A choreographer who worked with Michael Jackson on his ill-fated concert tour told a judge Tuesday he clashed with Jackson’s doctor and others over the superstar’s health six days before he died.
Choreographer Kenny Ortega testified that he was summoned to Jackson’s home a day after letting the superstar skip rehearsal because he seemed sick. Dr. Conrad Murray and others suggested Jackson should not have been sent home because he was physically and emotionally fine, Ortega testified, adding he was told not to try to be Jackson’s doctor or psychiatrist.
The testimony came during a preliminary hearing to determine if Murray, the singer’s personal physician, will be tried on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Authorities contend Murray gave Jackson a lethal dose of the powerful anesthetic propofol and other sedatives in the bedroom of his rented mansion before he died on June 25, 2009.
Deputy District Attorney David Walgren said in his opening statement that Jackson was already dead when Murray summoned help and tried to conceal his administering of propofol to the pop star, ordering a bodyguard to collect items before paramedics were called.
Later in the hearing, Ortega testified that Jackson had gone home early from rehearsals on June 19. “He didn’t look well at all,” Ortega testified. “Michael was chilled and soft-spoken. … He wasn’t in the kind of condition to be at rehearsal.”
Ortega also said Jackson appeared lost. “It was scary. I couldn’t put my finger on it,” Ortega said. “I said, ‘Michael, is this the best place for you to be or do you want to go home and be with your family?’ He said, ‘Would you be OK with that?’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he left.”
The next morning, Ortega said, he was called to Jackson’s home, where he was confronted by Murray, Jackson, the star’s manager Frank DiLeo, and Randy Phillips, head of AEG, the company producing Jackson’s “This is It” comeback tour.
“It quickly became clear that the meeting was about me,” Ortega said. “Dr. Murray was upset that I had sent Michael home the night before and didn’t allow him to rehearse.”
Ortega, who later directed the Jackson concert film “This Is It” based on rehearsal footage, said the pop star was in good spirits throughout most of the rehearsals and was excited about the progress being made in preparation for the London shows. He recalled his last conversation with Jackson.
“Michael said, ‘I know you love me and care about me. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine,’ and he gave me a big hug,” Ortega said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Ed Chernoff asked Ortega if he had ever seen anyone having withdrawals from drugs, and the witness said he had not.
Another witness, Jackson’s personal assistant Michael Amir Williams, described Murray calling him on the day the superstar died and frantically asking him to get help from bodyguards for Jackson, who was in a bedroom. Murray told him the singer had a “bad reaction” and that immediate help was needed, but didn’t ask him to call 911, Williams said.
Williams described the chaotic scene at the mansion and hospital and recalled the heartbreaking moment when DiLeo told Jackson’s children their father was dead. Williams said he and Murray and everyone else were crying.
Faheem Muhammad, one of Jackson’s bodyguards, testified that two of the pop star’s children, Prince and Paris, watched as Murray frantically attempted to revive him in the bedroom of his rented mansion. Muhammad said he eventually escorted the children from the room.
Murray had been giving Jackson propofol, an anesthetic normally administered in hospital settings, six nights a week for roughly two months before his death, the prosecutor said in his opening statement. Murray’s attorney declined to give an opening statement.
At the end of the multi-day hearing, a judge will determine whether there is enough evidence for Murray to stand trial. The Houston cardiologist has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys have said he did not give Jackson anything that should have killed him.
Walgren said he will rely on Murray’s statements to police, as well as text messages, phone records and expert testimony to show the doctor should stand trial.
He said evidence will show Murray waited at least 21 minutes to call 911 and ordered a bodyguard to help him clean up evidence before summoning help. In the most favorable scenario, Walgren said, Murray waited at least nine minutes before calling paramedics.
Walgren also plans to call several experts whom he said would testify, “there are a number of actions displayed by Dr. Murray that show an extreme deviation from the standard of care.”
The prosecutor also said he would call a bodyguard who would testify that Murray ordered him to collect items from Jackson’s bedroom.
AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this story.
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