In the suit against AEG Live for the death of Michael Jackson, the plaintiff recently brought in a a sleep expert witness to discuss Jackson’s sleep habits, and the overall impact of them on the late singer’s death. Dr. Charles A. Czeisler is a professor and the director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, a highly experienced sleep expert witness and the chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A member of numerous medical societies and with over two hundred publications on different aspects of sleep medicine, Dr. Czeisler was an ideal candidate to discuss the specific medical circumstances that existed in the case.
Testifying on June 20th, Dr. Czeisler discussed the effect of the propofol infusions which were administered to Jackson prior to his death. According to Dr. Czeisler, the sixty nights of propofol infusions, which left Jackson feeling refreshed but not granting him any of the benefits of actual sleep, may have eventually killed him (if not for the overdose of anesthesia). Overall, REM sleep is meant to repair neurons, which improves learning and memory. Extended lack of REM sleep, however, can cause paranoia, anxiety, depression, distraction, and, eventually, death. Dr. Czeisler’s testimony on the effect of REM sleep was striking because, during the preparation for his upcoming tour, Jackson was exhibiting many of these symptoms (something that AEG Live was aware of). Furthermore, Dr. Czeisler stated that Jackson’s sixty nights without REM sleep was more than any human had gone without such sleep.
The actual testimony by Dr. Czeisler was interesting, and explained details of the case, but there were important lessons for the search for and deposition of a a sleep expert witness. With his expertise in sleep medicine, the doctor’s specialty is one which may be harder to contextualize for both the judge and jury. A heart surgeon, an emergency medicine physician, or nurse are more common, and, rightly or not, are easier to bring in because they have certifications that enable for validation of their credentials. With a sleep medicine expert, though, attorneys needed to consider the fact that it was likely that none of the jurors had ever encountered an expert in sleep medicine. With that in mind, the attorneys’ selection of Dr. Czeisler was an ideal fit for what he was being asked to speak to. A professor and researcher at one of the best medical schools in the world, Dr. Czeisler spent most of his professional life studying different elements of sleep medicine. Furthermore, he had relevant experience as a sleep consultant for NASA, the CIA, Shaquille O’Neal, and The Rolling Stones (and, as a side note. is probably one of the few individuals with the distinction of working with the four members of that group).
Additionally, despite the fact that his credentials were stellar, he still had to explain his complex field to the jurors, most of whom were likely unfamiliar with his science. This was also handled well, with CNN stating that the jurors appeared “quite interested” as Dr. Czeisler explained the basic elements of the sleep cycle, including the benefits of sleep, the biochemical effects that occur when sleeping, the methodology that he used, and the infusions that Jackson was taking. Essentially, the propofol infusions were meant to allow Jackson to remain awake for long periods of time to rehearse for his concert tour. While it allowed Jackson to do so, it also deprived him of the benefits of sleep. As Dr. Czeisler explained, “It would be like eating some sort of cellulose pellets instead of dinner…Your stomach would be full and you would not be hungry, but it would be zero calories and not fulfill any of your nutrition needs.” This highlights the other lesson that Dr. Czeisler displayed during his testimony. Because of the slightly abstract nature of sleep medicine, explaining the fuller implications of his findings may have been difficult. By using appropriate analogies, and setting up a compelling foundation that jurors wanted to hear more about, Dr. Czeisler was able to distill the complex ideas into manageable insights for the jury. In the end, that is the most important function of a sleep expert witness.