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Doctor: Promoter knew about Michael Jackson’s drug dependency

Katherine Jackson (24495)
Katherine Jackson

Michael Jackson’s elderly mother will soon tell jurors about her most famous son, as the wrongful death trial of his last concert promoter reaches a midpoint.

Jurors heard one of Jackson’s former doctors testify last week that the top producer of Jackson’s comeback concerts knew about the singer’s drug dependency on a previous tour.

Katherine Jackson, 83, has sat on the front row of the Los Angeles courtroom almost every one of the 46 days of testimony. She’s shed tears, sometimes laughed, and at one point last week shouted out the name of one of her son’s movies when a witness couldn’t remember it.

Her testimony, which is expected to be emotional, will be followed by AEG Live lawyers presenting their defense, which they’ve warned will include “ugly stuff” to prove that Michael Jackson was responsible for his own death.

Jackson’s mother and three children contend AEG Live is liable because it hired, retained or supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the pop icon’s overdose death. Murray admitted giving Jackson nightly infusions of the surgical anesthetic propofol, which the coroner ruled killed the singer on June 25, 2009.

AEG Live lawyers argue their executives had no way of knowing that Murray—whom they say Jackson chose and controlled—was giving him the dangerous infusions in the privacy of Jackson’s bedroom to treat his insomnia.

“They were a concert promoter. How could they know?” AEG lead lawyer Marvin Putnam asked during his opening statement 12 weeks ago.

“Don’t be a Dr. Nick”

Jackson lawyers argue that AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware—the top producer of Jackson’s “This Is It” comeback tour—should have known the hazards of hiring Murray because of his personal experience with Jackson and his work with other artists, including as a promoter on Elvis Presley’s last tour. Gongaware denied in his testimony that he ever knew that Jackson had drug dependency problems while touring.

But video testimony shown to the jury last week contradicts Gongaware’s claim. CNN obtained video segments from the deposition of Dr. Stuart Finkelstein, who served as Jackson’s doctor during his 1993 “Dangerous” tour, which ended early because the singer entered a drug rehabilitation program.

“I said I think we’re going to have a problem,” Finkelstein testified that he told Gongaware, who was then serving as a manager on the “Dangerous” tour.

Jackson lawyer Kevin Boyle: “Did you tell Mr. Gongaware that you thought Mr. Jackson had a dependency on opiates?”

Finkelstein: “Yes.”

Boyle: “And what did Mr. Gongaware say to you?”

Finkelstein: “He said, ‘Don’t be a Dr. Nick.’”

Boyle: “And by Dr. Nick, was he talking about Elvis?”

Finkelstein: “Yes. He was Elvis’ doctor. And I think Elvis died with like 14 different chemicals in his system. And he was kind of warning me that, you know, don’t get all infatuated where you start administering meds to a rock star and have the rock star overdose and die on you.”

Dr. George Nichopoulos, known as “Dr. Nick,” was “the doctor whose overprescription of drugs to Elvis had led to Elvis’ death,” according to a court filing by Jackson lawyers.

Presley collapsed in the bathroom of Graceland, his Memphis, Tenn., mansion, on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42. While his death was ruled the result of an irregular heartbeat, the autopsy report was sealed amid accusations that abuse of prescription drugs caused the problem.

Nichopoulos said later he was treating Presley for insomnia. He was charged with overprescribing drugs to Presley, but he was acquitted. He later lost his medical license in another case.

Presley’s death came days before he was to begin a new tour organized by the concert promoter Concerts West, the company that gave Gongaware his start in the music industry. One of his jobs was working with Presley in his last years on the road, he testified.

Finkelstein testified that he and Gongaware had discussions about Jackson’s use of Demerol, morphine and other opiates during the “Dangerous” tour.

“We thought we needed to do an intervention, that he needed to be detoxed,” Finkelstein said.

The tour came to an early and abrupt end when actress Elizabeth Taylor flew to Mexico City to lead an intervention that convinced Jackson to enter a rehab facility in London.

Finkelstein said Gongaware called him again in the spring of 2009 as preparations for Jackson’s comeback tour were beginning.

“Hey, Stewie, you may have another chance,” the doctor quoted Gongaware as saying. “Michael’s doing another tour to London and he’s going to want to take a physician.”

“Were you interested in going on that tour to London?” Boyle asked.

“Very much so,” Finkelstein replied.

Finkelstein said he had five to 10 conversations with Gongaware about the job with Jackson, and he offered to take it for $40,000 a month. But Finkelstein, who is now an addiction specialist, said he had one requirement—that Jackson be clean of drugs.

Instead, Gongaware agreed to pay Murray $150,000 a month to work as Jackson’s personal physician.

Drug dependent, not addicted

A drug addiction expert testified earlier this month that there was “not a lot of evidence to support” the belief that Jackson was addicted to drugs, but that he was “drug dependent.”

If he was an addict, Jackson “would be taking drugs that were not prescribed by a medical professional, taking larger amounts than prescribed and have drug-seeking behavior,” Dr. Sidney Schnoll testified.

Evidence shows Jackson sought drugs from a number of doctors, but that was not inappropriate because he needed them “to treat a legitimate medical problem,” including back pain, scalp pain and dermatologic issues, Schnoll testified.

The painkillers that forced Jackson to end his 1993 “Dangerous” tour early so he could enter a rehab program were taken to relieve the pain from scalp surgery needed to repair burns suffered when filming a Pepsi commercial, Schnoll said.

The burns left scars on damaged nerves in his scalp, which becomes “excitable tissue” that “can be firing just like the nerve,” he said. The result “can be very painful, like a burning kind of pain—persistent, sharp, shooting kind of pain,” he said. “It’s very uncomfortable and one of the most difficult to treat.”

Pain relief is a legitimate use of opioid drugs and a person can function normally, if they are taken under a doctor’s care, he said.

Jackson went from 1993 until 2008 without using Demerol, Schnoll said. The doctor conceded under cross-examination by an AEG Live lawyer, however, that a gap in available medical records may be misleading.

Finkelstein testified that many of his records for Jackson had been lost.

Jackson’s use of sedatives was an effort to treat his chronic insomnia, Schnoll said.

If the underlying sleep problem had been resolved, the chances of ending Jackson’s use of the drugs would have been good, he said.

Alan Duke | CNN