Michael Jackson’s doctor goes on trial

After an 11th-hour court battle over whether jurors will or won’t be sequestered (they won’t be), jury selection begins on Thursday in the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician, who’s charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the singer’s death.  Prosecutors will probably be looking for jurors who admired Jackson and who are suspicious of doctors (demographically/statistically speaking, suspicion of doctors seems to be more prevalent among racial minority groups than among Caucasians, however, 1) it’s illegal to use race as a factor in jury selection, and 2) the fact that Murray himself is a member of a racial minority group might counterbalance statistics in this case).  Defense attorneys will probably be looking for jurors who had negative impressions of Jackson (past allegations against Jackson involving children have been barred from this case though) and who are suspicious of substance abusers (I’ll explain the latter in a moment).  Interestingly, defense attorneys might also try to get jurors with diverse enough attitudes about things (not even necessarily about this case) that they’ll be more likely to argue than to agree with one another (another HLN guest put it well on Wednesday when he quoted a famous defense attorney who once reportedly said, “If I can get six KKK members and six Black Panthers on my jury, I can get anybody acquitted of anything”).  As we saw in the Casey Anthony case earlier this year, both sides will need to be on guard against potential jurors with agendas, people who want to be on the jury for their own personal reasons (e.g. so that they can avenge Jackson’s death, get themselves on TV, etc.).

The prosecution’s theory is that this was a case of what I’ve dubbed “Hollywood Healthcare” (I talk about it some in the “Dr. Brian Russell 2010” video on my web site, http://www.drbrianrussell.com, in the context of both the Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith cases) in which a doctor gave a celebrity what the celebrity wanted even though it wasn’t in the celebrity’s best interests, this time with deadly results.  Specifically, Murray is accused of using the powerful surgical sedative propofol (a.k.a. Diprivan) to treat Jackson’s insomnia which, unintentionally but foreseeably (i.e. recklessly), caused Jackson’s heart rate to slow to a stop under heavy sedation while Murray was away from the singer’s bedside.  When Murray returned to the scene and realized that Jackson wasn’t breathing, he reportedly tried to resuscitate the singer and called for an ambulance, but there are factual questions about how much time elapsed between events, both between the cardiac arrest and Murray’s initiation of CPR and between the initiation of CPR and the call for the ambulance (i.e. it’s questionable whether Murray called 911 immediately upon finding Jackson unresponsive or whether he hesitated, realizing how bad it would look to police and paramedics).  Murray’s defense is expected to be that Jackson either was addicted to the propofol, was suicidal, or both and that Jackson overdosed himself, intentionally or unintentionally, while Murray was out of the room, but even if true, I’m not so sure how much difference that really would make.

I spend a significant part of my professional time assessing physicians (sometimes other licensed professionals but mostly physicians) from around the country who have behaved unethically, criminally, or both, making recommendations to their state licensing boards regarding their fitness to practice and appropriate sanctions for their behavior, and I think it was both unethical and reckless to have propofol in Jackson’s home under any circumstances that I can envision.  As licensed health care professionals, we have a duty to say no to our patients when it’s in their best interests, and if one of us doesn’t do so, then he or she has to be held accountable for the consequences of his or her weakness, potentially up to and including a patient’s death.  If you’re interested, I was interviewed about these issues for a 2010 CNN piece entitled “Is Your Doctor a Criminal?” which can be found here:  http://articles.cnn.com/2010-02-11/health/michael.jackson.doctor.manslaughter_1_state-medical-boards-manslaughter-doctors?_s=PM:HEALTH.)  This should be another fascinating trial (and the last major trial involving Michael Jackson), so check in here for periodic updates!

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