When the King of Pop died in June 2009, it didn’t come as a big surprise to many, as Michael Jackson had appeared to be on a downward spiral for years. His celebrity and personal life had been marred with child molestation allegations, extravagant spending sprees coupled with seemingly insurmountable debt, and apparent drug abuse. But Jackson, in 2009, had been making strides to turn his life around as he prepared for a world tour that was anticipated to bring in more than $100 million. Unfortunately, there were some habits he just couldn’t kick: propofol, a sleeping aid, and negligent doctors.
Enter Conrad Murray. An immigrant from Grenada, Murray came to America in 1980, where he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. Specializing in cardiology, he went into private practice in 1999 in Las Vegas. Though some of his patients held him in high regard, he also garnered a rather poor reputation, with mounting lawsuits and unpaid child support. In 2006, life would take a drastic change for Murray as Jackson came to him in Vegas to treat one of his children and they soon became friends. Shortly thereafter, Jackson apparently asked Murray to be his physician while on tour for $150,000 a month — an offer Murray couldn’t refuse. Rather than what the doctor ordered, it was what Jackson wanted and how Murray obliged, disregarding his Hippocratic oath, that cost Jackson his life.
After Jackson’s death, Murray was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter in facilitating the death by means of an overdose of propofol, a powerful sleeping agent most often used as an anesthetic to put patients under during major surgery. When prosecutors needed an expert opinion/peer review of the case, they called upon several cardiologists qualified to do peer reviews, including local practitioner Dr. Alon Steinberg, who had been working in Ventura and Oxnard for the previous seven years. As Steinberg put it, he wanted to keep the review simple. Though he was given various reports and interviews, he opted to simplify conflicting reports and stuck with only one — the interview detectives conducted with Murray after Jackson’s death. In that, he found six very severe deviations from the standard practice of care. One of the biggest problems, he said, was that Murray, a cardiologist, was practicing anesthesiology. Because of Steinberg’s diligence in keeping the review simple and direct, prosecutors chose him to testify at the Murray/Jackson trial. His testimony could be said to have sealed Murray’s fate, leading to his conviction for involuntary manslaughter, which was announced on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
Steinberg talked to the VCReporter this week — on the way to an interview on the Dr. Drew show — about the trial, responsible practice of medicine and his 15 minutes in the spotlight.
VCReporter: Murray was just convicted of involuntary manslaughter. At what point does the patient lose his ability to vouch for him- or herself while under a doctor’s supervision?
Steinberg: [Michael Jackson] always had an ability to vouch for himself. The doctor is supposed to guide the patient, not the opposite. I would have to give him a medical opinion and steer him in a correct manner. Jackson was addicted to propofol. He hired Conrad Murray to give it to him. He wasn’t looking for an opinion.
How often do you think these types of things happen with negligence in the medical community? Weren’t there similar issues with Anna Nicole Smith?
In Hollywood, in general, there are a lot of problems with narcotic sedative addictions, and doctors want to satisfy their celebrity. Conrad Murray was just a 50-something-year-old doctor, just a cardiologist, and his practices weren’t doing well. Jackson said, “Be my personal doctor for $150,000 a month.” [Conrad] had access to women, shows, fame, and I am sure that is addicting.
What would you say of Michael Jackson’s mental state? Should there have been another kind of doctor supervising him?
He needed a doctor specializing in sleep medicine. He had a severe sleep disorder. He needed a psychologist and sleep doctor. So simple to recognize that problem. He didn’t have cardiology problems.
[Jackson] was doctor shopping. He was convinced that the only thing that could make him sleep was propofol. Conrad Murray took the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. He was to tell him, “This isn’t right, no correct method to take,” and to go get help.
Was the sentence of four years justified?
The reason he gave him four for manslaughter, maximum of four years — there were so many severe deviations, he was reckless. It was debate over a malpractice suit, manslaughter, and second-degree murder. They gave him the maximum. He tried to hide what he did. He didn’t show any remorse. Most important thing, three kids have been orphaned from his negligence.
Dr. Murray was a drug dealer, nothing different between him and a heroin dealer. What’s the difference? I hire you to come over, sell me heroin, make sure to give me enough, make sure I don’t destroy myself. What is the difference? Not much of a difference. He was working on legal grounds as a doctor. This story is so outrageous.
How has your life changed with your role in such a high-profile case?
I don’t think my life in general has changed much. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame for a couple of weeks — I have gotten a lot of fan mail from Michael’s fans, a lot of nice comments on YouTube, a lot of positive comments, a fun story to tell at parties and staff lounges. But I practice cardiology, I’m a husband and father. My daughter said, “You are just some guy who was on TV for one day.” I don’t think it has changed much but it feels good that it is over. I am glad I represented cardiologists.