Jackson celebrity turns doctor case into spectacle

Feb 9 2010 - 3:08pm

LOS ANGELES -- There's no bloody glove this time, no smoking gun, no faded music icon showing up in court wearing a wig that made it look like he plugged his finger into an electrical socket.

There's not even a celebrity for that matter -- the person on trial is a doctor no one had heard of eight months ago.

Still, the case of the People vs. Michael Jackson's doctor has already taken on all the trappings of a full-blown Los Angeles celebrity trial, complete with a scrum of paparazzi and news photographers staking out the accused's residence and chasing him everywhere he goes. The mere rumor that he would be arrested or surrender sent an army of news photographers from all over the world rushing to a courthouse.

So it seems certain that Conrad Murray will join the ranks of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector in the pantheon of Los Angeles celebrity defendants, even if he's an obscure Texas cardiologist in a case of medical negligence.

"There are no surprises here. We know how the guy died, we know who allegedly gave it to him. But lacking surprises, it's Michael Jackson. The news shows can play endless loops of Michael Jackson singing. Maybe his children will come into the courtroom, and what a day that would be," says Judy Muller, who shared in an Emmy for ABC's coverage of the ultimate celebrity trial, the one that ended with O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder in 1995.

"I hate to be cynical but I've been here long enough to know how this will play," added Muller. "It's Michael Jackson and it's a celebrity trial, even if it's a dead celebrity, and particularly in Los Angeles it's what we're known for."

Not that a trial involving a dead celebrity, even one as revered as Jackson was, is completely unprecedented. In 1981 a Tennessee jury found Dr. George Nichopoulos not guilty of negligently prescribing drugs to Elvis Presley, whose body contained 14 different stimulants and depressants when he died in 1977.

But, relatively speaking, nobody paid much attention to that.

"That was another age, a much more innocent time," says Los Angeles media consultant Jonathan Taplin. "You didn't have a 24-7 media machine that feeds on celebrity, that feeds on raising up celebrities and then bringing them down."

It also occurred outside of Los Angeles, a media hotbed for sensational celebrity trial coverage since an August night in 1969 when a band of Charles Manson's social misfits broke into Sharon Tate's home and stabbed the actress and her friends to death.

Since then there have been the trials of actor Blake, acquitted of shooting his wife to death after taking her to dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant; of pioneering pop music producer Spector, convicted of fatally shooting actress Lana Clarkson after meeting her at a nightclub; and the grandaddy of them all, Simpson's acquittal of stabbing his ex-wife and her friend to death.

Even Jackson's own trial in nearby Santa Barbara County in 2005, during which he was acquitted of child-molestation charges, rates high on the celebrity scale, with fans marveling as he danced atop his SUV outside the courthouse one day and showed up in his pajamas on another.

Just how the Jackson doctor trial, in which Murray is charged with involuntary manslaughter, will stack up against those depends on some intangibles.

If the judge who hears the case decides to let TV cameras into the courtroom, for example, that will likely ratchet up interest quite a bit.

"We have a somewhat interesting example of that in the Phil Spector case," said former federal prosecutor Jean Rosenbluth.

Spector was tried twice for murder, his first trial ending with a hung jury.

With cameras allowed into the courtroom, people tuned in to watch as Spector arrived each day in his funny wigs and 1960s-style mod clothes. But when cameras were banned from the second trial interest waned until the verdict came in.

"Michael Jackson is Phil Spector times 2 million," laughed Rosenbluth, adding the King of Pop's influence was so great and his death at age 50 so devastating to his worldwide fan base that interest could be huge.

There are already more than a dozen Jackson Facebook fan groups, in several languages, with titles like "I Hate Conrad Murray" and "Arrest Conrad Murray." On Twitter, the Murray tweets from news organizations and private citizens alike pour forth by the minute.

As big as Jackson was, though, it seems doubtful his doctor's case can overshadow Simpson's murder trial.

For one thing, notes critical studies professor Todd Boyd, who has written extensively on pop culture and race relations, there's no divisive racial issue this time, as there was when Simpson's lawyers argued he was framed by a racist police officer who planted a bloody glove at his house.

For another, a lot of people thought going into that trial Simpson was guilty. He had had numerous domestic disputes with his ex-wife before she and her friend were violently ambushed outside her home.

Murray on the other hand is accused of accidentally killing Jackson by administering a powerful sedative, which Boyd said likely lessens some of the emotion.

"It's not as though some person came to take Michael Jackson's life," he said. "This is a case where a doctor is simply being charged with malpractice and by extension manslaughter."

 

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