We are very happy to present an interview with Matt Semino, a New York City attorney who has written extensively on various legal issues, including the upcoming Conrad Murray trial. Matt has kindly agreed to share his thoughts and opinions on a number of topics, many of which address our deep concerns about the court system and potential issues and strategies to be faced in the coming weeks. Matt shares with us his strong support for Michael and a legacy of enormous impact on world culture. Intelligent, educated and experienced insight is surely welcomed and necessary during this difficult time. Please welcome Matt, as he hopes his words and input are informative and helpful to all.
Lauren: Matt, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Would you give us an idea of your background, what area of law you practice and what your current interests are in legal matters, media or journalism in general?
Matt: I am a private practice attorney in New York City, where I advise domestic and international clients from the entertainment, real estate and finance industries on a diverse range of legal matters, including strategic business transactions, compliance with government regulations, policies and investigations as well as complex litigation. As an attorney, I have also provided pro-bono legal defense and advocacy representation to U.S. political asylum seekers, and economically marginalized clients through New York based human and victim rights organizations.
As a legal analyst, I write and provide commentary on high-profile cases, trials and legal topics in the national media. My analysis is informed by my experiences as an attorney, as well as my work in the fields of entertainment, finance and public policy. I am fascinated by the frequent intersection of law with celebrity culture, as well as the tremendous power of media to shape public discourse on social, economic and political issues through popular legal stories.
My interests in law, policy, entertainment and media were initially shaped through my earlier educational and work experiences both in the United States and abroad, and have developed further through my legal practice.
I graduated from Columbia Law School and Cornell University, and studied at the London School of Economics. Prior to attending law school, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Southeast Asia. I gained exposure to the political and legislative system by working in Washington DC in the United States Senate for the late Senator Edward Kennedy, in the Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno, and in London in the British Parliament for parliamentarian Quentin Davies. My experience in the entertainment industry includes hands-on work with several film and television productions in New York and Los Angeles.
Lauren: Besides The Huffington Post, what other outlets do you contribute to?
Matt: In addition to my legal column on The Huffington Post, my commentary has been featured through such national media as FOX, CNBC, CBS, Forbes, Business Insider, Daily Candy and Bloomberg online, among other domestic and international media outlets. I also contribute stories to the national news site Examiner, which are focused on entertainment, celebrity and society topics.
As a New Yorker, I support and serve on the committees of a variety of philanthropic and arts organizations, and have appeared in Town & Country, Gotham, Hamptons, Avenue and Quest magazines as well as New York Social Diary, in connection with my involvement through these cultural endeavors.
I am excited about future opportunities to share my legal analysis and commentary, particularly on the Dr. Conrad Murray trial, through The Huffington Post as well as other print media, radio and television sources.
Lauren: What was your experience like as a Fullbright scholar?
Matt: My time as a Fulbright Scholar was one of the most personally and intellectually enriching experiences of my life. From 1998-1999, I had the opportunity to attend the National University of Singapore as a research fellow through the generosity of the Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is the U.S. government’s flagship educational exchange program.
As a Fulbright Scholar, I conducted research on the currency crisis that was occurring during that period of time in Southeast Asia. I examined the impact of that financial crisis on human rights, democracy and monetary policy throughout the region. Through my academic and field research in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, I concluded that although the economic and social upheaval in the region had caused tremendous economic suffering and led to increased violations of human rights, it also generated powerful calls from citizens in these countries for greater governmental transparency, democracy and institutional reform. These citizen led movements created positive and lasting policy changes. In addition to my research in Southeast Asia, I had the opportunity to travel and gain exposure to the cultures, religions and societies in such countries as Tibet, China, India, Russia, South Africa and Bolivia, among others.
Lauren: What musical interests do you have?
Matt: As a child of the MTV generation, I have always been drawn to pop music and videos. However, if a song or an artist moves me, I will listen and explore no matter what genre. I am addicted to iTunes which makes discovering new music very easy! New York City is also home to some of the best musical performance venues in the world. Living in Manhattan, I have heard live performances of and developed an appreciation for classical, Broadway, opera, Latin, world, rock, alternative and jazz music as well.
