Former Michael Jackson doctor Conrad Murray was back in a Los Angeles courtroom on Tuesday morning (November 29), where he was ordered to serve the maximum of four years in county jail. The cardiologist, who was found guilty of one felony count of involuntary manslaughter November 7, was facing up to four years in state prison in the death of the pop icon, but due to recent changes to alleviate overcrowding in California prisons, the judge in the case said he was was unable to send the doctor to state prison for his crime.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor had leeway in the sentencing, with options ranging from probation to the full sentence, but in a lengthy ruling from the bench he said that Murray's lack of remorse and negligent behavior argued for the highest possible penalty.
"He is and remains dangerous ... the request of probation is denied, the court imposes the high term of four years imprisonment in this case," Pastor said during the 90-plus minute hearing. Murray will serve his time in the Los Angeles County Jail, as well as pay nearly $900 in court fees and face another hearing in late January 2012 on a request by the prosecution to provide more than $101 million in restitution to the Jackson family.
Murray was found guilty by a jury of one felony count of involuntary manslaughter after prosecutors convinced them that Murray's reckless use of the surgical anesthetic propofol led to the singer's death. Before Pastor's ruling, prosecutors not only asked for the maximum sentence, but also that Murray pay Jackson's children more than $100 million in restitution, which is the amount they believe the singer would have earned had he lived to perform his "This is It" comeback tour, in addition to nearly $2 million in funeral expenses.
Prior to handing down the sentence, a peeved-looking Pastor answered a defense question regarding a last minute notice from the prosecution noting that two previous cases suggest that involuntary manslaughter could be considered a "serious" offense and thus should subject Murray to federal prison time.
"I don't think these cases have any impact on the realignment statute," Pastor ruled, referring to the new rules regarding sentencing that he believed superseded the earlier cases.
Attorney and friend Brian Panish read a statement from the Jackson family at the beginning of the proceedings. "There is now way to adequately describe the loss of our beloved father, son, brother and friend," Panish said. "We still look at each other in disbelief, is it really possible that he is gone? As Michael's parents we never could have imaged we would live to witness his passing. It is simply against the natural order of things. As his brothers and sisters we will never be able to hold, laugh, or perform again with our brother Michael. And as his children, we will grow up without a father, our best friend, our playmate and our dad. We are not here to seek revenge, there is nothing you can do today that will bring Michael back. But we will keep the love in our in our hearts that Michael embodied throughout his life. His passion was for unifying the world through the gift of his artistry. We respectfully request that you impose a sentence that reminds physicians that they cannot sell their services to the highest bidder and cast aside their Hippocratic oath to do no harm. As we all know from this tragedy, doing so can have devastating results. The bible reminds us that men cannot do justice they can only seek justice. And that is all we ask as a family and that is all that we can ask for here."
As in the past, Murray, 58, sat stone-faced, listening to the statement and prosecutor David Walgren's quick rehashing of the facts in the case. "He looked out for himself and not Michael Jackson," Walgren said, going on to argue why the court should deny the defense's request for probation. He quoted Pastor's own comments about the dangerous nature of Murray's action following the verdict as evidence that Murray should face a more serious penalty than probation.
He said Murray's abandonment of a vulnerable Jackson in the time of the singer's need, as well as the planning the doctor underwent to procure the propofol and to not keep clear medical records about their administration were also reasons to deny probation. "It is the people's position that prison is warranted," Walgren said, adding that it was Murray's negligent actions before, during and after Jackson's death, as well as his lack of remorse and failure to take personal responsibility — as evidenced in clip from a documentary interview nine days before the verdict in which he denied culpability — that call for the longer term.
A number of Jackson's family members, including mother Katherine and siblings LaToya, Jermaine, Randy and Rebbie, were reportedly on hand for the court date.
When asked by the judge if the new sentencing laws allowed Murray to be sent to prison for the full term, Walgren said they did not. While the defense did not call any witnesses to testify — and Murray did not wish to speak — defense attorney Ed Chernoff did reference more than 30 pages of support memorandum from friends, family and patients in his brief statements. He agreed that Murray's actions do warrant punishment, but asked how the court viewed the book of Murray's life, versus one chapter. "He shouldn't have done it," he said of Murray's actions. "We're going to be honest about vulnerability. Michael Jackson was a drug seeker and he sought it out from Dr. Murray who was wrong in providing it."
Chernoff painted Jackson as a rich, powerful person who had the means to do whatever he wanted and asked the court to consider Murray's life before the doctor began working for Jackson. He described Murray's currently cloistered existence in jail in protective custody and asked, "but what about the rest of his life? What about before Michael Jackson asked for propofol?" he wondered, noting that for 56 years Murray had never run afoul of the law and had raised a family following his destitute beginnings on the island of Grenada. "Does any of that matter at all?" Chernoff asked dramatically as he unspooled his client's rise from poverty and what he described as a professional life dedicated to helping poor and disadvantaged patients.
"I think it should matter," he answered. "But when the glow of vengeance has faded, he still is someone else's problem. And Dr. Murray can do things for the community on probation that he could never do sitting in that room."
Pastor noted that he had discretion in sentencing in this case and that he took into account that both sides have said that Murray's actions did result in the death of Jackson, though pointedly noted that Murray did not take responsibility in the MSNBC documentary that aired days after the guilty verdict.
Because the case involved criminal negligence, which requires more than carelessness or mistake in judgment, but reckless actions that result in death, Pastor said it was important to focus on those factors. "This is not a question about what might have happened or what if someone else had been involved if not for Dr. Murray," he said. "That is an insult to the medical profession. The fact is that Michael Jackson died because of the action of and the failure to perform the medical duties of Dr. Murray."
The judge said he had taken into account the full story of Murray's life, but said the "unconscionable lies" to medical personnel and a series of "inconceivable" decisions the doctor made on June 25, 2009 jeopardized the life of his patient and superseded what the doctor had done before. "Why give probation to someone who is offended by the whole idea that that person is even before the court," he said, referring to a "failure of character" on behalf of Murray, most specifically, a secret recording the physician made of the singer that Pastor characterized as a type of "insurance policy" against a potential future conflict between the doctor and patient that seemed beyond the pale.
The day before the sentence was handed down, Murray's mother, Milta Rush, reportedly wrote a letter to judge Pastor asking him for mercy, saying, "his [Murray's] compassion and his soft heartedness for others led to this dilemma."
Pastor said he could find no reason to grant probation to Murray, whose actions he called a "gross, continuing deviation" from medical standards, and who he claimed is and remains a danger to the community. Without the legal authority to send Murray to state prison, Pastor said, "the court has determined that the appropriate term is the higher term of four years imprisonment ... because I find that Dr. Murray had abandoned his patient, who was trusting him ... he has absolutely no remorse."
A future date in January was set to begin discussing the prosecution's request for restitution. After being given credit for 46 days of time served and good time credit, Murray was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. The Los Angeles County Sheriff will determine how much time Murray will actually do in his equally overcrowded jail and Murray's lawyers have indicated that they plan to launch an appeal at a later date.