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Jackson to be unseen presence at trial

LOS ANGELES — In the small, crowded Los Angeles courtroom, 6-foot-5 Dr. Conrad Murray is an imposing figure. Another imposing figure will loom over the room today: the persona of the man he is accused of killing, Michael Jackson.

One of the most famous pop stars of all time will be present in the words of those who knew him, in snippets of video and in the faces of his famous family watching from the courtroom gallery.

The somber-faced Murray has said little in public, except that he most definitely did not cause Jackson’s death.

"Your honor, I am an innocent man," Murray said at his arraignment last January. "I definitely plead not guilty."

Murray, 58, charged with involuntary manslaughter, could face four years in prison and lose his medical license.

Prosecutors will portray him as a greedy, incompetent doctor with a messy personal life who signed on as Jackson’s personal physician for $150,000 a month to save himself from financial ruin. The defense contends he was Jackson’s friend, a capable protector of the singer’s health, prepared to travel with him to Europe on his tour, and is still mourning the death.

Jackson’s family will sit in a row in the courtroom. They wanted Murray charged with murder.

Edward Chernoff, the lead defense lawyer, said Murray feels the pressure.

"He feels like David in the David and Goliath story but he doesn’t have a slingshot because of the rulings that took his slingshot away," said Chernoff, reacting last month to decisions barring chunks of evidence the defense wanted to present about Jackson’s history of drug use.

Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor has since instructed lawyers to refrain from commenting on his rulings.

Will Murray testify in his own defense? Nobody is saying. Considered a dangerous strategy, it might be the only way for him to show jurors his personality.

The truth involves the drug propofol, which caused Jackson’s death. Prosecutors say Murray was grossly negligent in administering the hospital drug in a private home. Defense lawyers will try to prove that Jackson caused his own death by drinking a dose when Murray was out of the room.

The strategy requires depicting Jackson as a self-centered, demanding celebrity while portraying Murray as a kindly doctor victimized by his patient.

"They will be doing a little balancing act trying to devalue Michael without attacking him," said Thomas Mesereau Jr., who won Jackson’s acquittal in a 2005 molestation trial.

The defense also will be fighting what jurors may have heard about Murray’s love life and financial affairs. He has been portrayed in the media as a womanizer who frequented strip clubs and dated cocktail waitresses, a man who has seven children by various women and has been sued for failure to pay child support. His troubled financial affairs included foreclosure on a Las Vegas home.

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