Lauren: When was your first experience or knowledge of Michael Jackson?
Matt: I was hooked when I first heard “Thriller” on the radio and saw the epic video for that song on MTV. The rest is history!
Lauren: Do you have specific favorite songs, films, albums or other artistic work?
Matt: In terms of sheer pop classics, dancing and Michael Jackson iconography, the music and videos from the albums Thriller and Bad stand in the forefront of my mind as favorites. To me, they truly represent Michael Jackson as the ultimate showman talent. However, the somewhat darker, more emotional and political albums Dangerous and History, offer an authentic glimpse at what I believe was a deeply thoughtful, caring man and humanitarian. The music and videos from these albums are interesting to me because of their nuanced artistic and psychological layers, as well as their socially conscious messages. Specifically, “Man in the Mirror,” “Heal the World,” “Black or White,” “Scream”, “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Earth Song” best capture for me Michael Jackson’s human complexity, his compassion for the world and his personal struggles. These works make you feel and think all at once which, in my opinion, is the beauty of true art.
Lauren: How have you personally been affected by his artistry and body of work and the kind of person he was?
Matt: Michael Jackson’s artistry as well as his humanitarian efforts, unwavering commitment to social justice and generous contributions to charitable organizations throughout the world, have served as an inspiration to me to follow my dreams with the goal of having a positive impact on society. His example of always looking to assist those less fortunate and of using one’s given talents to improve the state of the world in any way, large or small, are examples that I strive to follow in my everyday life.
When I was a child and young adult, Michael Jackson’s creative body of work and public service actions shined an even greater light for me on such difficult but timely issues as homelessness, environmental degradation, AIDS, famine and racism, among other salient topics. Jackson demonstrated that if you want to create positive social change, it is entirely possible. Motivated in part by the philosophical underpinnings of his messages, I was drawn to the law because I know it is a powerful tool that can be used for helping others and working toward solving some of the world’s most complex problems.
Lauren: As an attorney, what was your general impression of the prosecution and trial in 2005?
Matt: I believe the case People vs. Jackson and the 2005 trial involving Michael, represented the culmination of anti-Michael Jackson sentiment that had been building for years within certain segments of American society. Michael Jackson was tainted by the Chandler family’s accusations against him from the early 1990s, and as his music and persona evolved over the decade, the once adoring public and media generally began to turn their back on him. Sorely misunderstood, a variety of actors in law enforcement, the legal system and the media seemed convinced that Michael Jackson’s actions, lifestyle and public image painted the picture of a guilty man. They wanted him to be put away for good and would not stop until that happened. The 2005 trial was a modern day witch hunt.
Fortunately, the prosecution’s case against Jackson revealed that the accusations lacked any substance or element of truth. Sloppy investigative work, extremely weak and conflicting evidence, disastrous witness testimony as well the accusing family’s history of attempting to extort celebrities, were all factors that contributed to the prosecution’s inability to convince a jury of Michael’s guilt. Yet, despite being found not guilty on all charges, Michael Jackson was still unfairly vilified by segments of the media in their hungry quest for ratings. This type of abysmal treatment by elements of the public and media, in my opinion, only led to further destruction of his image, career and soul.
Lauren: Have you studied or researched or simply had an interest in Michael as a person and artist and his difficulties in life?
Matt: As a Michael Jackson supporter, I followed his artistic career, humanitarian endeavors and the various stages of his life since childhood. As an attorney, I have always been intrigued by Michael Jackson’s complicated legal and financial history, as well as his business dealings during the course of his adult life. Since his untimely death, I have studied and conducted extensive research on the events and circumstances leading up to that tragic moment, as well as the complex cultural legacy and impact Michael Jackson has had and will continue to have in modern society.
