After only two weeks of testimony, no side has a clear advantage in the civil trial pitting the mother of Michael Jackson against A.E.G. Live, the promoter of his attempted comeback concerts, over the question of who was responsible for Jackson’s death.
But both sides have chosen the same weapons: Jackson himself, his problems with drugs and the wrenching details of his last days. What’s most surprising is that even with so much written and revealed about Jackson since his death four years ago, there is still more to learn.
Martin S. Putnam, A.E.G.’s lead lawyer, promised in his opening statement that the case would reveal “ugly stuff” about Jackson’s private life. And witnesses called by lawyers for Jackson’s 83-year-old mother, Katherine, have testified at length about Jackson’s addiction to medications, his physical deterioration and his belief that he was talking to God.
The case hinges on the fairly limited questions of whether A.E.G. hired Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician who administered the powerful anesthetic that killed Jackson in June 2009, and if it was negligent in doing so. Dr. Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a separate criminal trial in 2011 and is serving a four-year prison sentence.
Lawyers for Mrs. Jackson have said that they may seek up to $5 billion in damages. But the greater risk for both A.E.G. and the Jackson family is the potential damage to their reputations as the details of Jackson’s life and final days are revealed, in perhaps even greater detail than at Dr. Murray’s criminal trial.
Witnesses last week included two women who had worked for Jackson for decades, both describing him as a sensitive artistic genius haunted by physical pain. One, Karen Faye, his makeup artist since the early 1980s, said that Jackson became more dependent on prescription drugs over the course of his career.
The other woman, the choreographer Alif Sankey, tearfully recounted how, less than a week before Jackson died, she had begged Kenny Ortega, the director of “This Is It,” Jackson’s attempted comeback concerts, to take him to the hospital after Jackson appeared ill and said that God was speaking to him.
“I had a very strong feeling that Michael was dying,” Ms. Sankey said. As she testified, the only other sound audible in the small courtroom was the tapping of journalists on their laptops.
On Monday another choreographer on “This Is It,” Stacy Walker, who was called by lawyers for A.E.G., testified that she saw no signs that Jackson was in bad shape before he died.
“I just never in a million years thought he would leave us, or pass away,” Ms. Walker said.
The evidence in the case has included e-mails from A.E.G. executives which the Jackson lawyers say show that the company was acting as Dr. Murray’s employer. One message, sent to Mr. Ortega less than two weeks before Jackson’s death, says of Dr. Murray: “We want to remind him that it is A.E.G., not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him.”
A.E.G., a global sports and entertainment company controlled by the billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, denies that it hired Dr. Murray, saying that he had been selected by Jackson and that his $150,000-a-month salary was to come out of Jackson’s earnings for the tour.
What damage the case could cost Jackson’s reputation — and his valuable estate — is unclear. The estate has flourished, even though his faults and indiscretions have already been widely publicized, and some entertainment and estate experts say that the details revealed in this trial are likely to elicit more sympathy for Jackson, not less.
“I don’t think this will negatively impact Jackson’s earning potential through music or consumer product licensing at all,” said Martin Cribbs, who has represented the estates of Einstein and Gandhi. “What truly separates a legend from just a star is when their body of work supersedes who they were as an individual.”
In a court filing last May, the estate said that it had had gross earnings of $475 million since Jackson’s death.
Jackson got more headlines last week when a choreographer, Wade Robson, said that Jackson had sexually abused him as a child. Lawyers for the Jackson estate — which is not a party to the A.E.G. case — immediately excoriated Mr. Robson’s claims as “outrageous and pathetic,” and Mr. Putnam told reporters that the claims were irrelevant to the current Jackson civil suit.
Also this week, a California state attorney filed a response to an appeal by Dr. Murray, whose lawyers have argued that the judge in the case made legal errors in not sequestering the jury and not allowing jurors to hear evidence about Jackson’s troubled finances. In the filing on Monday, Supervising Deputy Attorney General Victoria B. Wilson wrote that there were no errors, and that Dr. Murray’s lawyers had forfeited opportunities to object to the judge’s rulings, according to The A.P.
By the standards of Los Angeles celebrity trials, the Jackson suit seems a quiet affair. The judge, Yvette M. Palazuelos, has banned cameras, and the 45 seats in the courtroom are occupied mostly by lawyers and reporters. A daily lottery for the two or three seats guaranteed for the public draws the same small circle of Jackson superfans. There was one notable guest: Judge Lance A. Ito, who presided over O. J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995, sat briefly in the gallery last week.
But the trial, which is expected to last at least three months, will draw more attention as potential witnesses include stars like Diana Ross and Quincy Jones, who may testify to Jackson’s professional drive or his physical condition.