Did British documentary pay for Murray’s costly defense?
The verdict is in, the jury has been dismissed, and Dr. Conrad Murray sits behind bars, but one question about the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor remains: Who paid for the defense?
Speculation about how the cash-strapped physician funded an expansive legal team focused Wednesday on a British documentary made with Murray’s cooperation and purchased recently by NBC for broadcast on its cable network MSNBC this weekend. Representatives of Jackson’s estate demanded the network cancel the program, entitled “Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship,” in part because of unanswered questions about whether Murray was compensated for giving filmmakers interviews and allowing camera crews to follow him and his lawyers.
“We would like to know how much money in total was paid for this privileged ‘access,’ ” estate co-executors John Branca and John McClain wrote in a letter Wednesday to executives at NBC, MSNBC and its parent company, Comcast. “It doesn’t matter to us if it was a production company, Comcast, NBC Universal or MSNBC that paid for access to Dr. Murray because all are morally culpable.”
Murray was in debt close to $800,000 on the day Jackson died and his financial circumstances worsened in the months that followed as intense media coverage hurt his ability to earn money as a cardiologist. But after signing a deal with a British producer in 2009, he was able to assemble a defense team that included four attorneys, a jury consultant, a publicist, and a host of medical experts. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Monday.
Those involved in the documentary refused to discuss details of the deal with Murray. They repeatedly reiterated a statement by October Films, the London-based production company, that it paid only a nominal $1 fee to Murray. Left unaddressed, though, were questions about whether the doctor received a portion of fees paid by television outlets in Britain, Australia and at least 10 other countries that will air the program.
The circumstances surrounding the documentary raise a host of thorny issues, including how carefully NBC investigated the provenance of a film that offered exclusive interviews and footage in a highly competitive news story, and whether the doctor violated a court-imposed gag order, even as he shielded from his own lawyers the extent of his cooperation with the filmmakers.
In the final days of his manslaughter trial, Murray sat for wide-ranging interviews about Jackson’s death with NBC and a British outlet as part of the documentary package those networks purchased. Murray’s criminal attorneys said they were never told of the interviews, given despite their warnings about “the dangers of talking about June 25th” — the day the singer died
“They just didn’t tell me because they know I’d freak out,” said lead defense attorney Ed Chernoff, who said he learned of the interviews the morning after the verdict when portions aired on NBC.
Murray, who decided not to take the stand in his own defense, is in jail pending sentencing later this month and could not be reached for comment.
All payments to Murray’s lawyers came directly from the doctor, not the filmmakers, Chernoff said. He acknowledged telling Murray shortly after they met that financial resources were crucial to a court case in which the prosecution seemed to have an unlimited budget for forensic experts and investigators.
“I told him early and I told him often that the only way he was going to be able to defend himself was to have money. He had to fund his case or he would never be able to defend himself,” Chernoff said.
At the time Murray’s Las Vegas home was in foreclosure. He was behind on child support and student loan payments. He owed money to credit companies and a medical equipment supplier. And because Jackson never signed his contract, Murray never received any of the $150,000-a month fee he was supposed to get as the singer’s personal physician.
Subsequently, Murray was approached by Leon Lecash, a British photographer turned entrepreneur whose ventures included a butler service that, according to one press report, “promises to solve any problem.” Lecash was among hundreds of outlets begging Murray for an interview, but according to the doctor’s former publicist, Miranda Sevcik, Lecash’s company – what’s it all about? productions – was the only one willing to delay broadcast until after a verdict.
“This was the only group that approached us that agreed to that caveat — until all litigation was complete,” Sevcik said.
Camera crews began trailing Murray to church, his charity clinic in Houston and meetings with his lawyers. Chernoff said he sought advice from the California State Bar before agreeing to be filmed. The doctor began providing him money, he said, but he never asked about the source.
“It wasn’t pertinent to what I was doing,” he said. Asked whether he assumed the money came from the documentary, Chernoff replied, “I can’t say that because I don’t know for sure.”
Others on Murray’s team said they agreed to be filmed, but purposefully avoided discussions about the documentary and Murray’s deal with producers.
“I specifically asked not to be involved in any of the financial aspects,” said defense publicist Mark Fierro.
Filming continued throughout the trial even after the judge issued a gag order barring lawyers from discussing the case outside of court.
In October, before the defense had even rested its case, the filmmakers began shopping the documentary to broadcast and cable networks. They wanted close to $500,000 for American rights, according to a source at a network that passed on the film, and were offering a sit-down interview with Murray. NBC bought the rights and began airing clips of Murray describing Jackson’s last moments on “The Today Show” the morning after the verdict. The documentary is set to air on MSNBC on Friday night and again Sunday.
NBC declined to say what it paid the filmmakers, but said in a statement, “Neither Dr. Murray nor his legal defense were compensated in any way.”
A network source added that October Films had assured NBC that no part of the licensing fee would make its way to the doctor or his lawyers. The network did not respond to follow-up questions, including whether it had asked if Murray was paid through Zodiak Rights, the British company handling international distribution.
Zodiak boasted in a news release the day Murray was convicted that the company had presold the documentary in more than a dozen countries, but the company did not respond to questions about whether any of the money had been passed on to Murray.
When pressed about why the deeply indebted physician — who initially demanded $5 million a year to work for Jackson — would have granted camera crews access for only $1, a publicist for October Films replied, “You have to look at Zodiak. You would need to talk to Zodiak Rights about the international rights.”
Van Gordon Sauter, president of CBS News in the 1980s, said NBC’s payment to the production company effectively paved the way for the exclusive interview with Murray, a practice frowned on by most mainstream news organizations.
“I don’t know how you can look at that and not come to the conclusion that they were paying for the interview,” said Sauter, who worked as a journalism professor and public television executive after leaving CBS. He said that practice is disdained because it makes news organizations appear to be in alliance with newsmakers, potentially encouraging subjects to embellish their stories.
“This doesn’t strike me as something that’s appropriate,” Sauter said. “MSNBC is spending a lot of time talking [in promotions] about ‘Leaning forward,’ and I think this is tripping backward.”
There is a long history of media outlets paying newsmakers, even notorious ones, for access. The man accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby was defended by an acclaimed lawyer, with payments coming from the Hearst Newspapers in exchange for exclusive access to the defendant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Testimony in a hearing last year revealed that ABC had paid $200,000 to Casey Anthony, accused of murdering her daughter Caylee. The money reportedly went to “license” the use of the Anthony family’s photos and videos and was available for Anthony’s defense. After a wave of bad publicity, ABC said it would in the future not make such payments, which a network spokesman called an unnecessary “crutch” to good news gathering.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Meg James and Victoria Kim contributed to this report.
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