The mystery of Michael Jackson's death

The mystery of Michael Jackson’s death

Expert witness from King of Pop case encourages young physicians to serve

By Czerne M. Reid

Dr. Steven Shafer/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Steven Shafer, M.D., knows a lot about medicine. He’s a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, editor-in-chief of the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia and a prolific researcher. But his turn as a prosecution witness in the trial of Conrad Murray, the physician eventually convicted of killing pop superstar Michael Jackson in 2009, taught him something new.

In Shafer’s usual work, any claim put forward is reviewed by a jury of peers who are knowledgeable about the topic. As a witness, however, he found himself having to convince a jury that, by definition, knew nothing about the case he was discussing with them.

“It was an extremely educational experience,” Shafer said. “What amazed me at the end of this process is, I came to the conclusion that a lay jury is competent to assess complex issues.”

A guest of the UF College of Medicine’s anesthesiology department, Shafer drew a standing-room-only crowd on Jan. 23 to an early morning lecture titled “The role of clinical pharmacology in the trial of Conrad Murray.”

At first, Shafer was concerned fellow physicians might think he was helping to criminalize medicine by testifying against a physician facing criminal, rather than malpractice, charges for his work.

But he was assured by colleagues who said that Murray’s actions — providing drugs in a way that went against standard medical practice guidelines — were outside the bounds of the physician-patient relationship.

During Murray’s trial, Shafer had to simplify complicated concepts in pharmacology and medicine. He used basic diagrams, images and charts to help make his case.

To refute the defense’s claim that Jackson was still alive after receiving a fatal intravenous dose of the drug propofol, Shafer conducted physiological experiments and made intricate calculations of how the body processes the drug. He showed that based on the drug concentration at various places in the body, Jackson must have died during the infusion.

Shafer advises his younger colleagues to be open to serving as expert medical witnesses later in their careers.

“In court you can demonstrate your humanity and dedication to patients and to being scientifically rigorous,” he said.