On September 27, 2011, prosecutors began their opening statements in the criminal trial against Dr. Conrad Murray for the death of Michael Jackson. Dr. Murray is charged with involuntary manslaughter. With this charge, prosecutors are not claiming Dr. Murray intentionally killed Jackson. Instead, prosecutors must essentially prove Dr. Murray unintentionalyl killed Jackson through illegal or reckless behavior. Specifically, the behavior at issue is the surgical drug, propofol, which Dr. Murray administered to Jackson to help him sleep. As a Chicago medical malpractice lawyer, I only handle civil (rather than criminal) cases against doctors and hospitals. Nonetheless, I am fascinated to see how this case will be prosecuted and defended.
In their opening statement, prosecutors previewed the evidence for why the jury should find Dr. Murray responsible for Jackson's death. They claim Dr. Murray abandoned "all principles of medical care" when he used the drug propofol, a surgical anesthetic, to put Jackson to sleep each night for months. They also went into detail about the grave dangers surrounding the drug propofol and its intended purposes--which does not include giving it to help someone to sleep.
According to University of Iowa Cardiologist, Dr. Brian Olshansky, propofol is a "very dangerous drug." The drug is used to place patients in sedation in a regulated environment with respiratory equipment at hand; it is not used for sleep. Propofol "rapidly induces unconsciousness and apnea" and that "people stop breathing within seconds of being given the drug," notes Dr. Olshansky. Indeed, propofol is so potent that, among anesthesiologists, the white liquid drug is nicknamed "milk of amnesia." In addition to being highly dangerous, propofol is also highly addictive.
As a medical malpractice lawyer, I am unaware of any qualified physician who would ever use propofol to help a patient fall asleep. It appears Dr. Murray only agreed to provide Jackson propofal after Jackson agreed to pay him $150,000 a month. According to the coroner, Jackson's death was caused by "acute propofol intoxication" in combination with sedatives. In short, the prosecution's theory is that Dr. Murray recklessly gave Jackson propofol out of personal greed, despite knowing the potentially fatal consequences, and that this ultimately led to Jackson's death.
The defense opening statement attempted to shift the focus entirely. The defense claims Jackson was so desperate for sleep, he took sedatives and drank additional propofol while Dr. Murray was not looking, creating a "perfect storm that killed him instantly." The defense also contends Dr. Murray was actually trying to wean Jackson off propofol. Thus, Dr. Murray's defense strategy appears twofold. First, deflect attention from Dr. Murray's own (inexcusable) behavior. Second, blame Jackson as the cause of his own death.
Whether Dr. Murray will be found guilty remains to be seen. No doubt, the coming days and weeks will be filled with riveting testimony. Although there is no way to know how the jury will view the evidence, a guilty verdict would not be shocking. First, there is no sound, medical justification for giving Jackson propofol to help him sleep. This was done solely out of greed--which should not sit well with the jury. Second, the only reason Jackson had propofol in his system is because Dr. Murray brought it to Jackson. But for Dr. Murray's reckless decision to bring propofol into Jackson's home, which he knew was highly dangerous and addictive, Jackson would have never died from "acute propofol intoxication." However, it must be noted that unlike a civil case, the jury must find Dr. Murray guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (rather than preponderance of the evidence). Thus, Dr. Murray's lawyers will do everything they can to sow doubt in the minds of the jury--even if it is just one juror.
CNN Website, Jury To Hear About Chaotic Day Michael Jackson Died, September 28, 2011.
ABC News Website, Michael Jackson's Death: What Is Propofol, September 27, 2011.