More specifically, I have recently been focusing my attention on the criminal charges against Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, in connection with his death. Through each stage of the Dr. Murray case, I have been following and evaluating the hearings, evidence, witness and media accounts, the jury selection process and anticipated legal strategies of the prosecution and defense as it proceeds to trial. I have also been providing legal analysis and commentary on the case through a variety of media outlets, particularly on The Huffington Post.
Lauren: What are your thoughts or impressions of Michael?
Matt: Michael Jackson was larger than life. He is arguably among one of the most famous individuals in modern popular culture. The intensity and magnitude of his celebrity, talent, wealth and notoriety, allowed him to touch and connect people across the world through a common creative language. Yet at the same time, the amalgamation of these characteristics built a complex man who, although loved and adored by millions, was an enigma to many. Sadly, the combination of his extreme power with his extreme vulnerability made Michael Jackson an easy target for the unscrupulous. While Michael Jackson’s enormous and positive impact on culture and humanity will be felt by future generations, his life story is ultimately a modern-day Greek tragedy. It was a tragedy though that did not have to happen.
Lauren: Can you speak to the issues in the upcoming Murray trial, physician responsibility, financial gain, power, celebrity?
Matt: The Dr. Conrad Murray case represents the potentially lethal power that celebrity, power and greed can have on the patient/physician relationship in Hollywood, and in communities beyond the exclusive enclaves of the stars. When accepted standards of professional practice and ethics are abandoned in the pursuit of fame and financial gain, the human toll is disastrous.
In my piece Dr. Conrad Murray Trial, a Bitter Pill to Swallow that was recently published on The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-semino/dr-conrad-murray-trial-a-_b_814401.html, I examined what I believe are some of the most salient issues that this high-profile legal story touches upon.
As this is a case about the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, one of the most famous figures in the world, it will no doubt set precedent. The outcome of the case will be particularly influential in connection with the medical establishment's future oversight of the private patient/physician relationship, and in the regulation of routine sales of potential addictive and lethal drugs to medical practitioners.
Hopefully, some of the important legal and social questions that this trial will address include; (1) What are the permissible professional and ethical boundaries of the physician/patient relationship, particularly those of a private nature? (2) What are the expected standards of care that a physician owes to his patient, and how can these standards be better enforced by the medical establishment and legal system? (3) How can the sale of excessive amounts of harmful medications and drugs to physicians, be better regulated to prevent systemic abuse and ultimately harm to patients? (5) Does the power and allure of celebrity and the prospect of financial gain contribute to unethical professional practices in Hollywood and beyond? If so, what policy steps can be taken to prevent future tragedies?
Lauren: Many fans, friends and advocates for Michael are angry, and feel powerless to stop the anticipated smear campaign by the defense. What are your thoughts on that issue? Is there any concrete action that can be taken to avoid or lessen this trauma?
Matt: In order to convict Dr. Conrad Murray on the charges of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution through the presentation of its case, must convince a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Reasonable doubt is a standard of proof used in criminal trials. In a criminal case such as that of Dr. Conrad Murray, if the jury has any reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt the jury should pronounce the defendant not guilty. Conversely, if the jurors have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecution has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.
The sole object of Dr. Murray’s defense team will be to present its case in any manner that it believes within permissible ethical and legal boundaries, will place reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors to ensure that their client is found not guilty.
To the distress of many of Michael’s fans, accomplishing this will likely mean that the defense will dig up and play to past negative stereotypes and public perceptions of Jackson. The defense will also likely paint a picture of Michael Jackson as a demanding, drug dependent pop star who used the power of his celebrity to force Dr. Murray to obtain, and give him excessive amounts of propofol and other prescription drugs. It is also anticipated that the defense is planning to go as far to claim that Jackson injected himself with the lethal dose of propofol while Dr. Murray stepped out of his bedroom. While Dr. Murray’s legal team has every procedural right to present the strongest case possible, their arguments will no doubt be grounded in a classic ‘blame the victim’ defense.
