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Friday 15 December 2017

Jackson's final show is coming to an end

The trial of Dr Conrad Murray over Michael Jackson's death has been a surreal pageant, writes Julia Molony

CENTRE STAGE: Dr Conrad Murray, on trial for the manslaughter of Michael Jackson,
listens during the closing arguments. His fate is now in the hands of the jury
CENTRE STAGE: Dr Conrad Murray, on trial for the manslaughter of Michael Jackson, listens during the closing arguments. His fate is now in the hands of the jury
Michael Jackson

Even by American standards of courtroom theatrics and melodrama, the trial of Michael Jackson's personal physician Dr Conrad Murray has been a once-in-a-generation show.

In the months running up to his death, Michael Jackson had been preparing his big comeback. With a sell-out tour in London's O2 Arena planned, he was making a bid to restore himself as the world's greatest entertainer. It's rather poignant then, that the great spectacle he had planned gave way tragically to one even bigger, even more gripping -- the trial that sought to determine who is responsible for his death.

In a slightly surreal twist, everyone present at the courtroom in Los Angeles seemed to have a heightened awareness of the roles they played for posterity in this saga. From the protesters outside the courtroom, bitterly pitched against each other, wearing custom-made T-shirts and placards which rename Dr Murray as Dr Murder, to the Jackson family, arriving daily with their dark suits and dark glasses, heads bowed against the glare of the paparazzi.

There's something so stagey about the way all of this looks. It would almost seem like pastiche, were it not for the clear and brutal fact that Jackson is dead. Had he been alive today, he would still only be 52.

In life, Jackson's greatest tragedy was that his identity as an entertainer eclipsed his existence as a human being. In death, alas, plus ca change.

Throughout the duration of the trial, Dr Murray, the man charged with Jackson's homicide, was cast as the stock villain. Having pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter, he's spent the past few weeks gazing from the dock with a look of stricken dismay, occasionally punctuated by tears, frantically hoping his script included a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Outside the courtroom, we know him only by his occasional trips out to stock up on new shirts, spend time with his family or to get a quick pedicure. All of these things, naturally, have been carefully documented by the paparazzi.

The judge in the case had carefully ordered that details of Dr Murray's private life be left out of the trial. Yet still, the jurors have plenty of information from which to construct a profile.

Before his fateful involvement with Jackson, Dr Murray was a successful cardiologist with several practices across America. Grenadian born, he had built up rather dazzling professional success.

He first came into contact with Jackson in 2006 after treating the star for a "family flu illness". At the beginning of his involvement with the Jacksons there had been rather protracted wrangling over his fee. Dr Murray initially quoted his price as $5m (€3.6m) per year -- which, he said, was calculated on the basis that he'd have to close his practices and lay off staff in order to fulfil the demanding role of full-time physician to Jackson.

But Jackson was heavily in debt. The restoration of his fortunes depended on the success of his upcoming tour. Beset by health troubles, in order to survive the tour, he needed a very special physician. Dr Murray eventually obliged, changing his mind about the fee when an offer of $150,000 a month was put on the table. The offer, Dr Murray was told, came directly from "the artist".

Having relented, Dr Murray wrote to his staff, informing them that he was resigning in his role as head of his four practices, to pursue "the opportunity of a lifetime".

"It was Conrad Murray's gross negligence, it was Conrad Murray's unskilled hands and his desire to obtain this lucrative contract of $150,000 (€108,770) a month that led Dr Murray to not only abandon his patient, but to abandon all principles of medical care," claimed the prosecution at the start of the trial, suggesting that greed got the better of proper professional conduct.

Clearly, for Dr Murray, the kudos as well as the money was part of the appeal of the job. But for Jackson, the terms of the relationship were nothing less than life or death.

It's almost impossible to overstate how critical it was for him to secure the right medical care to see him through his comeback.

Choreographer Kenny Ortega, who had been helping Jackson prepare for his This Is It tour, gave a grim assessment of Jackson's mental and physical health about a week before he died. "It's important for everyone to know he really wants this," he wrote. "It would shatter him, break his heart, if we pulled the plug. He's terribly frightened it's all going to go away."

Regardless of the manner of his death, the paraphernalia that surrounded Jackson spoke volumes about his quality of life. In his bedroom, a blood pressure monitor and oxygen tank were permanent fixtures, along with other assorted medical paraphernalia. He was a chronic insomniac and heavily dependent on many drugs.

It emerged during the trial that the singer referred to propofol -- a heavy sedative usually only used during general anaesthetic -- as his nighttime "milk". Jackson desperately wanted to reinvent the world around him, to see it with the benign, unthreatening view of a child. But even this aching desire for return to innocence carried him down the darkest of paths.

The chasm between Jackson's expectations from the tour and the reality of his physical and mental state were cruelly underscored by a recording played by the prosecution during the trial.

