By Alan Duke
LOS ANGELES (CNN) — The Michael Jackson wrongful death trial, which promises dramatic revelations and legal fireworks, began in a small Los Angeles courtroom with opening statements Monday.
Jurors earning $15 a day will listen to several months of testimony before deciding whether one of the world’s largest entertainment companies should pay Jackson’s mother and three children billions of dollars for its liability in the pop icon’s death.
Jackson family matriarch Katherine, youngest son Randy and oldest daughter Rebbie are sitting on the front row of the small courtroom, just a few feet away from jurors.
Jackson lawyer Brian Panish has two-and-a-half hours to deliver the plaintiff’s opening statement and AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam is scheduled to deliver the defense opening after the lunch break.
Later in the trial, jurors will hear Michael’s oldest son and daughter describe their father’s last days. But they will also endure weeks of testimony from medical and financial experts offering opinions about the singer’s health, addiction and career.
Only 16 journalists and a few members of the public will be allowed inside the courtroom because many of its 45 seats are reserved for parties involved in the trial, including the Jackson family. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos denied CNN’s request to televise the trial.
Pretrial hearings have featured angry and personal exchanges between lawyers for the two sides, made more intense by the intimacy of the tiny courtroom.
The central issue
The central issue is simple: Did AEG Live, the company promoting Jackson’s comeback concerts in 2009, hire or supervise Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s June 25, 2009, death?
Jackson died two weeks before his “This Is It” comeback concerts, organized by AEG Live, were to have debuted in London. The coroner ruled Jackson died from a fatal combination of sedatives and propofol, a surgical anesthetic that Murray told investigators he used to put Jackson to sleep almost every night in the month before his death.
The Jacksons will argue that AEG executives knew about the star’s weakened health and his past use of dangerous drugs while on tour. They’re liable in his death because they pressured Jackson and the doctor to meet their ambitious schedule to prepare for the London shows despite that knowledge, their lawyers contend.
A cornerstone of their case is an e-mail AEG Live Co-CEO Paul Gongaware wrote 11 days before Jackson’s death. The e-mail to show director Kenny Ortega addressed concerns that Murray had kept Jackson from a rehearsal the day before: “We want to remind (Murray) that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him.”
Jackson lawyers argue the e-mail is evidence that AEG Live used Murray’s fear of losing his lucrative job as Jackson’s personal physician to pressure him to have Jackson ready for rehearsals despite his fragile health.
AEG will defend itself by arguing that Jackson was responsible for his own demise, that he chose Murray to be his full-time doctor and that his drug addiction led him to a series of fatal choices. Murray was never an AEG employee but rather was chosen and paid by Jackson for nearly four years until Jackson died, AEG lawyers contend.
“I don’t know how you can’t look to Mr. Jackson’s responsibility there,” AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam told CNN. “He was a grown man.”
Child molestation accusations against Jackson, for which he was acquitted after a trial, are relevant because they “resulted in an incredible increase in his drug intake,” Putnam said.
“Mr. Jackson is a person who was known to doctor shop,” Putnam said. “He was known to be someone who would tell one doctor one thing and another doctor something else.”
When Palazuelos ruled in February that case warranted a jury trial, she found there was evidence to support the Jacksons’ claim that AEG Live executives could have foreseen that Murray would use dangerous drugs in treating the singer.
Jackson’s family seeks billions
Just before Monday’s session began, the judge issued a series of rulings which allow Jackson expert witnesses to testify, although limited some of their opinions.
The lawsuit seeks a judgment against AEG Live equal to the money Jackson would have earned over the course of his remaining lifetime if he had not died in 2009. Jackson lawyers denied media reports that they were seeking $40 billion in damages if AEG Live is found liable, but it could cost the company several billion dollars, according to estimates of Jackson’s income potential.
AEG Live is a subsidiary of AEG, a global entertainment company that was up for sale recently with an $8 billion asking price.
Judge Palazuelos reversed an earlier tentative decision Monday that would have limited the amount of damages the Jackson’s could argue AEG should pay if found liable in the singer’s death. The decision raises the potential damages by about $1 billion, bringing it to as much as $5 billion.
One of the Jacksons’ experts, certified pubic accountant Arthur Erk, estimated that Michael Jackson could have earned $1.4 billion by taking his “This Is It” tour around the world for 260 shows. AEG executives discussed extending the tour beyond the 50 shows scheduled for London, Jackson lawyers said.
Jackson lawyer Perry Sanders, in arguing for the judge to allow Erk’s testimony, said when “This Is It” tickets went on sale in March 2009, there was the “highest demand to see anyone in the history of the world. No one has ever come close.”
“There was so much demand, they filled 2 million seats in hours,” Sanders said, quoting an e-mail from AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips sent to AEG’s owner.
“We would have had to do 100-plus shows to fill the demand” in London, he said Phillips wrote. Jackson could have packed the Tokyo Dome several times in a world tour, he said.
But AEG lawyer Sabrina Strong called it “very speculative” that Jackson would have even finished the 50 London shows before dying.
AEG lawyers argued that Jackson didn’t perform 260 shows and make that much money even in his prime. “He never came anywhere close to that,” Strong said. “No one other than Cher has ever done that.”
Erk also calculated Jackson would have followed with four more world tours before he turned 65.
Palazuelos weighed in during a hearing on Thursday, noting that the Rolling Stones are still touring into their 70s.
The Jacksons will also try to convince jurors that he would have made a fortune off of a long series of Las Vegas shows, endorsements, a clothing line and movies.
Strong argued that Jackson had a history of failed projects and missed opportunities, calling Erk’s projections “a hope, a dream, and not a basis for damages.”
Erk, under the new ruling, will be able to tell jurors about the “loss of earning capacity” suffered by the family because of Jackson’s death. This means the jury can consider the Jackson argument that he could have earned millions with a clothing line, endorsements and movies. The expert’s estimate that Jackson would have completed five world tours before he was 65, if he had lived, can also be considered.
AEG can argue, however, that Jackson’s past failures diminished the potential earnings.
None of the Jackson experts can offer an opinion on the question of if Dr. Conrad Murray was hired by AEG.
If AEG is found liable, the company’s lawyers want the judge to tell the jury to reduce any damages by the amount Jackson’s estate earned from the documentary made from video the company shot of his rehearsals. “If there is a benefit in it, then that is deducted from a loss,” Strong said.
Jackson lawyer Brian Panish compared giving AEG credit for the “This Is It” profits to being “like you murdered someone, wrote a book about them and gave them the money.”
Panish, who will deliver the Jacksons’ opening statement Monday morning, said he was not sure who his first witness will be Tuesday morning. He did tell the court he will show several videos of the depositions given by AEG’s top executives in the first week.
Panish and AEG’s Putnam will each have two-and-a-half hours to describe their cases to the jury in opening statements starting at 10 a.m. Monday.
The witness lists include many members of the Jackson family, including Katherine Jackson. Other celebrity witnesses on the list are Sharon Osbourne, Quincy Jones, Spike Lee, Ray Parker Jr., Lisa Marie Presley, Diana Ross and Lou Ferrigno.