LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Attorneys in the manslaughter trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor began jury selection on Thursday, but absent from the courthouse was the media circus that hovered around previous Jackson proceedings.
Only a handful of television cameras and few fans of the “Thriller” singer were on hand in downtown Los Angeles to watch prosecutors and defense lawyers for Dr. Conrad Murray begin the process of finding 12 people to decide if Murray is responsible for Jackson’s death by drug overdose.
Murray, flanked by his attorneys, sat in the jury room stone-faced and looking straight ahead as the day began. Over 180 potential jurors were called, and members of the pool were told to describe any hardship they might face in a trial expected to last 25 days.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor asked if any of them were unfamiliar with the case. None raised a hand.
Pastor did not seem surprised that, even with such an unusually large jury pool, all the potential panelists knew at least some details of the death of one of the world’s best-known pop stars, a member of the Jackson 5 and solo artist whose “Thriller” remains the best-selling album ever.
“We didn’t expect that you’d been living under a rock for the last few years, or that you had made a pit stop here from Mars,” Pastor said.
At age 50, Jackson stopped breathing at his rented Los Angeles mansion on June 25, 2009, in what authorities say was an overdose of the powerful anesthetic propofol and sedatives.
Murray had been caring for Jackson at the time he died, and the doctor has admitted giving him propofol, a drug normally used for surgery, to help Jackson sleep. But Murray has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Prosecutors say Murray is responsible for Jackson’s death by giving the singer the drug and not properly monitoring him, but defense attorneys are expected to say Jackson administered a fatal dose himself while Murray was out of the room.
While the trial was expected to generate a lot of publicity and lure numerous Jackson fans as did a past Jackson trial on child molestation charges, the Los Angeles courthouse was fairly quiet on Thursday.
A protester holding a sign that read “Justice for Michael Jackson” yelled at Murray’s motorcade as the doctor arrived at the courthouse. Another man who described himself as a longtime friend of Murray stood with his own sign supporting the doctor and said Murray should not have been prosecuted.
At the end of the day, 115 potential jurors were dismissed, setting the stage for another large group of potential panelists to return on Friday for the same selection process, court officials said.
In the first three days of Murray’s trial, at least 480 potential jurors are expected to be brought in to the courthouse to fill out the questionnaire.
Attorneys hope that group will be narrowed to 100 citizens who will return for further questioning later in the month, according to Los Angeles Superior Court officials.
Opening arguments are set begin on September 27.
Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor and an attorney with the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who is not involved in the case, said that given Murray was Jackson’s personal physician, prosecutors will look for jurors who hold doctors to a high standard.
“The more emphasis people put on trust and responsibility and standard of care, if that’s important to a juror, I think that’s a good juror for the prosecution,” McRae said.
Murray’s attorneys will look for potential jurors who hold the opposite set of views about doctors, and expect a patient to demonstrate personal responsibility, he said.
In giving potential jurors instructions for the digital age, Pastor on Thursday advised them not to post anything about the case on Twitter or blog about it.
He also warned them they would not be allowed to negotiate any financial deal — such as a book deal — for information about the case until 90 days after the trial ends.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Cynthia Johnston