Jury selection begins for Michael Jackson's doctor

Mar 24 2011 - 10:08pm

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Dr. Conrad Murray faces charges and the loss of his medical license in several states after the death of popstar Michael Jackson in June 2009.
Dr. Conrad Murray faces charges and the loss of his medical license in several states after the death of popstar Michael Jackson in June 2009.

LOS ANGELES -- The judge's first question to the 159 prospective jurors in a Los Angeles courthouse was simple: How many of you have not heard about the case of the doctor accused in Michael Jackson's death?

There was silence, then two hands rose.

As jury selection began Thursday in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, another, more complicated question became apparent: How will the judge shield jurors from the media circus that awaits, and help them do their duty?

"Real live cases are not scripted episodes of TV shows," cautioned Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor.

The 6-foot-5 Murray stood and greeted the panelists with a soft, "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," as he was introduced along with lawyers and prosecutors gathered in a jury assembly room.

Pastor mentioned the pop superstar once in his speech: "The alleged victim being Michael Jackson."

He warned the prospective jurors not to read blogs or the Internet and not to tweet. He refused to allow cameras in court during jury selection, though he will during testimony.

The selection process was so tightly guarded that prospects were not allowed to leave the jury room until they finished 29-page questionnaires that determine their eligibility, suitability and ability to serve.

Concerned that outsiders might try to reach the panelists, Pastor had his staff post signs in all elevators and courthouse hallways warning of the penalty for contacting jurors.

For the first time ever, the court catered lunch for the huge jury pool. The meal, the judge said, would not be "one of the great culinary experiences of your life," but would enable them to stay in one place.

Jackson's larger-than-life celebrity inevitably lingered during the process.

The usual group of dedicated fans lined up for a lottery giving out six public seats in the courtroom. They have vowed to be present at all proceedings and have been vocal outside court about blaming Murray for their idol's death.

Jackson's family did not attend the opening session, which was little more than a formality designed to screen prospective jurors for possible hardships that would prevent them from serving on a two-month trial.

By day's end, 100 of the prospective jurors were excused from serving in the case, but had been assigned to other trials.

Those who said they could serve were given forms with 125 questions to fill out. Typical juries for long trials include public employees, private employees who are paid for jury duty and retirees who don't have job pressures.

The form likely covers their knowledge of the case, their tastes in music, their relationships with their own doctors, their knowledge of prescription drugs and whether they have predetermined views about Murray's guilt or innocence.

The judge agreed to release the blank forms after they are filled out.

The case is expected to last up to two months once opening statements begin May 9.

Murray, who also operates a clinic in Las Vegas, has his career on the line. The judge has already suspended Murray's license to practice medicine in California, and medical boards in Texas and Nevada could follow suit if he is convicted.

It is one reason his lawyers said he wanted a speedy trial.

In a six-day preliminary hearing this year, a portrait emerged of a doctor trying to help his famous client overcome debilitating insomnia with propofol, an anesthetic not intended for home use.

Jackson had used it before and demanded it, calling it his "milk."

A coroner testified that Jackson, 50, died of a propofol overdose in combination with other drugs on June 25, 2009. His death was classified as a homicide.

Testimony at the trial will include some elements similar to those in the preliminary hearing.

Murray's behavior before and after Jackson stopped breathing was detailed by household staff and paramedics. It was backed up with phone records, e-mails and, most importantly, a transcript of Murray's nearly three-hour interview with police.

Murray said he gave Jackson a low dose of propofol after spending 10 hours trying to get him to sleep using other drugs. When the star appeared to doze off, Murray said, he left the room for two minutes to go to the bathroom.

When he returned, he found Jackson not breathing. He delayed calling 911 for 25 minutes to an hour while he tried to revive him, testimony showed.

The defense team suggested in questioning witnesses that Jackson may have inadvertently killed himself, taking an extra dose of propofol when Murray left his bedroom for a few minutes.

They have also recently sought medical records they say will show Jackson was addicted to the sedative Demerol. They are expected to claim this was a contributing factor to his demise.

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