- Associated Press - Monday, January 3, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A doctor who had been hired for a dream job as Michael Jackson’s highly paid private physician now has his reputation in tatters and his future on the line as he faces a preliminary hearing to decide if he will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Jackson.

The hearing for Dr. Conrad Murray, a Houston cardiologist who also has a clinic in Las Vegas, is set to begin Tuesday _ just days after a prosecutor said he expects the defense to claim Jackson killed himself.

Murray, 57, had been hired to help Jackson prepare and to accompany him on his European comeback tour entitled “This is It.”

But Jackson died between rehearsals for the show, and Murray is accused of gross negligence when he administered the powerful anesthetic propofol, which Jackson had been demanding to get to sleep.

The criminal case, with its expected focus on Jackson’s longtime prescription drug abuse, could undermine his estate’s efforts to rehabilitate the pop star’s image after his death on June 25, 2009.

Managers of the estate have sought to burnish his legend with the release of a concert movie using rehearsal footage from the ill-fated show. They also released a new album, “Michael,” featuring songs he left behind.

But testimony at the preliminary hearing is likely to open doors they preferred to keep closed.

In a last-minute twist, Deputy District Attorney David Walgren said he expects the defense to claim at a possible trial that the sleep-starved Jackson killed himself by using a syringe to self-administer additional propofol when Murray left the room.

“I do think it’s clear the defense is operating under the theory that the victim, Michael Jackson, killed himself,” Walgren said last week at a separate hearing. “They don’t want to say it, but that’s the direction in which they are going.”

Defense attorney J. Michael Flanagan refused to comment on the prosecutor’s remarks. The issue was not expected to arise until trial because the defense doesn’t plan to present any evidence during the preliminary hearing.

Prosecutors will contend propofol is only supposed to be used in hospital situations for surgery, and that patients given the drug must be constantly monitored. Experts are expected to testify at the hearing that it was reckless to administer the anesthetic in a private home without proper equipment.

If convicted, Murray could face as many as four years in prison and the loss of his medical license. Already in financial distress, he also faces a wrongful death lawsuit by Jackson’s father.

Murray has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has said that nothing he did should have harmed Jackson.

An autopsy report found Jackson died from an overdose of propofol. In a statement to police, Murray acknowledged giving Jackson the drug and other sedatives to help him sleep then briefly leaving his bedside.

Cellular phone records show Murray made at least three personal calls around the time Jackson was stricken.

Murray’s lawyers are seeking tests of residue found in two syringes retrieved from Jackson’s bedroom. One was attached to an intravenous bag and the other was broken on the floor.

Thirty prosecution witnesses are scheduled to testify at the two-week preliminary hearing before Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor.

If the case does go to trial, many legal observers have wondered if an unbiased jury can be found in the case of Jackson, one of the most idolized entertainers of all time.

His death at the age of 50 was one of the most shocking passings of a music giant since Elvis Presley died in 1977. Drugs were involved in both cases.

The Jackson family members _ mother Katherine, father Joe and a number of the famous siblings _ plan to be in court every day, bearing witness and projecting their grief.

Also expected to attend are Jackson fans. They have been a constant presence at previous court sessions with T-shirts, placards and buttons demanding, “Justice for Michael.”

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