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Conrad Murray trial off to an emotional start

The voice that echoed through a packed courtroom was low and woozy, but the ambition in the slurred words was vintage Michael Jackson.

“I want them to say, ‘I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life,’” he mumbled. “He’s the greatest entertainer of all time.”

The grand vision to entertain millions died six weeks later with the singer. But it was resurrected Tuesday for an audience of 12: the jury in the manslaughter trial of his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray. The recording was the emotional peak in the dramatic opening day of legal proceedings anticipated since the singer’s 2009 death.

Full coverage: The trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor

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Before the lunch hour, Murray had broken down at the defense table, Jackson’s mother was weeping in the spectators’ gallery and Murray supporters had convened a prayer circle on the courthouse grounds.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said Jackson’s fans convened a prayer circle on the courthouse grounds; Murray supporters convened it.


Images of Jackson were everywhere — including posters that Jackson fans waved for a throng of news crews, a “King of Pop” impersonator lurking in the courthouse hallway and a crime scene photo of the singer dead on a hospital gurney. Jurors even watched clips of Jackson singing and dancing in rehearsals two days before his death.

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But it was in the audio recording that Jackson seemed most eerily present. Prosecutors, who accuse Murray of killing Jackson by giving him a dangerous anesthetic, waited until opening statements to reveal the tape’s existence, and Jackson’s voice sent a shiver of excitement through the courtroom.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren told jurors that forensic experts had recovered the audio file from Murray’s iPhone and that it showed the physician had taped his patient “highly under the influence of unknown agents.”

In a clip the prosecutor said was “a taste” of the full recording jurors are to hear later, a barely comprehensible Jackson appeared to say he would perform charity with the proceeds from his planned comeback concerts.

“I’m taking that money, a million children, children’s hospital. Biggest in the world. Michael Jackson’s Children’s Hospital,” he said.

As Jackson’s mother, Katherine, looked on tearfully, the prosecutor said the recording showed the doctor knew “Michael’s state” and continued procuring drugs for him.

“That is what Conrad Murray is seeing and observing on May 10, 2009, and what does he do with that knowledge and information? On May 12, he orders another shipment of propofol and midazolam,” Walgren said.

Jackson died from an overdose of propofol June 25 that year. Midazolam and several other sedatives were also found in his system.

In his remarks to jurors, the prosecutor said Murray compromised his professional responsibility to keep his $150,000-a-month position as concert doctor.

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“He acted as employee. He did not act as a medical professional using sound medical judgment,” Walgren said.

He ran through a list of actions by Murray that he said violated the standard of medical care, including using the surgical anesthetic outside a hospital setting and failing to call 911 when he found Jackson stricken in bed.

“Michael Jackson literally put his life in the hands of Conrad Murray,” Walgren said, adding, “That misplaced trust cost Michael Jackson his life.”

In the defense opening statement, lawyer Ed Chernoff said scientific evidence would show that Jackson took his own life. The lawyer said Jackson swallowed eight tablets of the sedative lorazepam — “enough to put six of you to sleep” — and then self-administered propofol. He said Murray was out of the room at the time.

He called the combination of drugs “a perfect storm” and said no medical attention could have saved the singer.

“He died rapidly, so instantly he didn’t even have time to close his eyes,” Chernoff said.

Chernoff suggested that another Jackson doctor, Arnold Klein, bore some blame for the singer’s death. The Beverly Hills dermatologist addicted Jackson to Demerol, sometimes injecting him with 1,000 milligrams in a single week, Chernoff said. He told jurors it was Demerol withdrawal that caused the crippling insomnia that Murray treated with propofol.

The defense also challenged the prosecution’s portrait of Murray as money-hungry. Chernoff said the physician was known for providing top-notch healthcare to charity patients in the poorest neighborhood of Houston.

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“If you couldn’t pay, Dr. Murray wouldn’t charge you,” Chernoff said. Murray lowered his head and wiped away tears.

The first witness to testify was Kenny Ortega, the renowned choreographer who was directing Jackson’s “This Is It” comeback shows. Ortega said he had grave concerns about the singer’s emotional and physical health the week before his death but that Murray told him brusquely to leave Jackson’s care to him.

Ortega said that after Jackson showed up at rehearsals too weak to perform, he wrote an email to a concert promoter about canceling the shows.

“Everything in me says he should be psychologically evaluated,” he wrote. He added, “there still may be a chance he can rise to the occasion if we get him the help he needs.”

During Ortega’s testimony, jurors screened brief clips of rehearsals in which Jackson, 50, performed energetically alongside much younger dancers.

“The dancers Michael is performing with, what’s their average age,” Walgren asked Ortega of a rehearsal of “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

“Eighteen to 24,” Ortega said.

Also testifying Tuesday was Paul Gongaware, co-chief executive of the promoter AEG Live behind the “This Is It” tour. He said Jackson was “totally engaged, a brilliant guy” in the process of putting the shows together. Jackson initially wanted to do 31 shows at London’s O2 arena, to top Prince’s 21 shows there, Gongaware testified.

The singer insisted on having Murray as his physician on the tour, gesturing at himself and saying “This is the machine, you have to take care of the machine,” he recalled.

But when Gongaware called the doctor to negotiate the terms, the doctor asked for a $5-million-a-year salary.

“I told him there was no way that was going to happen,” he recalled.

Full coverage: The trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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