After a trial that started in the spring, lasted through the summer and ended in the fall, one that entailed hundreds of exhibits and staggering legal bills, the Michael Jackson wrongful-death lawsuit finally went to the jury Thursday.
What the case may come down to is whether jurors think that Jackson is to blame for his own demise by insisting on hiring the doctor who killed him, or that AEG Live executives were such poor witnesses that nothing they said can be believed.
Jackson’s mother and three children contend that AEG Live negligently hired and supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, the Las Vegas physician who gave the singer a fatal dose of the anesthetic propofol to combat his severe insomnia. AEG says it was Jackson who brought Murray aboard.
AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam told jurors that Jackson used propofol as early as 1997 while on tour in Germany. The pop star’s ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, testified that two German anesthesiologists turned their hotel room into a hospital suite and twice used the drug to knock out Jackson, each time for eight hours.
Putnam told jurors about several other instances where Jackson unsuccessfully asked doctors for propofol, and the warnings he received about the anesthetic’s dangers.
Putnam said Jackson, 50 when he died, was responsible for his own health. “He was a grown man, and he made his own choices,” Putnam said. “You know Mr. Jackson chose Dr. Murray. You know Mr. Jackson chose propofol.”
On the other side, Jackson’s family attorneys relied on emails that seem to offer a real-time version of thoughts and events. The emails describe concerns about Jackson’s deteriorating emotional and physical condition as he rehearsed for his 50 comeback concerts in London and reveal that an AEG attorney called Jackson a “freak.”
AEG Live executives testified that they didn’t remember many of the emails, saying during depositions that their lawyers told them not to review the messages.
During his closing argument, Jackson attorney Brian Panish put up a video showing AEG Live Chief Executive Randy Phillips, executive Paul Gongaware and Tim Leiweke, then chief executive of parent company Anschutz Entertainment Group, using a variation of “I don’t know” as many as 30 times each.
“They made a legal strategy not to remember anything when they testified under oath,” Panish told jurors. “They’re not credible or worthy of belief.”
The emails may present the most damaging pieces of evidence against AEG.
“We want to remind him that it is AEG, not MJ who is paying his salary. We want him to understand what is expected of him,” Gongaware wrote, seemingly undermining the claim that the doctor didn’t work for the promoter.
Gongaware said he didn’t recall writing it.
In another email, Phillips wrote of Murray: “This doctor is extremely successful (we check every one) and does not need this gig so he [is] totally unbiased and ethical.”
Testimony showed that AEG never investigated Murray, who was actually in dire financial straits and had closed his practice to take on Jackson as his only patient for $150,000 a month.