Jackson's Death: How Culpable Are the Doctors?

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Rebecca Coo / Reuters

Michael Jackson fans sign a poster in his memory at the Museum for African History in Detroit on July 7

The answer to the question "What killed Michael Jackson?" may still be weeks away, but police officials have given a strong indication that criminal charges, perhaps even for homicide, are being considered. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has said that detectives have spoken to a number of Jackson's doctors and are looking into the singer's prescription-drug history. The coroner's conclusion as to the cause of death, based on toxicology reports, will determine whether criminal charges are filed. "Based on those, we will have an idea of what we are dealing [with]," Bratton told CNN. "Are we dealing with a homicide or are we dealing with an accidental overdose?"

The police investigation is being conducted with the assistance of the California attorney general's office, which keeps a database of prescription drugs, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Neither Bratton nor the two law-enforcement agencies involved in the case would go into further details when contacted by TIME. However, the police investigation is reportedly centered on a coterie of physicians who treated Jackson throughout the years. Gossip website TMZ reported over the weekend that Jackson may have been administered Diprivan, a powerful sedative typically used in hospital or clinic settings for surgical purposes, shortly before he stopped breathing.

Diprivan, which is administered intravenously and known by its generic name propofol, can lead to respiratory failure. It was allegedly found at Jackson's rented home during a police search after the superstar's death and is rumored to have been used by the him in the past to treat insomnia.

"Diprivan was designed to cause respiratory depression," says Dr. Zeev Kain, professor and chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of California, Irvine. "That's the quality of the drug. That's why we use it in the operating room. If any of [the Jackson allegations] is true, a lot of people will be in a lot of trouble. It's reckless. In one word, it's outrageous." Kain adds: "We use [Diprivan] before we perform surgery because we want the patient to be out. It's not a side effect of the drug; that's how it's designed to work." In addition to its usual role, Kain says, in small doses the drug can induce a state of euphoria.

"There are a lot of risks of this drug," says Kain. If Diprivan was administered to Jackson, "we have somebody who underwent all the risks of anesthesia just for what? It's just outrageous, incomprehensible, it doesn't make sense. It's performing a medical procedure that's unnecessary in an environment that is most likely not licensed for it to be performed."

If police conclude that the drug was administered to Jackson before his death, it could very well lead to manslaughter charges — or worse — against the physician who performed the procedure. Citing sources in the LAPD and the coroner's office, TMZ reported that the police are focusing on Dr. Conrad Murray, the cardiologist Jackson had hired to help him prepare for his comeback tour. The website said it was told there was evidence Murray may have administered Diprivan to Jackson. It was Murray who found Jackson in cardiac distress and administered CPR before calling 911 for assistance on June 25, the day the entertainer died. When contacted by TIME, Miranda Sevcik, spokeswoman for the law firm representing Murray, said that they would not be commenting on the numerous rumors, innuendo or unnamed sources at the request of LAPD investigators.

What kind of charges might physicians implicated in Jackson's death face? "The most serious charge that they might be able to do would be involuntary manslaughter, which is an unintentional killing with criminal negligence," says Jean Rosenbluth, a clinical associate professor at USC Law and former federal prosecutor. "Now, there can be criminally negligent homicide if there is such gross recklessness. Theoretically, I suppose you could file some sort of second-degree murder charge, but it's hard for me to imagine that they will be able to show that kind of recklessness. But none of us know the facts yet of what he died of or what these doctors were doing." Involuntary manslaughter carries a criminal penalty of two to four years of jail time.

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