Defense begins in Michael Jackson doctor trial

Dr. Conrad Murray Trial

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Defendant Dr. Conrad Murray looks to his defense attorney J. Michael Flanagan during his involuntary manslaughter trial at the Los Angeles Superior Court on September 29, 2011 in downtown Los Angeles, California. Murray is charged in the death of singer Michael Jackson who died of an overdose of prescription drugs, including propofol and lorazepam, in June of 2009.

Defense attorneys for the doctor charged in Michael Jackson's death will now have the opportunity to counter four weeks of testimony from damaging prosecution witnesses. The defense is expected to begin calling witnesses Monday after they finish grilling a key prosecution expert.

Testimony from 33 prosecution witnesses have cast Dr. Conrad Murray as an inept, distracted and opportunistic doctor who repeatedly broke legal, ethical and professional guidelines.

Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, said on the Madeleine Brand Show Monday that the defense's biggest hurdle would be dealing with the physical evidence of the case. Jackson's autopsy report indicated that the singer died from an overdose of propofol, and the prosecution argues this could have been avoided if Murray did his job as an attentive physician.

One of the most compelling displays of Murray's neglect, Levenson said, is when the prosecution set up an IV in the courtroom and showed the constant drip of liquid from the bag. The prosecution argued that Murray was out of the room, on the phone or in the bathroom, leaving Jackson unattended, Levenson said.

The prosecution said that Murray was paid $150,000 a month to monitor Jackson, and should have been constantly on the scene, Levenson said.

The defense case is expected to include 15 witnesses, although Murray's attorneys have not publicly revealed whether they will call the Houston-based cardiologist to testify on his own behalf. Jurors have heard from the doctor through a more than two-hour interview with police, and it seems unlikely that Murray's attorneys would subject their client to what would be blistering questioning from prosecutors.

Monday will begin with lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff questioning Dr. Steven Shafer, the prosecution's final witness and an expert in the anesthetic propofol, which Murray had been giving Jackson as a sleep aid. Chernoff's questioning on Friday challenged Shafer's conclusions and comments he had made about colleague Dr. Paul White, who will testify for the defense team.

So far, Shafer has not retreated from his position that Murray is solely responsible for Jackson's death and that the cardiologist committed 17 egregious violations of medical practices that each could have either led to Jackson's serious injury or death.

After Shafer is done testifying, Murray's attorneys will likely ask a judge to dismiss the involuntary manslaughter case against the cardiologist. Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor will rule on the oral motion immediately and if he rejects it, the defense case will begin.

Defense attorneys have said they will call police detectives who prosecutors did not call, several character witnesses, White and possibly other experts. Levenson said she also expects to hear from Murray's former patients, who can testify to Murray's quality as a doctor and say it's not within his character to just let a man die.

They expect their case will last through Thursday.

Murray has pleaded not guilty, and faces up to four years behind bars and the loss of his medical license if convicted. Realistically though, Levenson said, Murray would serve a maximum of 1-2 years because of new realignment efforts in the prison system as a whole.

The defense will have its work cut out for them to try to sway jurors to acquit Murray.

"He will have to change the landscape here and show some reasonable doubt, said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor and trial attorney who has been following the case closely. "The question is will this be enough."

McRae said calling Shafer as the prosecution's final witness was a master stroke.

"Brick by evidentiary brick, Shafer has built a wall of scientific reasons for the jury to conclude that Dr. Murray was criminally negligent," he said. "It allows the prosecution to tell the jury that their case is built on science rather than shifting theories."

Out of sight of the jury, the defense's theory has shifted in recent months from arguing that Jackson swallowed propofol and gave himself the fatal dose and more recently that the singer had swallowed several pills of the sedative lorazepam, which led to his death.

They may also argue that Jackson somehow gave himself a shot of propofol after Murray left the room, killing him quickly.

Prosecutors have sought to discredit all those theories through Shafer, who himself drank propofol before the trial in an attempt to confirm that it wouldn't induce sedation or other ill effects. He called the amount of lorazepam in Jackson's stomach "trivial" and last week said the only possible explanation for Jackson's death based on the evidence was that Murray put the singer on IV drip of propofol and left the room after the singer appeared to be asleep.

This week, it will be the defense's turn to either offer alternate theories or somehow pick apart the prosecution's case.

This story includes contributions by KPCC's Hayley Fox.

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