The outcome of the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial, which pits the King of Pop's mother Katherine Jackson against AEG Live LLC, the promoter behind his planned comeback concerts, may hinge on the roles played by two Westport men in the high-profile proceedings.
Michael Koskoff, a medical malpractice lawyer and senior partner at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, serves as the lead lawyer for the plaintiff in the case, which got underway in April in a Los Angeles courtroom. Koskoff called fellow Westport resident, Dr. Sidney Schnoll, to the stand on July 2.
Schnoll is a drug addiction and pain management expert who told jurors during his lengthy testimony that he found in Jackson's medical records no evidence of prescription medication addiction.
Schnoll started preparing for his testimony back in January when he began reading through material, including Jackson's medical records going as far back as 1984 when Jackson incurred a serious scalp burn while filming a soft drink commercial.
Jackson died in June 2009. The lawsuit filed by Katherine Jackson alleges AEG is liable because the company worked Michael Jackson too hard and hired the doctor who was caring for Jackson when he died. That physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is serving jail time. Murray routinely administered to Jackson in the pop star's home Propofol, a powerful anesthesia that experts indicate should not be administered outside a hospital setting.
"One of the principal questions was whether or not Michael Jackson was an addict. In the records that I very carefully reviewed I think that there was information that he had some difficulty with drugs at times and may have been physically dependent on drugs that he was receiving from various physicians. But looking at the records I could find no indication that he exhibited any behaviors that would be defined or diagnosed as addiction," Schnoll said.
"What we have in Michael's case, is that all of the evidence that's available -- we can only go on evidence that's available, indicated that whenever (Propyfol) was administered to him it was administered by a health professional. It was not something that he was taking on his own as people who abuse the drug do," Schnoll said.
Koskoff said Schnoll's testimony helped shed light on an often misunderstood Jackson.
"When you're a person like Michael Jackson you are a victim, sometimes, of an irresponsible press that looks for the sensational. Every opportunity they had with Michael Jackson there was something sensational. This (Schnoll's testimony) was putting everything in perspective for the first time in the history of a person who is, by everyone's account, the most successful performer who ever lived. In terms of all kinds of criteria that people measure, he was at the top," Koskoff said.
Koskoff never met Jackson, but said he learned a lot about the legendary music figure in the course of the case, calling him a genius. "He was a composer, a dancer, a producer, a performer, a singer and a perfectionist at everything he did," Koskoff said.
Schnoll spent about seven hours on the witness stand, testifying over a two-day period. He said testifying has its down side. "The person with whom you are working tries to make you into the most brilliant, wonderful person on the face of the earth and then that person stops and then the next person gets up and tries to make you into the most stupid, worst person they can imagine," Schnoll said.
Koskoff said his esteem for Schnoll extends far beyond the courtroom, calling him "a pioneer in this field."
Schnoll, a medical doctor who also has a PhD in pharmacology, has served on numerous committees and boards including the FDA's Drug Abuse Advisory Committee (DAAC), and the National Institutes of Health study sections. Schnoll started the first drug-monitoring program for professional baseball. He started it for the Chicago Cubs and it was later adopted by all of Major League Baseball.
"One of my partners was given the assignment of finding the best possible addiction expert that we could have because this is obviously an incredibly important case to us," Koskoff said, adding that it was completely coincidental that both men are from Westport. Neither knew nor had met the other before the trial. Although Westport is a town of only 27,000 people, and they live not far from each other they had no common connections.
Koskoff has lived there for about 50 years. Schnoll moved to Westport with his family 11 years ago. Both agree Westport is "a fabulous place to live."
"It's a beautiful community. We like being near the water. We like the fact that it's close to New York making it easy to get in and out and we've meet a lot of terrific people here. For us, one of the most critical things was the school system and we were more than pleasantly surprised," Schnoll said.
When Koskoff, a native of Stratford, first moved to Westport he said it was home to artists, writers and theater people. "It was a vibrant, intellectual, creative center and I think it still is. Even though some things have changed it has kept that kind of a vitality to it that makes it unique ... Westport is a very special place," Koskoff said.
Schnoll said this is the highest-profile case in which he has been involved, and the one with the most publicity, but for Koskoff another case early in his career eclipses even this one.
At the beginning of his legal career, Koskoff and his father, Ted Koskoff, defended the Black Panthers in a historic New Haven trial. "We had daily coverage from every news corporation in America," Koskoff said. The Michael Jackson trial, despite his long reign as the King of Pop and his international renown, has been covered widely but not every day, the lawyer said.
Koskoff anticipates the trial will continue for another four to six weeks. When it is done, he may take advantage of his locale to shop around one of his screenplays. Writing is one of his passions, and in addition to his legal training Koskoff has received formal training as an actor from the American Shakespeare Academy.