The latest super-trial involving Michael Jackson will hinge on a few key questions: Did executives from AEG Live, Jackson's concert promoter, hire Dr. Conrad Murray? And did they pressure Murray into pumping Jackson full of drugs so he could sleep properly and be ready to perform his scheduled multimillion-dollar shows at London's O2 Arena?
Jackson's family – mother Katherine and children Paris, Prince Michael and Blanket – argue that AEG is at fault for the singer's unexpected death after an overdose of sleep medication on June 25th, 2009. They're suing AEG for $40 billion, claiming wrongful death. "The truth about what happened to Michael, which AEG has tried to keep hidden from the public since the day Michael died, is finally emerging," the family's attorney, Kevin Boyle, said earlier this year. "We look forward to the trial where the rest of the story will come to light." (Attorneys for the family and AEG would not comment to Rolling Stone.)
The trial began last week with jury selection. It could last from two to four months, with potentially dramatic testimony from all three Jackson children as well as high-profile witnesses such as the musicians Prince, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Lisa Marie Presley, Jackson's brothers and Sharon Osbourne.
The family's goal is to make an emotional case to the Los Angeles Superior Court jury, painting AEG as a money-hungry promoter. The $40 billion claim may be to draw attention to the case for public-relations purposes, or to create a strong starting point for a settlement negotiation – or it may actually be what the Jacksons believe they can win. "They may feel they're going to fight this to the bitter end because [AEG] killed Michael," explains Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School law professor who teaches criminal law and legal ethics and has closely followed trials involving Michael Jackson over the years. "They may feel as strongly about getting them punished as they did about Conrad Murray being punished." (Murray is in prison after a 2009 involuntary manslaughter conviction.)
Supporting the Jacksons' case are emails reportedly sent by AEG executives in the 2009 run-up to Jackson's O2 shows. In March 2009, Randy Phillips, the company's president, wrote in an email to his superiors, "MJ is locked in his room drunk and despondent. I [am] trying to sober him up. 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." At the time, Phillips was offering a very different sentiment in public: "In order to do this deal, Michael had to submit to a five-hour physical by an independent, third-party physician picked by the insurance carrier," he said then. "He passed with flying colors."
The family is likely to argue that the emails show AEG officials not only knew about Jackson's inability to perform, but they pushed him to do so anyway. While AEG's attorneys argue vehemently that it was Jackson himself, and not AEG, who hired Murray, one internal email suggests otherwise. "We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary," the company's co-chief executive, Paul Gongaware, wrote 11 days before Jackson's death. "We want to remind him what is expected of him."
It's unclear how much credibility these emails will have to a jury, or whether Judge Yvette Palazuelos will find them admissible. "Just one email isn't by itself enough," says Mina Sirkin, a Woodland Hills, California lawyer who specializes in estate planning and trusts. "But if it does get admitted during trial, it could be pretty damaging."
Nonetheless, AEG's goal will be to insist that Jackson himself hired Murray and gave him instructions. "I don't know how you can't look to Mr. Jackson's responsibility there. He was a grown man," the company's attorney, Marvin Putnam, told CNN. "Mr. Jackson is a person who was known to doctor-shop. He was known to be someone who would tell one doctor one thing and another doctor something else."
Jackson's death was due to a fatal dose of propofol, a powerful anesthetic; Murray gave it to him after Jackson begged for the drug he called "milk." In a bizarre phone interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper last week, which involved the doctor singing Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" at length on cable television, Murray suggested he might not take the Fifth Amendment if called to the stand during the AEG trial. "If I testify, I'll testify very honestly," he said. "Michael said to me, 'I no longer want to be a band for my family,' but all you see today is a continuation of that."
AEG's attorneys will try to paint Jackson as a drug-addicted pop star who would have demanded and received the sleep-inducing drugs regardless of outside influence. Putnam has suggested AEG will drag the star's child-molestation accusations into the trial because they "resulted in an incredible increase in his drug intake." Adds Loyola's Goldman, "Some of the more sensational stuff would be coming out with the defense case. They're the ones who want to bring out the child-molesting [trial] and the toll it took on him."
So far, the biggest decision Judge Palazuelos has made in the trial has been to ban CNN cameras from the courtroom, thus preventing an O.J. Simpson-style legal circus. Says Sirkin, "They just don't want this to become another public fiasco." It might already be too late for that.