine Dr. Conrad Murray’s fate also got a sense of Jackson’s international stardom after one of the promoters testified that after the singer’s 50 comeback shows planned for London sold out, there was still demand for 50 more.
Jackson would never return to the stage, dying unexpectedly in June 2009 at age 50. Prosecutors drove the point home early in opening statements Tuesday, showing jurors a picture of a lifeless Jackson laying on a hospital gurney.
Hours later they played four minutes of Jackson’s final rehearsals of two songs. His mother, Katherine, dabbed her eyes with a tissue as video of her son singing “Earth Song” filled the courtroom.
Jackson’s persona was present throughout the trial’s opening day, although prosecutors are now moving their case toward the events that led to his death and their immediate aftermath. Testimony from Paul Gongaware, an executive with concert promoter AEG Live will continue Wednesday morning, and he will be followed by one of Jackson’s bodyguards and a personal assistant.
Days before Jackson’s “Earth Song” performance during a rehearsal at Staples Center, the superstar’s health prompted friend and collaborator Kenny Ortega to question whether the singer needed serious help. He had just spent hours cradling the singer, trying to warm him from deep shivers that kept him from rehearsing.
“He was like a lost boy,” Ortega wrote in an email to promoters five days before Jackson’s death. “There may still be a chance he can rise to the occasion if we get him the help he needs.”
The email drew a rebuke from Murray, who Ortega said told him not to try to play amateur doctor or psychologist. Five days later, the singer was dead.
Prosecutors allege Murray caused Jackson’s death by providing him with a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol and other sedatives without the proper lifesaving equipment or skills. In opening statements, Deputy District Attorney David Walgren said Murray delayed summoning emergency crews and lied to doctors and medics when he failed to reveal that he had been giving Jackson the medications to try to help the entertainer sleep.
One of the day’s most stunning moments came when Walgren played a recording of a conversation between Jackson and Murray in which the singer detailed what he wanted out of the shows. Jackson’s voice, though recognizable, was slow and slurred.
“We have to be phenomenal,” Jackson is heard saying in the recording, which investigators gleaned from Murray’s phone after the singer’s death. “When people leave this show, when people leave my show, I want them to say, ‘I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life. Go. Go. I’ve never seen nothing like this. Go. It’s amazing. He’s the greatest entertainer in the world.'”
Murray’s lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff also noted Jackson’s desire for success, but that the singer’s ambition ultimately prompted him to give himself a fatal dose of medication.
He said Murray had been trying to wean Jackson off propofol, but that the entertainer kept requesting it on the day he died to help him sleep.
“Michael Jackson started begging,” Chernoff said. “When Michael Jackson told Dr. Murray, ‘I have to sleep. They will cancel my performance,’ he meant it.”
He told jurors that Jackson swallowed enough of the sedative lorazepam to put six people to sleep before ingesting propofol. The combination, which Chernoff called a “perfect storm” of medications, killed Jackson so quickly that he didn’t even have chance to close his eyes.
Prosecutors reject Murray’s version and told jurors the Houston-based cardiologist also had a tremendous stake in Jackson appearing in the concerts.
The doctor had initially asked to be paid $5 million a year for working with Jackson, but Gongaware said he immediately rejected the proposal. Instead Murray accepted an offer to become Jackson’s doctor for $150,000 a month — a sum he was never paid because his contract hadn’t been signed before Jackson’s death.
Murray still has plenty to lose — if convicted he faces up to four years in prison and will have to relinquish his medical license.