It is inevitable that some segments of the media will cling to the defense’s less than favorable depiction of Michael Jackson. However, Jackson fans can take concrete actions in response. As the trial proceeds, fans can continue to petition and peacefully campaign against and/or boycott news programming and reporting that is perceived to support the distortion of facts, and that blurs the boundaries of ethical journalistic practice. The Michael Jackson fan base was highly successful in preventing the airing of a Discovery Channel show depicting a simulated autopsy on the star through these powerful means of collective action. Fans should continue to employ such tactics wherever they see factually false stories or inaccurate depictions of Jackson being presented to the public.
The Michael Jackson fan base can also engage in its own form of citizen journalism and attempt to shape the news through their personal interpretations of events. With the explosion of online media and blogs, there are many new opportunities and outlets for individuals with a viewpoint to share their perspective with a global audience. Such venues can provide vocal and informed Michael Jackson fans with a platform to counter what they believe is tabloid journalism by some mainstream media outlets. Finally, the Michael Jackson fan base can seek to promote and place into the mainstream media those journalists, commentators and media personalities that they believe best exemplify integrity and ethical practice in their reporting, and who will provide balanced analysis of the issues at hand.
Lauren: Given what is known about this case, what are your thoughts on the charge of involuntary manslaughter vs. murder II or a higher charge?
Matt: Many Michael Jackson supporters have expressed to me their anguish and disbelief that Dr. Conrad Murray was only charged with involuntary manslaughter, and not a higher charge such as second or even first-degree murder. They also believe that it is a slap in the face to Jackson, his family and his fans that he would only face a maximum of four years in prison if found guilty on the charges, particularly for a physician who acted so negligently in the care of his patient.
I do understand and empathize with the thoughts of many of the fans on these issues. It all looks to be quite unjust on its face. However, when looking at these charges it is necessary to understand the legal distinctions between various degrees of criminality in the law of homicide.
The reason Dr. Murray was only charged with involuntary manslaughter and not a higher charge boils down to what his likely state of mind was in the commission of the alleged crime, and what level of charge the existing evidence in the case will best support for the prosecution to ensure a conviction.
The law generally differentiates between levels of criminal culpability based on the mens rea or the state of mind of the accused. Within the law of homicide murder requires (i) either the intent to kill (with a state of mind called malice) or (ii) knowledge that one’s actions are likely to result in death (with a state of mind called malice aforethought). On the other hand, manslaughter requires a lack of any prior intention to kill or to create a deadly situation that may lead to death. Manslaughter is usually broken down into voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Dr. Murray’s charge of involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought. Involuntary manslaughter is distinguished from voluntary manslaughter by the absence of intention.
In my interpretation, the evidence that has been collected and presented so far in the Murray case indicates that Dr. Murray violated his Hippocratic Oath, deviated greatly from proper standards of medical practice and professional ethics, and acted in a manner that was so negligent that Michael Jackson died under his watch.
However grossly negligent Dr. Murray was in his care of Jackson, that same body of evidence though does not seem to indicate that he actually had the intent to kill or the intent to cause serious harm to Michael Jackson, the necessary state of mind under the law to warrant a higher charge in this case. In order to increase their odds at a conviction it is likely for this reason, the lack of demonstrated intent, that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office did not seek a higher charge against Dr. Murray.
Lauren: Patrick Treacy, Michael's physician when he was in Ireland, is quite definite about the inevitable shredding of Michael's reputation once again. Do you have any suggestions from a legal standpoint on how Michael's fan base can brace or respond to this onslaught by the media?
(Below is Treacy's interview with Aphrodite Jones)
Matt: From a legal standpoint, one of the most effective means for Michael Jackson fans to address any social, political or economic issues that are of importance to them or that effect them as a group now and into the future, is to directly address those issues through the legislative process. If the fan base perceives that greater media regulation and reform is needed in the United States, then they should continue to build advocacy organizations and lobbying groups that will vocalize the importance of these issues to their elected representatives in local, state and federal government. With effective leadership and strategic action by the Michael Jackson community, such organizations and groups may ultimately be able to influence the legislative process and have laws and policies enacted that can achieve the desired reforms.
