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Michael Jackson Trial: AEG Live Prepares for Court Battle

Legal observers expect a salacious case that will examine the responsibility for hiring and supervising Dr. Conrad Murray to treat the late pop star.

Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson
Getty Images
Conrad Murray

AEG Live never got to take Michael Jackson out on one last final This is It tour, but a show will soon begin anyway in a Los Angeles courtroom.

The concert promoter is facing liability for its role in allegedly engaging Dr. Conrad Murray to treat Jackson. The doctor has already been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for giving the singer Propofol before Jackson's death in June 2009.

A year after the King of Pop died, Jackson's mother filed a lawsuit that looked to collect billions of dollars and spread the blame for her son's death. Almost all of the claims have been dismissed by the judge in advance of the trial including those against the concert promoter's parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc.

What remains is a single count of negligent hiring against AEG Live.

According to the Jackson family's complaint, "At the time of his death, Michael Jackson was under the immediate care of a doctor selected by, hired by, and controlled by AEG. Indeed, AEG demanded and required that Michael Jackson be treated by this particular doctor to ensure that [Jackson] would attend all rehearsals and shows on the tour. Due to AEG’s actions and inactions, three loving children lost their father.”

Although the claims have been narrowed down, the trial is still expected to take one or two months with enough drama and huge stakes to prompt several TV news outlets to request cameras in the courtroom. (The judge denied live television coverage.)

This week, the parties are in the midst of the intricate process of finding 12 jurors plus several alternates who can stay open-minded as they hear evidence and testimony on the death of one of the most famous individuals in the world.

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AEG Live will be defending itself by saying there's no evidence to suggest that they were the ones to hire Murray. During discovery, the plaintiffs weren't able to obtain any firm contracts. The doctor was scheduled to be paid $150,000 a month to treat Jackson from an unsigned contract, but never saw that money and had been working with Jackson at the singer's behest for several years before the tour was even discussed. Thus, there's the unresolved issue of who actually was responsible for Murray's employment.

"He was chosen by Michael Jackson," said AEG's attorney Marvin Putnam on CNN's Michael Jackson: The Final Days, a documentary that aired earlier this month. "He was brought to Los Angeles by Michael Jackson. He had been Michael Jackson's longtime physician and continued in that capacity and was directed by him and could only be fired at will by him."

In contrast, the Jackson family will likely attempt to show that AEG's executives knew about Jackson's condition, made assurances to have Dr. Murray involved so that the singer would be ready for his tour, and put pressures on the physician that eventually led to the singer's death.

In one widely quoted e-mail, AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware wrote to This Is It show director Kenny Ortega, “We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him."

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As Kevin Boyle, an attorney for the family put it at a hearing in February, "They had [Murray] in this situation where his loyalty became divided."

Although the essential question of the trial is narrow, it's hardly simple, and the proceedings are expected to cover quite a bit of Michael Jackson background -- enough to keep reporters enthralled for weeks.

AEG's legal team could spend some time discussing Jackson's drug abuse history and unsuccessful interventions by others in his family.

"This aspect of the case is obviously going to be very salacious," says Marc Nurik, an attorney at Liner Grode. "It goes to the control and supervision issue. If there's evidence that Jackson had been using this stuff before, it'll show he wasn't some unwilling neophyte to Murray's activities."

The family, in turn, might attempt to demonstrate for the jury a wrongful death in emotional terms. On its preliminary witness list are Jackson's children, Paris and Prince, his siblings, even his ex-wives Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe. Also tentatively (although not assuredly) scheduled to be on the witness stand are Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Prince, Spike Lee and Lou Ferrigno. The family is seeking billions of dollars of lost income from Jackson's death and many of these individuals could talk about the stature of the late superstar.

Others who could appear as witnesses are AEG founder Philip Anschutz, former AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke and AEG Live president Kenny Phillips. If the latter gets on the stand, he'll be forced to explain his intimate familiarity with Jackson's troubles.

Three months before Jackson died, Phillips wrote to his company, "MJ is locked in his room drunk and despondent. I (am) trying to sober him up."

He added, "I screamed at him so loud the walls are shaking... He is an emotionally paralyzed mess riddled with self-loathing and doubt now that it is show time."

It is show time now. Just not the one he ever imagined.

Nurik imagines there might be reasons why AEG hasn't settled beyond that it feels as though it has a strong defense. He says, "I'm sure they don't want to be put in a position of conceding ground. They say [they] just paid for Murray, and at end of the day, they don't want to hold more responsibility when it comes to future promoting endeavors."

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner