Conrad Murray's Mistakes: Why does Michael Jackson's doctor face criminal charges when others don't?

Published on
February 15, 2010

Because of the intense media swarm around Michael Jackson's death, it might have seemed inevitable that the physician who administered the fatal dose of anesthesia to the pop singer would be charged with a crime.

But there's a reason Dr. Conrad Murray was not formally accused of anything until nearly eight months after Jackson's death. Doctors who screw up are rarely charged with crimes, unless they have committed insurance fraud.

Mostly, this makes sense.

In a profession where life-or-death decisions are made every day – sometimes on the fly – it would put impossible constraints on physicians if they had to worry not only about the health of their patients, but also about whether they might go to prison if they make a mistake.

Physicians tend to follow guidelines set by the members of their specialties and state and federal laws that govern specific procedures. Only when they step outside the norms and put their patients at unnecessary risk does the specter of a criminal case loom. Even then, it is rare for physicians to actually be charged.

That is what makes the Murray case so fascinating – even setting aside the fame of the person he is accused of killing. Murray made some spectacularly bad decisions. What he did and the way his case has been handled could become a gold standard for prosecutors – and reporters – when dealing with physicians caught with dead bodies.

You can find a great summary of the Murray case on the Los Angeles Times blog LA Now, written by a group of four reporters – Harriet Ryan, Jack  Leonard, Richard Winton and Victoria Kim – who have owned this story from day one.

Over the next few posts, I am going to detail why I think Murray's case went criminal when so many others do not.

Murray's attorney will say undoubtedly that he is being targeted because Jackson was a celebrity and that the media attention has forced the prosecutors to charge him. There is some truth to this. The media can make things happen, but there were many other factors that pushed the Jackson-Murray case into the criminal realm.

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Court records show Jackson's doctor acting more like a dealer

Doctors Behaving Badly: Michael Jackson's doctor can add "deadbeat dad" to his resume

Q&A with Dr. John Dombrowski: Michael Jackson's bungled pain management may have killed him

Q&A with Dr. John Dombrowski, Part 2: Anesthetizing Michael Jackson "indefensible"

Making Hepatitis History Part 1: Michael Jackson's deadly drug strikes again

Q&A with Dr. Doris K. Cope: Michael Jackson was just a symptom of a pain medicine problem