5:25am PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
Michael Jackson's Death: 5 Surprising Developments in AEG Trial
Trial testimony continues in the $40-billion wrongful death suit filed by Michael Jackson’s family against AEG Live, the singer’s concert promoter.
Jackson’s mother Katherine and children Paris, Prince Michael and Blanket argue that AEG improperly hired or supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the superstar’s fatal drug overdose on June 25, 2009. AEG contends that it was Jackson who personally hired and instructed Murray, now serving four years in prison.
The trial began in late April and is expected to last at least three months. The extensive witness list features possible appearances by Prince, Diana Ross and Spike Lee, as well as Paris, Prince Michael and Jackson’s ex-wives. Here are five unexpected developments surrounding the case:
Jackson family lawyer Brian Panish revealed derogatory language about the singer from executives at AEG Live and parent company Anschutz Entertainment Group. A series of emails were shown to the jury on May 22.
When AEG Live general counsel and senior vp Shawn Trell emailed the parent company’s chief legal officer Ted Fikre about a visit to Jackson’s house, Fikre responded, “Does this mean you get to meet the freak?”
Jackson family attorneys look to portray AEG as exploitative of the superstar. “They were ruthless,” Panish said in his April 29 opening statement. “You do what you got to do if you want to be No. 1 in this rough business of concert promotions.”
Voices from God
Witnesses on May 8 and 9 testified that Jackson became frail and psychologically unstable at rehearsals for his planned concert tour This Is It. Jackson shivered from cold often, and his heart beating was visible in his emaciated chest, his longtime makeup artist recalled.
Jackson had also said, “God keeps talking to me,” testified a show producer.
Shortly before Jackson's death, it was also revealed that a meeting was held with Jackson, Murray, tour director Kenny Ortega and AEG Live President Randy Phillips regarding the singer's health, after which Phillips emailed that AEG had checked out Murray and had confidence in him to treat the star.
Red Flag Payment
Murray owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in child support, tax liens and other payments, and his Las Vegas home had dropped in value and was in foreclosure. An LAPD detective testified April 30 that Murray’s financial situation might have motivated the physician to push Jackson to perform, such as by administering him powerful anesthetics.
Murray was to be paid $150,000 a month for accompanying Jackson on tour, but the amount Murray originally requested -- $5 million -- was called a “red flag” and “outrageous” by a tour director who testified May 17. (The money factor has been prominent outside of the courtroom too. On Tuesday morning, a small plane flying over the Santa Monica coastline had a banner that read, “Follow The $ To Michael Jackson’s Death.”)
Would a background check have cautioned AEG about Murray’s worrisome financial situation?
In another email showcased during the trial, Phillips wrote that Murray “is extremely successful (we check everyone out) and does not need this gig.”
Trell contradicted Phillips’s email. In his May 21 testimony, Trell replied, “No,” when asked if “anyone from AEG ever at any time” had interviewed Murray. He also confirmed that AEG had not reviewed the cardiologist’s finances before allegedly hiring him.
On May 6 and 7, doctors were called to the witness stand and described how Murray was wrong for the job, adding that when Jackson was taking propofol, the singer should have had a doctor specializing in addiction or anesthesia, not a cardiologist such as Murray.
Dr. Selma Calmes wrote in a report that medical devices should have been available to resuscitate a propofol user who stops breathing. Murray failed to have this equipment. Dr. Daniel Wohlgelernter testified that Murray incorrectly started chest compressions when Jackson stopped breathing, rather than focusing on restarting respiration. Wohlgelernter said Murray’s treatment of Jackson was “a mismatch. It’s not what he needs.”
“Don't be a Dr. Nick"
AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware, who testified Tuesday, was a promoter for Elvis Presley’s last tour. The King’s death should have led him to recognize the King of Pop’s drug problems, the Jacksons argue. “I kind of knew what was going to happen, yes,” Gongaware testified of the singer’s final days.
Jackson family attorneys hold that Gongaware had long known of Jackson’s drug dependency.
“Don't be a Dr. Nick,” Gongaware had told tour doctor Stuart Finkelstein on Jackson’s 1993 tour, referring to Presley’s physician charged with over-prescribing drugs to the star, Finkelstein testified in a deposition.
Gongaware was “warning me, you know, don't get all infatuated where you start administering meds to a rock star and have the rock star overdose and die on you,” Finkelstein testified.
AEG lawyers maintain that the company was unaware of Jackson’s addiction while the singer supervised Murray. Gongaware is expected to be on the stand for several more days.