Lauren: Michael's fans are repeatedly marginalized in the media as 'crazy'. What has been your experience with those you have had contact with?
Matt: Michael Jackson fans across the world are passionate people. Rightly so, millions of them are emotionally connected to what he symbolized as an artist, a humanitarian and a man who faced his own personal struggles throughout life. People from all races, religions and nationalities feel that they can relate to Jackson on many different levels and for a diverse range of reasons. Ultimately, he connected humanity.
Because Michael Jackson truly inspired and gave tremendous hope to so many people around the world, fans are angry that he was taken so soon by circumstances that could have easily been prevented. They are justified in their emotions. Michael’s fans have felt distressed for a number of years that a human being who they viewed was so talented, compassionate, kind and generous could be bullied in such a highly destructive manner by certain elements of society. Michael’s fans see injustice, and because they are highly vocal and visible they have been incorrectly labeled as ‘crazy.’
Since I began to write about Michael Jackson following his death, I have been contacted directly by legions of his fans from every corner of the earth. From Russia to Egypt, India to England and everywhere in between, the Michael Jackson fans that I have communicated with are some of the most sensitive, caring, thoughtful and eloquent people I have ever spoken with. Each has shared personal stories with me about how Michael Jackson touched their lives and how he gave them hope amidst their own personal challenges. They have also expressed to me highly intelligent thoughts and analysis on why they believe Michael’s rich life was cut short, and have offered their interpretations of the facts in the Dr. Conrad Murray case helping to shape my analysis along the way.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Michael Jackson fan base has been their ability to peacefully organize through the establishment of a powerful online community and tangible advocacy groups, to further Michael Jackson’s cultural legacy and humanitarian efforts. They should continue these activities also through the establishment of nonprofit entities that will advance the causes Michael Jackson supported.
Ultimately, Michael’s fans have the collective power to right what they view as wrongs in society whether it concerns Michael Jackson or other issues, by employing their strong voice and unified vision. Michael Jackson fans should never be discouraged by disparaging labels!
Lauren: What are your thoughts about old, familiar media faces that maligned Michael repeatedly in the past and now re-appear to do it again?
Matt: This does not surprise me at all. Ironically, many of the media figures who maligned Michael Jackson in the past have achieved even greater financial success and professional notoriety through their biased and sensational reporting. If these media personalities continue to garner ratings and are rewarded by networks for doing so, there is no incentive for them to change their approach to "The Michael Jackson Story" no matter what the set of facts they have before them. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the viewing public to demand truthful reporting, ethical professional practices and accountability from journalists, media personalities and news organizations. As the media is primarily a profit making business, there will be no commercial advantage to story manipulation and the distortion of facts if the public refuses to buy it.
Lauren: What are your opinions about 'blame the victim' defenses; not just in Murray's case, but overall? How is that in any sense justice, when the victim has no voice?
Matt: The relationship between a victim and a victimizer is typically characterized by an imbalance of power. It is usually the victimizer that holds, manipulates and then exerts their power over the victim, exploiting the victim’s weaknesses with dangerous effect. Although a victim may engage in behavior or place themselves into circumstances that contribute to them being exploited and ultimately victimized, it is the victimizer who should ultimately be held responsible for abusing their power in the relationship.
As Michael Jackson’s physician, Dr. Murray possessed a great deal of power over his patient even though he claims the opposite. He had the professional responsibility not to abuse that power for personal gain no matter what Michael Jackson, the victim, had done to find himself in a position of weakness. Yet, the ‘blame the victim’ defense that Dr. Murray’s legal team is expected to present at trial, serves as a very easy and convenient litigation strategy. Michael Jackson will be unable to refute any negative characterizations whether true or false that are made about him and the circumstances that caused his death, while Dr. Murray, on the other hand, will have the power to testify and state his interpretation of events.That seems quite unbalanced to me.
