LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Claims of extortion and laughter-inducing testimony stemming from legal advice on e-mails highlighted Tuesday’s proceedings in the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial.
Randy Phillips, the chief executive officer of AEG Live, disclosed that his lawyers advised company executives not to review old e-mails before testifying.
That strategy could explain the high number of “I don’t recall” answers by Paul Gongaware, the concert promoter’s co-CEO, during his deposition and six days of testimony that have just concluded.
Phillips, who followed Gongaware on the witness stand Tuesday afternoon, said he believed Jackson’s mother and three children were trying to extort money from his company, which he insisted bears no liability in the pop icon’s death in 2009.
The Jacksons’ lawsuit accuses the company of negligently hiring, retaining or supervising Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s drug overdose death.
AEG lawyers contend Jackson chose, paid and controlled Murray, who infused him with the surgical anesthetic propofol almost every night for a month to help the singer rest as he prepared for his comeback “This Is It” concerts.
Jackson lawyer Brian Panish, who has been previously told by the judge not to argue with witnesses, quickly tangled with Phillips.
“Please don’t argue with me because then I will argue back and get in trouble,” Panish told Phillips at one point.
“Then that’s an incentive for me,” Phillips joked.
The feisty chemistry between lawyer and witness promises to keep jurors, who often chuckle at Panish’s courtroom behavior, on the edge of their seats for the next day or so.
Gongaware’s testimony was punctuated with so many “I don’t recall” responses that jurors began laughing at one point. He frequently said he couldn’t recall sending or reading key e-mails in the case, although his e-mail address was on them.
Panish asked Gongaware whether he thought it would have been better for him if he had reviewed documents and e-mails before testifying.
“I relied on the advice of my attorney,” he said.
With his testimony concluded, Gongaware will resume his responsibilities as tour manager for the Rolling Stones.
“All this legal stuff, I don’t understand it,” he said.
Phillips, a law school dropout, seemed ready to rumble when he entered court after Gongaware. But he acknowledged that until two weeks ago, he had not looked at any of his old e-mails to refresh his memory.
“They felt it would be better if I went in without preparation,” he said, referring to his lawyers.
AEG Live lawyer Marvin Putman said outside of court that the volume of documents they would have needed to review was massive, making it impossible for them to prepare.
E-mails that AEG Live executives sent and received in the months before Jackson’s death include one in which Phillips assures show director Kenny Ortega that the company has “checked out” Murray and found him to be very successful.
AEG Live executives later acknowledged they did not do a background check on Murray, who a police detective testified was in debt for more than $1 million dollars and faced foreclosure on his home.
“I wrote it in the e-mail that I thought at the time he had been checked out,” Phillips testified Tuesday. He wrote that Murray was successful “because that’s what I was told,” he said.
“In retrospect, it’s not 100% true,” Phillips said. “There’s what I thought at the time versus what I learned afterwards.”
Phillips, Gongaware and other AEG Live executives ignored red flags that should have alerted them that Jackson’s life was in danger, the Jackson lawsuit contends.
Murray signed and faxed his $150,000-a-month contract back to AEG Live, but with Jackson’s death the next day on June 25, 2009, Phillips didn’t sign it. AEG lawyers argue that means it was not a fully executed agreement and Murray was never hired by them.