Michael Jackson’s doctor pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the pop superstar’s death as the case moved rapidly toward a trial that will likely be televised.
“Your honor, I am an innocent man,” Dr. Conrad Murray told Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor in a soft voice. “I definitely plead not guilty.”
Lawyers for Murray, who is accused of giving Jackson a lethal dose of the powerful anesthetic propofol and other sedatives, said they would be ready to go to trial within the 60-day statutory time limit, which would make for an unusually speedy trial.
Deputy District Attorney David Walgren said the prosecution would be ready to go as well for the trial he estimated would last six weeks. The judge scheduled the trial to begin March 28 and set a pretrial hearing for Feb. 7.
“Dr. Murray is looking forward to finally telling his side of the story,” defense attorney Ed Chernoff said outside court.
Asked why the defense wants to begin the trial so quickly, Chernoff said, “Dr. Murray has been waiting 22 months for his opportunity to do this. It’s the first chance we have to force the issue.”
Pastor said he was inclined to allow television coverage of the trial and will hear attorneys’ views on that and other issues at a Feb. 7 hearing.
District attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said outside court that her office has a policy of not opposing cameras in court. Cameras were allowed at the hearing Tuesday for the first time, marking a shift in Pastor’s previous ban.
One of Murray’s lawyers said earlier he would not seek a plea bargain, and the defense had no qualms about going to trial in spite of strong prosecution evidence at a preliminary hearing aiming to prove the doctor’s gross negligence killed Jackson.
“We’re going to go to trial,” defense attorney J. Michael Flanagan said in an interview. “I think our case is really solid. We were very pleased with the way the evidence went at the preliminary hearing… This should result in an acquittal.”
Gibbons declined to comment on whether a plea bargain had been discussed saying it would be unethical to address such a matter.
Defense attorneys not connected to the case said Murray would be well advised to plea bargain.
“If I were advising him, I would be talking to the district attorney to see what they would be willing to accept,” said
criminal defense attorney Steve Cron. An offer of probation with community service and temporary suspension of Murray’s medical license would be worth considering if it were proposed, he said.
Pastor has suspended Murray’s license to practice in California pending trial.
Legal experts said several defenses are available to Murray. Among them is the suggestion by his lawyers that Jackson, desperate for sleep, self-administered a fatal dose of propofol while Murray was out of the room. That theory would mean Jackson either injected propofol into an IV line or swallowed the drug, which is meant to be administered intravenously during surgery.
Prosecution experts are likely to challenge that scenario. They also could say Murray was negligent in leaving the drug on a night stand where Jackson could reach it.
“They’ve got to explain why Dr. Murray was giving him propofol in the first place, in a setting where it is not normally given,” said Cron, who has been watching the case.
Murray may have to testify in his own defense to provide the answers, Cron said. Chernoff said the defense has not yet made a decision on that possibility.
“My guess is he will have to explain some of these things and present his persona to the jury as a reasonable, competent doctor,” Cron said.
If convicted, Murray could face a maximum of four years in prison.
In a six-day preliminary hearing, a portrait emerged of a doctor trying to help his famous client overcome debilitating insomnia with propofol, which is not intended for home use. Jackson had used it before and demanded it, calling it his “milk.”
A coroner testified that Jackson, 50, died of a propofol overdose in combination with other drugs on June 25, 2009. His death was classified as a homicide.
Murray’s behavior before and after Jackson stopped breathing was detailed by household staff and paramedics. It was backed up with phone records, e-mails and, most importantly, a transcript of Murray’s nearly three-hour interview with police.
Murray said he gave Jackson a low dose of propofol after spending 10 hours trying to get him to sleep using other drugs. When the star appeared to doze off, Murray said he left the room for two minutes to go to the bathroom then returned to find Jackson not breathing.
He delayed calling 911 for between 25 minutes and an hour while he tried to revive him, testimony showed.