LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Kenny Ortega, the director of Michael Jackson’s aborted comeback show, began his testimony Monday about what AEG Live executives did and said in Jackson’s final days.
His first hours on the stand Monday afternoon were spent discussing Jackson’s creativity, saying his voice, songs and dancing were “like no one else in his generation.” He will return Tuesday to resume his testimony.
Lawyers for Jackson’s mother and children argue in the wrongful death trial against AEG Live that those executives ignored warning signs about his health and mental condition that, if heeded, could have saved his life.
The lawsuit contends the promoters hired, retained or supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s propofol overdose death.
AEG Live lawyers argue that Jackson — not their executives — chose and controlled the doctor, who was giving him nightly infusions of the surgical anesthetic in a desperate search for sleep in his last two months.
Ortega, who knew Jackson well and worked with him closely preparing his “This Is It” shows, sounded a warning to AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips in an e-mail on June 20, 2009 — five days before Jackson’s death — that Ortega did not think the entertainer would be ready for the shows.
He described seeing “strong signs of paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-like behavior” with Jackson. “I think the very best thing we can do is get a top psychiatrist to evaluate him ASAP.”
Expert: MJ was ‘drug dependent,’ not addicted
AEG says Jackson was secretive about his drug use, which the company contends was an addiction, so there was no way of knowing what treatments Murray was giving Jackson in his bedroom.
But a drug addiction expert testified last week that there was “not a lot of evidence to support” the belief that Michael Jackson was addicted to drugs.
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.
There was no evidence Jackson ever took drugs that were not given to him by a doctor or that he took more than prescribed, Schnoll said.
The bottles of sedatives found in his home after his death had more pills remaining in them than he would have expected if Jackson was an addict, Schnoll said. This “indicated these were not being taken on a regular basis,” he said.
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.
While not addicted, Jackson was dependent on drugs, he said.
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 every 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.
President John Kennedy was opioid dependent to relieve “very severe back pain” while in the White House, he said.
“He did alright as president?” Jackson lawyer Michael Koskoff asked.
“It depends on your political affiliation,” Schnoll answered.
The Demerol injections Jackson got during frequent visits to a Beverly Hills dermatologist between April and his death in late June 2009 were given for legitimate medical reasons, Schnoll testified.
If he were addicted to Demerol — which is a powerful opioid — he would not have gone 43 days between injections, which medical records show, he said.
Jackson also went roughly 13 years — from 1993 until 2008 — without the drug, he said. The doctor conceded under cross-examination by an AEG Live lawyer, however, that a gap in available medical records may be misleading.
Jackson’s use of sedatives was an effort to treat his chronic insomnia, Schnoll said.
If the underlying sleep problem could be resolved, the chances of ending Jackson’s use of the drugs would have been good, he said.
There was no indication that Jackson was addicted to propofol before Murray began giving him nightly infusions of the surgical anesthetic for 60 days leading up to his death, he said.
Unheeded warning signs?
Ortega, in his e-mail to AEG Live CEO Phillips on June 20, wrote that “I honestly don’t think he is ready for this based on his continued physical weakening and deepening emotional state.”
He said Jackson was having trouble “grasping the work” at rehearsals.
Production manager John “Bugzee” Hougdahl wrote in an e-mail to Phillips hours earlier that Ortega had sent Jackson home from a rehearsal that night because of his strange behavior.
“I have watched him deteriorate in front of my eyes over the last 8 weeks. He was able to do multiple 360 spins back in April. He’d fall on his ass if he tried now,” Hougdahl wrote. “He was a basket case and Kenny was concerned he would embarrass himself on stage, or worse yet — get hurt. The company is rehearsing right now, but the DOUBT is pervasive.”
Phillips replied to Ortega: “Please stay steady. Enough alarms have sounded. It is time to put out the fire, not burn the building down.”
By “burn the building down,” he meant pulling the plug on the tour that was set to begin in three weeks, Phillips testified last month. “In a highly charged situation like this, I just wanted to keep things calm until we could have the meeting.”
Phillips met with Murray, Jackson and Ortega at Jackson’s home later that day. While Jackson lawyers argue that meeting was intended to pressure Murray to make sure Jackson was ready for rehearsals, AEG lawyers contend Murray assured producers nothing was wrong.
Phillips testified that he remembered little about the conversation at the meeting and Murray has invoked his constitutional protection against self-incrimination to avoid testifying in the trial. This makes Ortega’s testimony crucial for both sides.
Hand over evidence or face jail
A related drama could unfold Monday in another courtroom as a judge in Ohio decides if he’ll carry out a threat to throw the widow and daughter of a former Jackson manager in jail for refusing to hand over a laptop computer subpoenaed by Jackson lawyers.
Frank DiLeo, who served as Jackson’s manager decades earlier, reappeared in his life in his last months. He died in 2011. Jackson lawyers want to search his laptop for evidence to support their contention that DiLeo was beholden to the concert promoter and not to Jackson.
His daughter, Belinda DiLeo, refused a judge’s order last week to disclose where the computer was, prompting the contempt of court order. The judge gave the DiLeo’s until Monday to hand it over or face jail. A hearing will be held Wednesday to determine of the women complied with the order.
Jackson changed managers twice in the last three months of his life. In late March 2009, he hired Leonard Rowe — one of his father’s friends — to replace Tohme Tohme, the manager who initially negotiated the deal with AEG for his “This Is It” tour.
Jackson lawyers argue that AEG Live forced Jackson to take DiLeo, who had worked for him off and on for decades, as his manager in May 2009 because they did not want to work with Rowe.
A cache of 5,000 e-mails has already been recovered and a lawyer in Ohio is reviewing them to redact non-relevant and personal information before handing them over to Jackson lawyers.
Alan Duke | CNN