Wrong doctor or wrong patient? Michael Jackson's physician has some explaining to do

Published on
July 1, 2009

Within hours of the news breaking about Michael Jackson's death, attention started to turn toward one of the only eyewitnesses to the event: his personal physician.

Dr. Conrad Robert Murray's name will long be associated with his most famous patient. It's too early to tell exactly what sort of relationship Murray had with Jackson. Was he like Dr. Eugene Landy, who was accused of derailing the career of Brian Wilson by turning him into a zombie? Or was he just a well meaning cardiologist who accepted a flattering invitation from a music legend to join him on his comeback tour?

The details are emerging quickly. I wanted to hit "pause" on a few items to underscore the importance of doing regular background checks on doctors when you are writing about them. Here is what we know so far about Murray and why:

1. He is licensed in California, Nevada and Texas, but he hasn't done anything in any of those states to catch licensing officials' attention. Harriet Ryan and Kimi Yoshino at the Los Angeles Times checked all three places for this story. A good first pass for checking licenses nationally is Nexis. If you don't have a Nexis account, check the Association of State Medical Boards' DocFinder. They have a one-stop search that covers most of the small states, Texas and Florida. For the rest of the states, you have to check them individually, but there are links on that page.

2. Murray does not appear to be a board certified cardiologist. Very few stories have pointed this out. You can find this out by checking with the American Board of Medical Specialties. They make you sign up for a login, and you are limited to a certain number of searches each month, but the membership is free. I'm guessing that little hurdle is what makes this the place that so few people check when they are writing stories about doctors. The board doesn't cover every specialty, but it does cover the main ones. The list is here. Another good place to check is the American Board of Internal Medicine. Here you'll find that Murray had been certified in internal medicine through the end of 2008 but let his certification lapse. Cardiologists are first certified in internal medicine, then in cardiovascular disease, then in any sub-specialty.

3. His business is in trouble. Beth Harris and Michael R. Blood at the AP summed his financial troubles up nicely. "Records reveal years of financial troubles for Murray - a 1989 graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville - who practices medicine in California, Nevada and Texas. Murray's Nevada medical practice, Global Cardiovascular Associates, was slapped with more than $400,000 in court judgments: $228,000 to Citicorp Vendor Finance Inc. in November 2007, $71,000 to an education loan company in June 2008 and $135,000 to a leasing company last September." These figures most likely come from a search of a court records database, like Nexis or Merlin, or by individually searching the courts in the counties in each state where he has a practice. The key here was that the reporters (or their research librarians) didn't just search for Murray's name. They searched for the names of his medical practice and other businesses.

4. He's in debt. "He faces at least two other pending cases," the AP writes. "Clark County, Nev., court records show Murray was hit last December with a nearly $3,700 judgment for failure to pay child support in a San Diego case, and had his wages garnished the same month for almost $1,500 in a court judgment won by a credit card company. Another credit card claim for more than $1,100 filed in April remains open." Nexis and Merlin often just give you the minimum. If you want details, you want to see the actual court filings. Now, it might be fun to fly to Vegas, but you probably don't have the travel budget. Clark County does a better than average job providing details online. A search turned up five closed cases involving Murray, including the ones listed above, and one reopened one. Don't forget to check the criminal cases. Murray didn't have any in Nevada, but it's always worth looking.

5. He has trouble staying current. "He owes $940 in fines and penalties for driving with an expired license plate and no proof of insurance in 2000." This can be found in a separate search of Clark County traffic violations. Isn't it interesting that a physician who ends up being Michael Jackson's go-to guy was only able to pay $85 on a $1,025 traffic citation, and it took him three years just to pay that!

6. If that wasn't evidence enough that he doesn't have the best timing, consider that just four days after Jackson was found dead, he started demanding money: $300,000 of a contract that, by his math, looks to have been worth more than $1.5 million.

7. Unlike almost any doctor on the planet, he doesn't appear to use a cell phone. Anthony McCartney at the Associated Press reported that Murray waited nearly half an hour to call 911 because he couldn't find a phone in Jackson's house.

I'll keep checking for more details about Murray's past, present and future. If you have suggestions or questions about a fact you've seen in a Jackson-related story, let me know.