Monday, August 24, 2009

MJ: A kind of postmortem

Inspired by the impact and music of Michael Jackson, and by the symmetries between MJ’s life and his own, Spike Lee announced a few weeks back his sponsorship of a Brooklyn-style street party in Michael’s honor, a throwdown set to happen on Saturday, Aug. 29, what would have been Michael’s 51st birthday.

Never mind that Lee, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, hasn’t lived in Brooklyn since about 1999: Spike’s heart is in the right place. This is a far better use of Michael Jackson’s birthday than that which had been planned by the family; the Jackson clan had intended to bury MJ that same day.

Also, New York City Councilwoman Letitia James wants a plaque honoring MJ placed at Brooklyn's Hoyt-Schermerhorn station – where the star made the music video for "Bad" in 1987 — or to have "Jackson" added to the name of the subway station on the IND line. She’s planning a petition drive to make that happen.

On the eve of that now-sad, remembering day comes what Michael Jackson fans have quietly dreaded: the report from the Los Angeles coroner. When it was released, it just confirmed our suspicions that in his last hours, Michael Jackson was at the mercy of his own history, and the powers of control and leverage that both helped give his career its loft, and aided in its awful decline.

Recently, Dr. Conrad Murray, the Houston cardiologist who had become Jackson's personal doctor, emerged from the cone of silence he went under after Michael’s death, posting a video on YouTube — a sensible pre-emptive strategy when you’re looking down the barrel of a high-profile criminal investigation. “I told the truth and I have faith that the truth will prevail,” Murray said in part.

According to the report from exhaustive conversations between Murray and the Los Angeles Police Department, these, apparently, are the facts:

On June 25 about 1:30 a.m., Murray administered a10 mg Valium to Jackson, to help the singer deal with the insomnia that had plagued him for weeks, in the wake of rehearsals for a series of major performances.

At around 2 a.m., Murray administered another sedative, lorazepam (trade name Ativan) — this one intravenously.

About an hour later, at 3 a.m., Murray administered the sedative midazolam (trade name Versed), also intravenously.

At 5 a.m., Murray went back to using intravenous Ativan for Jackson, who apparently was still not sleeping.

At 7:30 a.m., apparently still looking for the right combination to help his patient get some rest, Murray injected Jackson with Versed again.

Finally, at about 10:40 that morning, Murray administered 25 mg of propofol, a clinical anesthetic marketed as Diprivan and not generally known about by, much less used by, the general public. Jackson wasn’t breathing when Murray returned to the singer’s room a few minutes later, Between fifteen and twenty minutes after that, amid failed efforts to revive him, the King of Pop was going quickly, or already gone.

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According to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Aug. 24 in Houston and dated July 23, the L.A. medical examiner-coroner’s office, headed by Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, “had reviewed the preliminary toxicology results and his preliminary assessment of Jackson’s cause of death was due to lethal levels of [propofol (Diprivan)].”

But you don’t have to be a lawyer to sense something that’s just … wrong about the coroner’s assessment. Out of the pharmacy’s worth of sedatives Jackson ingested over a period of nine hours, why would only 25 mg of a hospital-grade anesthetic be the tipping point? Given the known dangers and risks of drug interaction, what seems more likely (to this untrained observer) is that the relentless cascade of drugs coursing through his system for hours set the stage for one fatal event.

With an already depressed central nervous system, it’s possible that taking even the slightest amount of one more drug — any depressant, and taking it intravenously, bypassing any dilution in the stomach — would be the That Did It moment, the moment of no return.

How can “lethal levels” of Propofol be so certainly implicated as the cause of death when Jackson was reportedly using it for weeks before his death? If his body built up a tolerance to the drug, as often happens, he’d have needed more and more of it to achieve the desired effect — not less and less of it, as Murray claimed he was administering in an attempt to “wean him off” the drug.

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The coroner’s office has yet to release the final results of its findings; even if forensically justified, it’s somewhat surprising that eight weeks after the death of a transcendent figure in pop culture, the coroner’s report into that death still bears a “preliminary” status.

As lawyers begin circling the wagons, there are more surprises coming in the Michael Jackson story. One thing that’s developing now that’s no surprise is the sense that, little by little, a legal case is being made against Murray certainly for manslaughter, and maybe something more.

Darren T. Kavinoky, a California criminal defense attorney, explained it Monday for MSNBC: “When we’re talking about manslaughter, we’re talking about a departure from acceptable medical standards that’s more than what we call ordinary negligence. It’s criminal negligence.”

The other, no-brainer non-surprise? Claims and counterclaims will obscure the real tragedy, suits and countersuits will lead us to forget what we’ve lost; in part because of doctor feelgoods, enablers, employees and hangers-on would deny him nothing, perhaps the greatest entertainer of our time died as a pharmaceutical pincushion.
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Image credit: Jackson top: White House (public domain). Valium: Department of Justice (public domain). Ativan tablets: Nsaum75, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license. Propofol: Public domain. Jackson bottom: blackcelebkids.com.

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