Michael Jackson's Former Doctor Goes On Trial

The trial of Michael Jackson's personal physician is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Los Angeles. Dr. Conrad Murray is charged with involuntary manslaughter and medical negligence in connection with the death of the pop star.

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DAVID GREENE, host: The latest celebrity courtroom drama to hit Los Angeles gets going in earnest today. Opening arguments are scheduled in the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has a preview.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: A little over two years ago, millions watched in shock as a clearly emotional Jermaine Jackson stepped to the microphones to confirm the rumors that had been blazing around the globe.

JERMAINE JACKSON: My brother, the legendary king of pop, Michael Jackson, passed away on Thursday, June 25th, 2009 at 2:26 p.m.

BATES: Attention soon focused on Conrad Murray, the cardiologist who'd been Jackson's personal physician. After months of investigation that revealed the powerful anesthetic propofol had been found in Jackson's rented home near Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles County Coroner released his opinion - the cause of the singer's death was acute propofol poisoning.

The District Attorney charged Dr. Murray with involuntary manslaughter, not murder, as Jackson's family and fans had hoped. Linda Deutsch reports on high-profile and celebrity trials for the Associated Press. She's covering the Murray trial and says the manslaughter charge ratchets down the doctor's punishment if he's convicted.

LINDA DEUTSCH: The most that Conrad Murray could get in prison would be four years, and the speculation is that because he is a first offender, he has no record, he might be given as little as probation.

BATES: Even seating a jury was problematic, given Jackson's worldwide fame. The process, which included a 30-page questionnaire, took weeks. Linda Deutsch says moving the trial elsewhere would have been futile.

DEUTSCH: The defense actually never made a change of venue motion, because it was pretty much hopeless, that the ruling would be where else can you try him, you know, on the planet Mars?

BATES: She has a point. Some 100 potential jurors were questioned. Every one was aware of the case. The intense interest in this case doesn't really center around the defendant, says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School.

LAURIE LEVENSON: I don't think that there's a lot of interest in Conrad Murray. What there is is interest in Michael Jackson and tragically, he won't be around for this trial.

BATES: But some of Jackson's family will be a daily presence in court. And there are rumors that Jackson's eldest son, 14-year-old Prince Michael, may take the stand for the prosecution to talk about what happened the day his father died. Laurie Levenson:

LEVENSON: It's really risky to put a child, particularly the child of a victim, up on the witness stand. People don't like to see children be uncomfortable. They realize the loss that they've already been through. They also know that they can be easily influenced in what they have to say.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Justice for Michael Jackson.

BATES: Fans and detractors will certainly be a presence outside the downtown courthouse. These Jackson supporters appeared at a court hearing last month. But any high-profile trial, from Phil Spector to O.J. Simpson, runs that risk. Linda Deutsch, who covered both, says presiding judge Michael Pastor has already indicated there will be order inside his court.

DEUTSCH: Michael Pastor is very well regarded by his colleagues. They think that he's fair, he's temperate, you know, he doesn't fly off the handle, and he loves the law.

BATES: In the interest of transparency, Judge Pastor has agreed to allow the trial to be televised. But it's highly unlikely most stations will give it the gavel-to-gavel coverage the Simpson trial got. And, says Loyola's Laurie Levenson, viewers should remember that not all televised court proceedings are equal.

LEVENSON: The real question is: when it's televised, are we going to get the actual courtroom proceedings or just all the commentary about it?

BATES: She says televised trials can be very useful. Talking heads and endless spin? Not so much.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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