The Washington Post

What killed Michael Jackson?

Death is a singular journey. It is shrouded in fear and mystery and evokes, for many, strong connections to spiritual, religious and moral philosophies.

The vast majority of us will die in some degree of anonymity, leaving behind only family and friends to mourn, soon to be forgotten.

Such an ignoble and fleeting end is not the case if you are a legendary pop icon like Michael Jackson.

Last week, prosecutors in the manslaughter trial of Conrad Murray, 58 of Houston, spent much of the week crafting a timeline between when Jackson stopped breathing and when Murray sought emergency care.

This week, Jackson’s death trial brings with it a Cirque du Soleil of gag orders, contempt proceedings and damaging testimony from Murray’s former girlfriends.

After all the legal maneuvering and exhortations of both the prosecution and defense, the jurors will decide whether Murray was criminally negligent in discharging his professional duties.

At the heart of the factual determination the jury will have to make, is the very apparent evidentiary dispute between defense attorney Ed Chernoff and prosecutor David Walgren, concerning the details of how and when on June 25, 2009, Jackson took his last breath.

Attorney Adam Braun, counsel for a psychiatrist charged with overprescribing pills to Anna Nicole Smith, told the Associated Press that the prosecution must show “it was reckless both to prescribe and administer propofol,” and establish that Murray deviated from accepted standards of medical care by leaving the powerful intravenous anesthesia at his patient’s bedside.

In the state of California, the prosecution has to establish gross negligence to prove Murray guilty of manslaughter. But the road to conviction could be bumpy if the state is unable to convince the jury of exactly what killed Jackson. “The first requirement for prosecutors is to prove the cause of Jackson’s death,” Braun told the AP.

So what is the legal definition of death? There are several types of death recognized by law, including homicide, natural and wrongful death.

A conviction could end Murray’s medical career. Murray could be required by the state of California, and any other state in which he is licensed, to permanently forfeit his right to practice medicine.

According to testimony, the emergency workers at Jackson’s rented mansion were prepared to declare the moribund Jackson cold to the touch with dilated pupils, dead after 42 minutes of failed resuscitation efforts.

Did death occur while Murray was attempting to conceal propofol evidence as the prosecution would have the jury believe. Or did it occur after Murray administered medical attention consistent with the accepted standards of medical care, as the defense contends.

Was Dr. Murray’s “gross negligence” as a service provider the cause of Jackson’s death...or do the slurred telephone recordings that have surfaced at trial and Michael’s history of ill health prove a natural cause of death? The trial boils down to this: what killed Jackson and is Conrad Murray responsible for the death.

Joy Freeman-Coulbary, a Washingtonian, is a civil rights attorney. You can reach her at and follow her on twitter @enJOYJFC.

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