Skip to main content

Judge denies Conrad Murray's request to sequester jury

By Michael Martinez, CNN
Click to play
Sequestered jury sought in Jackson trial
  • A prosecutor argues there should be "a level of trust granted for jurors"
  • Judge Pastor says sequestered jurors can feel like "inmates"
  • He says sequestration would cost $500,000 but adds cost isn't a factor
  • Murray is accused of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson's 2009 death

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A Los Angeles County judge on Thursday denied the defense's request to sequester the jury for the coming trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician accused in Michael Jackson's death.

Lawyers for the doctor -- who is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the singer's death -- had contended that media hype surrounding the case meant it was prudent to isolate the jury during the trial.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor disagreed, saying he did not want jurors to feel like "inmates," supervised even when they contacted loved ones. And he expressed confidence that they would heed warnings to avoid exposure to media coverage.

"I do not find sequestration to be the answer in this case," he said.

In addition, Pastor rejected a defense request that television cameras be removed from the courtroom during certain parts of the trial.

The Los Angeles coroner has ruled that Jackson's death, which occurred June 25, 2009, was caused by an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol, combined with other drugs.

Prosecutors have accused Murray, one of the pop star's doctors, of having a role in the overdose. Jury selection is set to begin next month in his trial. Opening statements are set for September 27. Both the defense and prosecution told the judge they expect the trial to last four to five weeks, while Pastor indicated he thought it could be done in less time.

Michael Jackson's 'secret' talent
Michael Jackson: Fact versus fiction

Murray's attorneys, Nareg Gourjian and Edward Chernoff, had contended, in court papers, that "there is reasonable expectation that Dr. Murray's trial will be the most publicized in history."

They argued that the jury should be sequestered to ensure Murray receives a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment.

"This is an unusual trial," the attorneys said. "Without question, Michael Jackson is one of the most well-known figures in the world. His death, memorial service and every court appearance thereafter involving Dr. Murray has attracted unprecedented media coverage."

Prosecutors didn't file court papers in response to Murray's motion, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office. Rather, Deputy District Attorney David Walgren argued in open court Thursday that confining the jury to a hotel was unnecessary and would make the jurors "essentially inmates."

There should be "a level of trust granted for jurors," said Walgren.

During an unsuccessful attempt at jury selection earlier this year, only one potential juror out of several hundred questioned claimed to have heard nothing about the Murray case, and that potential juror, a woman, couldn't speak English, Murray's lawyers said.

At the time, attorneys didn't consider sequestering the jury. "Then along came Casey Anthony," Murray's attorneys said, citing the murder case as the impetus for their motion. Anthony was acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, but was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of lying to law enforcement.

The case, and the sensationalized media coverage around it, "demonstrated the danger that is created to a fair trial when basic information is managed for the purpose of entertainment and television ratings," Murray's attorneys had said.

The attorneys singled out HLN television host Nancy Grace for "character assassination" against Anthony and "virtually nonstop on-air abuse of not only the defendant but of the jurors and defense attorneys involved."

All news organizations, including ABC News, Fox and InSession, benefited from the Anthony trial, Murray's attorneys said in court records. But some, such as HLN, "cleaned up": That network "drew its biggest total audience in its 29-year history with more than 5 million viewers," Murray's attorneys said.

Turner Broadcasting -- a division of Time Warner -- operates HLN, InSession and CNN, the attorneys pointed out in court papers.

Though there was no suggestion that HLN or CNN staffers tried to interview jurors during that trial, the judge warned media outlets to avoid contacting jurors during this trial.

"That (media) organization proceeds at their own risk if that person or organization interferes with the process of justice," Pastor said.

Still, he said he believes that strongly admonishing jurors to avoid media related to the trial will be effective.

He also addressed a defense contention that sequestering the jury could be considered cost-effective, if it might save the added the cost caused by a retrial.

Sequestering the jury would cost $500,000, but the judge -- while acknowledging that "the state of California is undergoing severe financial problems," as is its court system -- insisted cost didn't play a role in his decision.

"While I raise the issue of cost, that is not an overriding factor," Pastor said. "Justice trumps everything."

Chernoff, one of Murray's attorneys, asked the judge to modify his earlier ruling allowing cameras into the courtroom during the trial. Chernoff asked the judge to remove the camera when certain testimony arises during the trial and argued that some TV commentators act like "quasi-jurors."

The judge rejected that request, citing First Amendment freedoms.

"Yes, there will be talking heads" commenting about the trial, the judge said.

Then the judge added: "Frequently, talking heads are talking through other body parts than their heads."

The next hearing is Monday at 1:30 p.m. PT on a prosecution motion to exclude or limit testimony by 26 defense witnesses.

Legal experts and defense attorneys not related to the Murray case offered differing opinions to CNN on the efficacy of sequestering a jury.

"The defense wants to sequester the jury because it has seen that sequestered juries vote not guilty," said Marcia Clark, the former prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, another heavily publicized case in which the jury was sequestered. "I don't really think there's any need to sequester the jury. To the extent that people know about this case, know about Michael Jackson or Conrad Murray, it's over. It's already been done. It'd be like closing the barn doors after the horse is out."

Ellyn Garofalo, the attorney who represented Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, who was acquitted on charges of conspiring to keep Anna Nicole Smith addicted to prescription drugs, said that the usefulness of sequestering a jury "is a really tough question."

"I think there is good reason to sequester a jury," Garofalo said. "I also tend to think -- and this is more of a personal opinion -- that a sequestered jury is not a happy jury and may be more anxious to get through the testimony than a jury that is not sequestered."

Richard Gabriel, a jury consultant on the Simpson and Casey Anthony cases, said sequestering a jury is stressful and expensive.

"The difficulty is, I don't think a judge has ever gone as far to say during this trial, please do not use the Internet, period. Just like they say, don't watch television during the trial, they say if you see something about the case, please ignore that news item," Gabriel said.

"As a practical matter I think it (would) be difficult" to sequester the jury, "partly because the county of Los Angeles has no money to do that. It is very, very expensive," Gabriel said. "It puts a pretty big strain on a jury because you are taking them out of a familiar setting and you are putting them into obviously a highly pressurized setting that basically says you are in this trial 24-7 for the length of the trial."

CNN's Alan Duke, Michael Cary and Lindsey Brylow contributed to this report.

Watch Nancy Grace Monday through Sunday starting at 8 p.m. ET on HLN. For the latest from Nancy Grace click here.