It was one of the most confounding decisions in the recent annals of criminal justice: Why did Dr. Conrad Murray’s lawyers counsel him to sit down for a no-holds-barred interview with police just two days after the death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009?
The tell-all interview went against just about all the logic you’ve seen in countless movies and TV procedurals, where the potential defendant’s lawyer adamantly tells his client not to say a single thing to the cops.
With the involuntary manslaughter trial of former Jackson doctor Murray in the jury’s hands, we asked a lawyer if that fateful interview was the first, and biggest, mistake Murray’s legal team made in their defense.
MTV News spoke to Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Mike Cavalluzzi, who said the very first decision criminal lawyers often have to make is whether to allow their client to speak to the police before a formal prosecution against them has begun. Cavalluzzi, who does not have firsthand knowledge of the case but who has worked on a range of criminal matters in L.A. courts from misdemeanor battery to homicide, said very often a defense attorney will choose to make their client clam up and not speak to police at all.
“However, there is a unique advantage to be gained by allowing your client to speak to the police if you think they are going to do well,” he said of the possible reasoning behind the unusual tactic. That choice might have helped Murray during the trial, where he was able to avoid testifying and submitting himself to the rigorous cross-examination from the prosecutor because his voice had already been heard. “He has said what he needs to say, and the jury is hearing that without the prosecution having the benefit of cross-examining him,” Cavalluzzi said. “In this case, it could actually benefit him.”
Then again, he added, the move was risky because at the time Murray spoke to police, the doctor’s lawyers had no idea about the state of the investigation into Jackson’s death or what evidence had been uncovered. “By the time you’re at trial, you can respond to all the evidence, as opposed to speaking to evidence you don’t know about yet,” he said.
Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg told MTV News that the decision to have Murray talk to police before they’d charged him was “pretty bizarre,” though he suspected the doctor’s lawyers had some reason for taking that step. “I always tell my students to be careful about believing what they see on ‘Law & Order,’ ” said Weisberg, who also was not directly involved in the case.
“In those shows, you always have the suspect blabbing to police in the presence of their lawyer and the lawyer is trying to tell them to shut up. The first thing a lawyer does is tell them to shut up. And when they do talk to police, it’s in a highly orchestrated situation where the lawyer is present.”
Though he speculated that Murray’s lawyers had thought long and hard about talking to police, Weisberg said it was still unusual. “Maybe the lawyer thought that on balance, it was a good strategy, or that it might persuade police to drop the investigation or that he would do such a good job that he wouldn’t incriminate himself,” Weisberg said. And even though the interview became one of the focal points of the prosecution’s case and provided some damaging evidence against Murray, Weisberg said that doesn’t in itself mean it was a bad idea. “It led to a lot of agonizing over whether Murray would testify, which a criminal defendant in a trial does not have to do.”
Weisberg said the high drama that surrounded the announcement of whether Murray would testify near the end of the trial was also out of the ordinary. “I’m not sure why they had a virtual press conference in court announcing he was not testifying; that seemed odd to me.” Then again, it might also have been another sly legal tactic. “Maybe the defense thought it could be an emotionally poignant moment that would play with the jury,” he said.