LEGAL THEORY OF CAUSATION: Why Guilty, Dr. Murray in re Michael Jackson by Adeyemi Oshunrinade


As Dr. Conrad Murray is hurled to jail to await sentencing after jury’s verdict finding him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, many wonder what actually led the jury to arrive at such a decision after weeks of deliberation and tons of evidence scrutiny. Recently, I wrote an article on the case titled “Involuntary Manslaughter: Meaning of the Charge in re Michael Jackson.” The article generated a lot of interests among those interested in knowing the meaning of involuntary manslaughter. However, in this case, The aim is to explain what may have led the jury to arrive at a guilty verdict.

To a non-legal mind, a guilty verdict in the Michael Jackson’s case may look rather trivial or mundane but nonetheless, every decision by the court or the jury must be supported by evidence and all elements of the charge must be established to arrive at a satisfied verdict. The crime of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide is defined in such a way that the result of a conduct is required before its commission can be established. Therefore, the answer to how the jury arrived at a guilty verdict may lie in the legal theory of causation.

From the tort theory of negligence we learn that besides proving duty and breach of duty, the prosecution must also establish proximate cause. It must show that the defendant’s action or omission is the legal cause of injury suffered by the victim. Likewise, in criminal law we must find a causal connection between the act and the harmful result. In any civilized criminal justice, liability cannot be enforced on a defendant unless it is determined the action punished, is in some degree a result of his act. Imagine one charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment when all evidence show that his action did not cause the victim’s death. In fact, it is fair to say that such a sentence is far from proper justice. The issue is not what people say is the cause but rather what the law says is the cause of the victim’s demise.

Likewise, in the Michael Jackson case, to find Dr. Murray guilty as concluded the jury must have looked through all evidence including testimonies; based on such evidence it has come to the conclusion that Dr. Murray indeed caused Mr. Jackson’s death. “It has been said that an act which in no way contributed to the result in question cannot be a cause of it; but this of course, does not mean that an event which might have happened in the same way though the defendant’s act or omission had not occurred, is not a result of it. The question is not what would have happened, but what did happen.” (See Beale, The Proximate Consequences of An Act, 33 Harv.Law Rev 633, 638 (1920))

In criminal negligence cases such as this, what is important is that whenever a crime demands the occurrence of a specific conduct for its commission, it is essential that the defendant’s conduct be the “legal or proximate” cause of the result in order for a guilty verdict to stand or else no culpability may be established. For example, the crime of homicide (unlawful killing of a human being), requires the death of a person therefore, defendant’s action or omission must be the legal cause of death to establish guiltiness. This is to say that ‘but for’ defendant’s action or omission, the result (death) would not have occurred.

In the Michael Jackson case, the jury was able to conclude by clear and convincing evidence that Dr. Murray’s negligent action in giving Mr. Jackson an illegal dose of propofol, is both proximate and legal cause of the pop icon’s death. This means that ‘but for’ Dr. Murray’s negligent act of giving Mr. Jackson propofol, Mr. Jackson would not have died.

“A primary requisite to either criminal or civil liability is that the act of the defendant be the cause in fact of the injury. This requirement is embodied in the familiar causa sine qua non rule, generally called the ‘but for’ rule. This test generally is satisfactory when applied in negative form, and it is a basic principle that a defendant is not liable unless the injury would not have resulted but for his wrongful act. But as an affirmative test the ‘but for’ rule provides no infallible standard and does not constitute a fair test of liability in the absence of further qualification. …

“The modern authorities, while agreed that the ‘but for’ test is inadequate differ materially in their concepts of proximate causation. The theories conveniently may be placed in two groups. One group seeks the necessary connection between the result and the act; the other, between the result and the actor’s mind.” (See Focht, Proximate Cause in the Law of Homicide-With Special Reference to California Cases, 12 So.Cal.L.Rev. 19, 20-21 (1938))

To establish proximate cause three tests are required: Intention, probability, and the absence of an independent-intervening force. “Any intended consequence of an act is proximate.” There is no doubt that Dr. Murray intended to give Mr. Jackson propofol. Even though, he had no intent to kill, Dr. Murray knows or should have known that improper application of propofol would cause death.

As a man of adequate intelligence with proper medical training, he is expected to know the adverse effects of illegal administration of propofol. “It would plainly be absurd that a person should be allowed to act with an intention to produce a certain consequence, and then when that very consequence in fact follows his act, to escape liability for it on the plea that it was not proximate”. (See Terry, Proximate Consequences in the Law of Torts, 28 Harv.L.10, 17-20 (1914)) Therefore, there is the required intent to establish causation; meaning Dr. Murray intended a negligent act that caused the homicide.

Probability is a name for someone’s opinion or guess as to whether a consequence will result; to establish the actor knows the probable consequence of his action, it is important the person whose opinion is taken, is a reasonable and prudent man in the situation of the actor. There is no doubt death is a foreseeable consequence of illegal administration of propofol to a human being. A reasonable and prudent physician in the position of Dr. Murray, would have known that death is a foreseeable consequence of negligent administration of propofol, in a home setting. The drug is used by anesthesiologist for surgery and not as a sleeping agent therefore, Dr. Murray knows or should have known the probable and foreseeable consequence of his actions. Legally speaking, an actor is only liable for the foreseeable consequence of his act and not the unforeseeable.

The third test of proximateness is the non-intervention of an independent cause between the original cause and the consequence in question. Therefore, it is proper to call it an isolating cause. To establish his negligent act did not cause Mr. Jackson’s death, Dr. Murray would have to show something else happened in the form of an independent force that caused the pop icon’s death. There must be a prevailing force that cuts the chain of causation, in order not to find the actor liable. Here, Dr. Murray claims the pop icon, injected himself with the propofol that caused his death; he attempts to prove self administration of propofol as the independent force that caused death.

Normally, in negligent cases, a prove of a separate intervening force as the cause of death may exculpate the defendant or make him partially liable; but even in such cases, the foreign force must be equal to the defendant’s action to share liability but, if the intervening force is a dominant or prevailing force the defendant may not be culpable. However, the defendant must still show that he did not set in motion the events that led to victim’s death. Here, Dr. Murray has failed to prove Mr. Jackson injected himself with propofol. Even if he had done so, facts will show that but for the negligent act of Dr. Murray, Mr. Jackson would not have access to propofol. By making propofol available where it should not, Dr. Murray has “set in motion” the chain of causation and the events that led to Mr. Jackson’s death.

Based on followings, all evidence still point to the fact that no independent or intervening force caused Mr. Jackson’s death but the negligent act of Dr. Murray in providing him with a drug he should not have had. These thus establish the third requirement needed to prove causation.

Now that he is found guilty, Dr. Murray may have to spend 4 years in jail however, he may still face a civil law suit. Normally, if found guilty, he would be required to pay damages to the estate of the deceased; Physicians have medical malpractice insurance and in most cases, the insurance pays the fine to a substantial limit. As for his legal costs, he may not be able to pay all; since this is a high-profile case, his defense team may benefit substantially from the sale of books and TV interviews.

At this stage, his practice of medicine may be over; the conclusion to that effect would be determined by the medical board of the states where he is licensed to practice.

Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is a writer and published author; an expert in general law, foreign relations, and the United Nations.

Categories: Criminal Law

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