Jackson investigation is no thriller so far
Michael Jackson’s death is unlikely to result in murder charges against any of the performer’s doctors, according to a senior law enforcement official familiar with the evidence being assembled by a multiagency investigation.
“There’s nothing I have been told that would suggest a murder charge. It’s just so remote and so unsupported by the facts as they’ve been gathered,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing.
The official’s assessment seemed designed to lower expectations for a quick conclusion to the investigation and to tamp down speculation that there was a clear criminal culprit in the unexpected death of one of the world’s most famous men.
“There’s a lot of hysteria out there,” the official said.
Some of the speculation about criminal conduct has been fueled by members of Jackson’s family. His father, Joe, recently told ABC News, “I do believe it was foul play.” The singer’s sister La Toya was quoted in a British tabloid calling her brother’s death a murder and alleging, “It was a conspiracy to get Michael’s money.”
The official said that three weeks into the case, investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department, the county coroner’s office, the district attorney’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration remain “so far away” from concluding their investigation.
Widespread reports about the imminent arrest of one or more of Jackson’s physicians are wrongheaded, he said.
“They are not suspects,” he said of several doctors who were ordered to turn over Jackson’s medical files to authorities. “They are repositories of medical history. . . . There’s been a high level of cooperation.”
He also discounted reports that the singer’s death might have been a suicide attempt, saying there was no evidence to suggest that.
Multiple law enforcement sources confirmed that the Jackson investigation is unfolding more slowly than the sometimes-breathless coverage has suggested. At one point, there were widespread reports that the coroner’s office would release results of Jackson’s toxicology report as early as Monday. Officials now say that will likely take longer.
If the toxicology report indicates that Jackson’s death was caused by propofol, the powerful anesthetic found in his home, prosecutors could bring charges against doctors or others involved in giving him the drug. Prosecutors have discussed a range of possible charges in that scenario “all the way up to involuntary manslaughter,” the senior law enforcement official said.
But the sources agreed that the probe may end without criminal charges directly related to the death. Even if the coroner declares the case a homicide, authorities may not pursue charges, said one source familiar with the investigation.
“There are plenty of homicides where . . . no one is accused of murder or manslaughter,” that official said, adding that Jackson’s well-documented battles with prescription drug abuse would be a strong defense to any charges. Jackson’s doctors may face charges for using fake names on prescriptions, a violation of state and federal laws, or for illegally furnishing the performer with medication -- as in the case pending against doctors for model Anna Nicole Smith.
That investigation took two years to build into a criminal case.
“Nothing will happen quickly,” said one police official, who like others working on the case demanded anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The law enforcement investigation of Jackson’s death began soon after the singer stopped breathing in a bedroom of his rented Holmby Hills mansion June 25. LAPD detectives quickly announced that his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, who was in the home at the time of Jackson’s death, was wanted for questioning.
During a three-hour interview with detectives the following day, Murray described in detail his treatment of the singer. In public statements later, Murray’s attorney said that the physician gave no medication that “should have” caused his death and that he was just as mystified as everyone else at the pop star’s sudden death. The attorney subsequently refused to answer media inquiries about the propofol found in Jackson’s home.
After autopsy results were inconclusive, the coroner’s office ordered the toxicology screening. Jackson’s struggles with addiction to Demerol and other prescription drugs date to the early 1990s, and at the time of his death he had prescriptions for multiple medications, including at least one prescribed using the pseudonym Omar Arnold, according to officials with knowledge of the investigation.
Coroner’s officials served subpoenas on several of Jackson’s physicians. Those told to submit “any and all” of Jackson’s medical files and radiology and psychiatric records include Dr. Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills dermatologist who counted Jackson among his celebrity clientele for more than two decades. Klein’s lawyer met with investigators last week and emerged saying his client was not accused of wrongdoing.
Even if the toxicology report shows large amounts of prescription drugs in Jackson’s blood, the district attorney’s office may not file charges, the senior law enforcement official said.
If Jackson’s death is determined to be the result of a heart defect or caused by decades of drug abuse, “probably you have no case at all,” he said.
If propofol is determined to be the cause of death, he said, the district attorney’s office is more likely to act. The anesthetic, which renders surgical patients immediately unconscious, is not designed for use outside the operating room, and it is unclear how Jackson obtained it and who may have administered it to him.
Vesna Maras, a former L.A. County deputy district attorney who prosecuted physicians and nurses in medical cases, said fatal overdoses can present a challenge for prosecutors when numerous doctors are prescribing drugs.
“If it is a combination of drugs, and these drugs . . . were coming from multiple sources, the argument can be made that the doctors did not know their patient was doctor-shopping. . . . That can make it really hard to prosecute,” said Maras.
But, she said, that calculus can change when a drug such as propofol -- which is only meant for use by anesthesiologists -- is involved. If investigators determine that a doctor who wasn’t an anesthesiologist administered the drug to Jackson without the required devices to assure proper breathing, “in that case, I would not rule out filing a murder case,” she said.
In 2004, Maras prosecuted two Burbank nurses for involuntary manslaughter for administering the anesthetic to a cancer patient without authorization of an anesthesiologist. The patient died. One nurse pleaded no contest to a lesser charge. The other was acquitted.
Bryan Liang, executive director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at California Western School of Law, said he would not be surprised if prosecutors decided not to charge the doctors.
He said evidence in Jackson’s death may be used more effectively in civil court or by the state medical board, which can strip doctors of their licenses.
“The medical care system has traditionally been regulated through civil cases, so juries generally don’t like to find physicians criminally liable,” he said. “They are happy to grant damages, but in terms of throwing a physician in jail, you really have to rise to really egregious behavior . . . and prosecutors recognize that.”
Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa, Andrew Blankstein, Joel Rubin and Richard Winton contributed to this report.