The defense will likely play to the jury's emotions by perpetuating the popular, but not wholly accurate perception that Michael Jackson was an emotionally and physically weak pop star who was addicted to propofol, forced Dr. Murray to administer it to him regularly and ultimately caused his own death. It is difficult to image that justice can be fully served when the same imbalance of power that characterized the Dr. Conrad Murray/Michael Jackson relationship in Jackson’s home, will now rear its ugly head in the courtroom.
Lauren: Do you expect to participate in the discussion/discourse about this trial?
Matt: Absolutely! I will be covering and providing legal commentary on significant aspects of the Dr. Conrad Murray trial and its verdict for The Huffington Post, as well as on national radio and television news shows as requested. I am looking forward to contributing my legal analysis of the evidence presented at trial, witness testimony, the strategies of the prosecution and defense, as well as the social and policy implications of the verdict. My overall objective is to provide a truthful and balanced perspective on the facts and issues presented by this monumental case through a diverse range of media outlets.
Lauren: Are you aware of the importance of people like yourself and also Tom Mesereau, Patrick Treacy, those who knew or worked with Michael, cultural historians and researchers like Joe Vogel, friends and others who have a platform to speak about Michael and the truth as we know it?
Matt: That is very kind of you to say and to include me in this distinguished group. I believe it is essential for those fortunate enough to have a platform to address issues of injustice, inequity and abuses of power to do so whether it is concerning Michael Jackson or others. Though, with the power of such a platform comes the responsibility to speak with honesty, and to avoid the manipulation of news subjects and facts solely to serve ulterior commercial and/or personal interests. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past with reporting on Michael Jackson, not all who possess such a platform act with ethics and professional responsibility.
Lauren: Why do you think the media focuses so fiercely on negative aspects in regard to Michael, and virtually ignore his humanitarian and artistic legacy?
Matt: Ratings. Easy sound bites. Profit. As long as media can continue to draw viewers and advertisers through a certain type of reporting style or story angle, whether it is about Michael Jackson or any other public figure, it will continue to do so. Many people could not understand Michael Jackson’s appearance, lifestyle, interpersonal relationships, child-rearing choices and other aspects of his personal actions. It became popular to ridicule Jackson, viewing him as an eccentric who stood outside of society’s norms and was to be feared. Whether or not these perceptions were justified, the media found it easier and more profitable to play to and reinforce sensationalized accounts of Jackson, as opposed to digging deeper into his humanitarian or artistic contributions to society.
After years of this fiercely derogatory reporting, and as Michael Jackson’s legal and financial problems continued to mount, it became ingrained in the public consciousness that any news about Michael Jackson was going to be negative news. In my opinion, no matter what Michael Jackson did, this tidal wave of destructive media attention became too overwhelming and it ultimately broke his spirit.
Lauren: Do you have an opinion about racism playing a part in negativism toward Michael?
Matt: Yes, racial stereotypes played a significant role in the public and the media’s growing negativity toward Michael Jackson. As Jackson’s skin color and facial appearance changed over the years, many people became confused about why these changes were occurring. There was constant speculation about his race, and Jackson was consistently interrogated about whether he still identified himself as African American or was trying to be Caucasian or another race.
In my opinion, this type of questioning and negative examination of Jackson’s surface appearance and racial identity were borne out of pre-conceived, and narrow societal constructs of what are the expected physical characteristics of different races. As Michael Jackson’s appearance changed, many people became uncomfortable with the fact that they could not place him squarely into a defined racial box. Very few sought to understand the physiological and psychological reasons that were driving the changes in his physical appearance. Instead, his skin color and facial characteristics became just another easy sound bite and eccentricity to point the finger at. I always thought there was an underlying element of racism that perpetuated this highly debated topic.
Lauren: Is there anything you would like to add?
Matt: I want to thank the Michael Jackson community for providing me with the opportunity to share my thoughts and perspective on an individual who I believe was not only a tremendous artist, but a humanitarian of the highest order. Michael Jackson is responsible for improving the lives of so many people around the world, and has left an indelible mark on this earth. I commend the millions of passionate and compassionate Michael Jackson fans who continue to work so tirelessly to preserve his legacy in our culture and on humanity. Thank you!
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