In a message left on Dr Murray's voicemail, a rambling Jackson can be heard.

"We have to be phenomenal," he said. "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 . . . It's amazing. He's the greatest entertainer in the world.' I'm taking the money, a million children, children's hospital, the biggest in the world, Michael Jackson's Children's Hospital," he said, before becoming incoherent.

Jackson suffered a crippling dependence on prescription drugs. He had never been a sex, drugs, and rock and roll kind of superstar. He wasn't looking to lose himself in excess, only to seek brief and blessed chemical reprieve from harsh realities.

Jackson's unravelling by prescription started as far back as 1984, when during a commercial shoot for Pepsi, his hair caught fire causing him to suffer severe scalp burns. By his own report, this was the incident that precipitated his dependency on painkillers. By the Nineties, Jackson's normal daily functioning involved massive amounts of medication to control the lupus and vitiligo he suffered from, to help him sleep and to manage his mood.

A chronic insomniac, he had long been on the hunt for bigger solutions to his problem. According to Dr Murray, by the time he came into the singer's care, he was already habitually using propofol in order to get to sleep. Dr Cooper, an emergency room physician and key witness in the trial declared that she had never heard of propofol being used outside of a surgery ward. Dr Murray, too, expressed his concerns about Jackson's use of the drug, and claims to have been implementing a strategy to try to wean Jackson off it.

One of the key problems with propofol is that it has a steep dose response curve -- making it hugely risky in terms of developing a dependency. The amount of propofol found in Jackson's body after his death was 100mgs -- consistent with major surgery,

During the trial the dispute between the prosecution and the defence hangs on the way in which this was administered, and what happened after it did. Representation for Dr Murray claims that Jackson brought about his own death by self-administering a lethal dose while Dr Murray was out of the room.

In an interview with the police two days after Jackson's death, Dr Murray said that after giving the singer a small dose of propofol he went to the bathroom for 15 minutes. He had relented, he said, providing the drug after Jackson repeatedly begged him for it. "'I did not want him to fail. I had no intentions of hurting him," he told the police.

One thing that is clear is that the pressures on Dr Murray must have been considerable. He was the man charged with holding together the world's biggest superstar, who, having had his reputation destroyed, was now on the eve of a comeback that could turn his life around. Certainly, the challenges of maintaining his health and equilibrium in such a way to make that goal possible were intense. Without sleep, Jackson could not rehearse or perform. Without his "milk", Jackson insisted, he could not sleep. Disturbing details of the state of his health have been exposed through Dr Murray's testimony. The singer hardly ate or drank, according to his doctor, and took hours to urinate. His eyesight was so poor that he was probably "legally blind".

Dr Murray had other pressures to worry about too. Phone records on the day of Jackson's death reveal a complicated personal life. Dr Murray is the father of six children with four different mothers. Though married at the time of Jackson's death, he was also juggling a live-in girlfriend and a mistress. An attractive cocktail waitress, and a former stripper-turned-actress amongst them, they provided a photogenic line-up and added in no small way to the razzamatazz of this trial.

The doctor's mistress, a striking-looking brunette called Sade Anding told the rapt jury that on the morning that Jackson died, she had been chatting on the phone to Dr Murray when, at 11.56am, he suddenly stopped answering her questions. She could hear muffled sounds and then hung up the phone. This, the prosecution claim, most likely marks the moment that Dr Murray found Jackson unconscious. However, he did not call 911 until 12.20pm, after a security guard came into the room and found him administering CPR. When paramedics arrived, Dr Murray did not mention his use of propofol. In fact, it was only two days later, in his interview with police, that he mentioned the drug.

Crucially for the prosecution, in the hour before Jackson's death, Dr Murray spent 46 minutes on various phone calls. This, they claim, provides further evidence of his negligence.

As he approached the hospital in the ambulance, Dr Murray made a further call to his live-in girlfriend Nicole Alvarez, who is mother to his two-year-old son. "I remember him telling me that he was on the way to the hospital with Mr Jackson and for me not to be alarmed. He didn't want me to be worried because he knew I would hear through the news and I would be upset," she told the court.

Dr Murray is a little fish in a big, dirty pond, his defence team insist, scapegoated because of a desire to finger someone for the star's death. "If it were anybody else but Michael Jackson, would this doctor be here today," his attorney asked the jury.

Whether Dr Murray is guilty or innocent, what his trial has made patently clear to the world is that if Jackson did, indeed, die of negligence and neglect, that neglect started long before June 2009. Despite the stalwart presence of the Jackson family in the public eye after his death, in life, the King of Pop was defined by his profound and intractable isolation.

The jury started their deliberations in Los Angeles on Friday and will resume tomorrow.

Sunday Independent

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