As the trial of the Houston cardiologist accused of causing Michael Jackson's death gets under way today, the doctor's attorneys are poised to argue that the blame should be pointed at the other person who was in the room: the King of Pop himself.
Jackson may have injected the lethal dose, or consumed it, attorneys for Dr. Conrad Murray have suggested. It may have been out of financial desperation, pressure to perform or anxiety about his career comeback, they've said.
Blaming the patient for his or her own death, legal experts say, is a common defense in the small but growing number of cases of doctors charged in connection with overdose deaths, where a patient's desperate search for drugs collides with a physician's responsibilities.
"There's a fundamental human theme that occurs in all of these cases -- that is, how much the defense can paint the addict as this powerful driving force, in some sense bent on killing himself," said Peter Arenella, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert in criminal procedure. "If the jury starts viewing the victim in that light, it's easy for them to acquit the doctor of any serious criminal charge."
Murray, 58, faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter for injecting Jackson with the dangerous surgical anesthetic propofol at his rented Los Angeles mansion and leaving his bedside. Murray told police he gave Jackson the drug -- the singer referred to it as "milk" -- over two months to help him sleep, even though it has no established use for insomnia. If convicted, Murray faces a four-year sentence and likely loss of his license to practice medicine.
On Monday, on the eve of opening statements, Murray's lead attorney asked the judge to admit another piece of evidence he said would help prove that "Michael Jackson was involved in certain acts that ended his own life."
"We think that he was desperate at the time that he did that," attorney Ed Chernoff told Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor, asking that Jackson's contract with concert promoter Anschutz Entertainment Group be allowed at trial.
In pinning the blame on Jackson, Murray's attorneys have zeroed in on two facts: the size of the dose Murray told police he gave Jackson, and the time Murray spent away from Jackson's bedside. The 25-milligram dosage, half of what Murray had previously given Jackson, was not nearly enough to have caused his death, and the doctor was away long enough for Jackson to have awoken and given himself the fatal dose, they say.
The evidence "strongly cries out that Michael Jackson, who did like to ingest these chemicals himself, more than likely was the one who did that on that day because he did wake up shortly after the dose he received from Dr. Murray," Joseph Low IV, an attorney representing Murray, told the judge earlier this year.
Blaming Jackson could be a risky ploy, experts said, because Murray may appear to be shirking his duties as a physician.
"You risk a binary reaction from jurors. It's like putting it all on red in Vegas," said Bryan Liang, a professor at California Western School of Law and also a physician. "Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the person with the medical knowledge."