Ladies and gentlemen, it has begun.
And if you thought the criminal trial of Conrad Murray was dramatic, wait until you see this one. Because various aspects of Michael Jackson’s former life, his drug dependencies and doctor shopping, and what exactly the people around him knew, all topics deemed off-limits in the criminal courts, are likely to be delved into here as the Jackson family attempt to convince a jury that live music giant AEG is liable for the 2009 death of the late king of pop.
AEG Live, the Jacksons’ lawyers will say, is run by ruthless businessmen who in 2009 ignored Michael Jackson’s obvious health problems so to push ahead with and cash-in to the max on the ‘This Is It’ touring venture, putting unreasonable pressure on the doctor caring for the star to do whatever it took to ensure the talent could perform, a doctor hired by the live giant without it even undertaking basic checks regards his credentials.
But Michael Jackson, AEG will counter, was a flawed human being with some dark secrets, whose drug dependencies were only fully known by the few, his regular doctor shopping meaning even those who provided him with prescription medication didn’t really know the level at which he consumed them. On the brink financially, Jackson may well have over-committed with the This Is it project, in desperate need of the monies it could generate, but so good was he at hiding his flagging health AEG could not have known this. They could only take guidance from Murray, the medic Jackson himself chose, hired and managed.
And so we have the basic arguments of the two sides; both of whom seem willing to be brutal in court as they fight their respective cases. For the jury the main question is this: did AEG hire and manage Dr Conrad Murray, the doctor the criminal courts convicted for causing Michael Jackson’s death through negligent treatment? The company ultimately paid his bills, but who controlled the negligent doc – the ‘This Is It’ promoter or Jackson himself?
Yesterday, as the jury who will hear the case took their seats for the first time, legal reps for both parties delivered their opening remarks. And doing their bit to ensure this case will be full of melodrama – even if the TV cameras have been kept outside – the Jackson family’s reps began by playing a song Jackson wrote about his three children with the title ‘You Are My Life’ and, according to CNN, the lines, “You are the sun, you make me shine more like the stars that twinkle at night, you are the moon that glows in my heart”. AEG’s actions didn’t just deprive the world of a great popstar, Team Jackson wanted the court room to know, they deprived three children of their father.
Jackson rep Brian Panish then quickly got about the business of portraying AEG bosses as the sinister characters of the piece, driven by profits at all costs. “There will be no question in your mind that they were ruthless”, Panish told the jury. “And they wanted to be number one at all cost”.
Team Jackson then pulled out what they consider to be the smoking gun of the case, the email from AEG Live exec Paul Gongaware to ‘This Is It’ show director Kenny Ortega written eleven days before Jackson’s death, in which he writes: “We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him”.
Gongaware says he doesn’t remember writing the email, but to Jackson’s legal team those two sentences prove that AEG did control Murray, despite claims it did not, and more than that, the company put pressure on him to do whatever was necessary to enable Jackson to perform. Panish: “They put Dr Murray in a position where if he said Michael can’t go or can’t play, if he said I can’t give you those drugs, then he doesn’t get paid”.
Gongaware was also key to the Jackson team’s pre-emptive strike regarding AEG’s claims of ignorance of the singer’s health problems. The AEG man had worked with Jackson before, Panish said, and knew the singer was already reliant on addictive opiates while touring in the 1990s. He’d been warned by a doctor about the risks of Jackson’s dependencies as early as 1993, Panish added, so why did he not think to investigate what the situation was in 2009?
But “the truth is Mr Jackson fooled everyone”, said Marvin Putnam, opening for AEG. “He kept those who might have helped him at a distance and no one knew his deepest, darkest secret”, ie his dangerous dependency on prescription drugs. Even Jackson family members didn’t know of the scale of their most famous sibling’s drug consumption, Putnam added, and “if they didn’t know what was going on, how could someone else think there was even a problem?” AEG had no idea, he insisted.
Jackson himself made the decisions that led to his premature demise, Putnam went on. “This case is about personal choices. People have responsibility for their personal choices. It was not a tragedy of AEG Live’s making”. AEG did not manage Murray in any way, he continued, wheeling out his side’s key quote, from one of the medic’s early police interviews, in which he clarifies: “I am an employee for Michael Jackson but paid through AEG”. The doctor himself confirmed, Putnam said, AEG’s argument that it did not control the medic’s treatment of the star.
Moving forward, it will be necessary to reveal in detail in court Jackson’s drug dependencies Putnam continued, possibly for the benefit of the Jacksons in the courtroom, who might regret – the implication seemed to be – pursuing this case, given the damage it is likely to do to their late son, father and brother’s reputation. And that will mean considering the impact the unsuccessful child abuse allegations made against the star had on those drug dependencies, and investigating the 40 doctors and nurses Team AEG say the singer had sought drugs from to satisfy his appetite.
So, expect plenty of juicy revelations as we go.
In addition to laying out the basic opening arguments, some time was spent on day one of the trial considering what evidence can be presented regarding any damages claim the Jacksons might make if successful in the court battle. The Jackson family’s legal reps denied those widely reported claims that their clients would push for damages of $40 billion, though admitted any claim would run into billions.
The testimony of accountant Arthur Erk will be used to back up any damages claim, though AEG has already said his assumptions about the live activity and new business ventures Jackson may have successfully pursued had he lived are wildly unrealistic, ignoring the impact Jackson’s health would have had on his ability to tour worldwide, and the fact the singer’s reputation remained tarnished up to his death. And also, presumably, the fact Jackson burned through cash himself, and may have spent much of his ‘This Is It’ earnings very fast indeed.
And so the case continues. Despite an all-star witness list being promised, today will begin with the more serious business of questioning the LAPD detective who led the investigation into Jackson’s demise, Orlando Martinez.