"I chew through one of these an hour," Chernoff said one afternoon last spring, holding up an unlit cigar he had gnawed to a ragged nub. Piled before him were stacks of legal motions, witness statements and forensic reports, a small portion of the case file that monopolizes his days and haunts his dreams.
In an age of legal stars who practice cable punditry between celebrity cases, Chernoff is an interloper, a no-profile Houstonian who professes to hate the spotlight and bristles when asked to list his previous big cases: "I've had lesbian knife fights that meant a lot to me, OK?"
Jury selection for Murray's trial began Thursday. Chernoff's role as lead defense attorney in the televised courtroom drama is one he got by chance, kept through a combination of duty and ego and acknowledges should have gone to a lawyer with name recognition.
"I was going to try to get him good, high-profile, highfalutin counsel somewhere out here in Los Angeles. It just never worked out," he said.
Instead, Chernoff has thrown himself into the defense of Murray, a man he says he now counts as a close friend, setting up a temporary office in Glendale, bunking in the San Marino home of another defense attorney and, in what colleagues describe as typical over-preparation, studying for and passing the notoriously difficult California bar exam.
His handling of the case has not always gone smoothly. Chernoff was forced to fire the defense's publicist after discovering she had leaked information related to a confidential jury questionnaire to TMZ.com. And his strategy of blaming Jackson for his own death seemed in doubt last week when a judge barred testimony about the singer's past drug use, a development Chernoff said "gutted" a good deal of his case.
None of it was what Chernoff envisioned two years ago when he took a call on his cellphone as he drove his son home from school. Jackson's death the day before in a mansion 1,000 miles away was a massive international story. But the 24/7 coverage hardly had registered with Chernoff, who had a newborn at home and a full caseload at the three-lawyer firm where he defended mainly white-collar cases.
The caller, another criminal lawyer, wanted help with a new client referred by a friend, a physician about to sit down for a police interview. No problem, Chernoff said. The other attorney, Michael Peña, added that the interview was in L.A. and the subject was death of Michael Jackson.
Chernoff assumed it was a prank, but a few hours later, he was in the middle seat of an L.A.-bound plane. Passengers on each side, oblivious to his connection to the Jackson story, began discussing the latest developments. It was his introduction to the case, he said.
"I kept saying, 'And then what happened?'" he said. By then, the world knew that Murray was with Jackson when he died and that police were desperate to speak to him about his care of the 50-year-old entertainer. When the plane touched down, Chernoff planned to stay in California only long enough to give the doctor two pieces of advice — don't talk to the cops and get yourself a local lawyer.
But, Chernoff said, after he spoke with Murray, he decided the doctor should talk to police and was with him that night when he sat for a nearly three-hour interview. In that conversation, the doctor acknowledged using the dangerous surgical anesthetic propofol to treat Jackson's chronic insomnia, an admission that became the basis of an involuntary manslaughter charge months later, after the coroner labeled the singer's death a homicide resulting from "acute propofol intoxication."
Chernoff said he searched for a California lawyer to take over the lead role in Murray's defense, but visits to a dozen high-profile lawyers proved fruitless. Some wanted more money than Murray could afford, others Chernoff didn't like, he said.
Those who know him well said Chernoff wanted to hang on to an important role in what would surely be the biggest case of his career.
"He would've been happy to give up the reins to the stagecoach, but he sure as hell was going to ride shotgun. He wasn't going to sit in the buggy," said Matt Alford, a law firm partner.
J. Michael Flanagan, a veteran Glendale lawyer who is helping defend Murray, said the benefits of keeping the case were obvious: "He's going to win this case, and it's going to set up his career for the rest of his life."
Chernoff insists that Murray's case has not brought him any business. In Houston, he specializes in what a colleague called "bet-your-future criminal litigation" — representing middle and upper-middle-class defendants facing a first criminal charge.
"He handles cases where the outcome is going to make a real difference in someone's life," said defense lawyer Mark Bennett, whose office is in the same building as Chernoff's Houston firm. "Publicity is inimical to these type of cases."
If much of the world sees Murray as the man who killed Michael Jackson, Chernoff describes him as a typical client — a regular guy with a lot to lose. A conviction would mean a potential four-year prison term for Murray and probably the permanent loss of his medical license.