First thing first: I’m not at all shocked by yesterday’s guilty verdict in the case against Michael Jackson’s former physician, Conrad Murray. Sure, I said before that Murray was not a criminal, and explained my reasoning, but I never said that the jury would find him not guilty of manslaughter. Given the circumstances of this case, I couldn’t have predicted that — and apparently, neither could Murray’s own defense team.
Murray’s attorneys, Ed Chernoff and Nareg Gourjian, blamed the judge for the verdict, essentially saying that he allowed the jury to be poisoned by all of the highly prejudicial evidence. Be that as it may, the law affords trial judges very broad discretion in deciding what evidence will and won’t be off limits, and because of that broad discretion, a trial court’s evidentiary rulings are not routinely reversed on appeal (although this law is state-specific, I’m not aware of any state that deviates from the general rule).
The fact that evidentiary rulings are a weak basis for appeal is probably why Murray’s defense team is focused on his sentencing. In that regard, the judge also has broad discretion — he can sentence Murray to any range of punishment from probation (i.e. no jail), up to four years in prison. CNN does a fairly good explanation of the factors that might play into how much, if any, jail time Murray gets, so I needn’t restate.
With regard to the severity of Murray’s sentence, however, there is one thing that I haven’t heard any of the legal experts or media discuss: The significance of the judge having Murray remanded (taken into custody) after the verdict. Murray was technically a free man for the duration of the trial, having posted bail to guarantee his appearance at trial, but after the jury read the verdict Judge Michael Pastor revoked Murray’s bail, calling him “a threat to society.”
This [wa]s not a crime involving a mistake of judgment. This was a crime where the end result was the death of a human being.
Although the judge isn’t bound by these words with regard to sentencing, the judge’s sentiments are usually a good indication of what is likely to come. Furthermore, as with the judge’s evidentiary rulings, the length or severity of sentencing is also a weak basis for appeal. In most states, sentencing is left to the trial court’s discretion, and so long as the judge orders a sentence that is equal to or within the range provided by the penal code, an appellate court is unlikely to change it. NB: This is very different from the appellate rules and procedure governing the Amanda Knox appeal. For a brief but thorough explanation of striking differences between appellate review in the Italian system and the U.S., check out Georgia appellate attorney Scott Key’s post Managing Expectations in the Wake of the Amanda Knox Win.
Of course it is possible that the judge only put Murray in jail to put a little fear into the man, or perhaps instill some much needed humility, but historically, judges don’t lock up defendants whom they plan on giving a slap on the wrist. The irony of the judge assuming the role of God in this situation is that his name is Pastor.