Celebrity Deaths: Homicidal and Accidental

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Everybody dies, but even after celebrities shuffle off this mortal coil their deaths get the Hollywood gloss.

The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, didn’t die of a drug overdose; he was killed. This morning, one of Jackson’s physicians, Dr. Conrad Murray, was officially indicted in Jackson’s death in Los Angeles, charged with involuntary manslaughter for administering the pop star a lethal cocktail of powerful drugs (mostly painkillers), including the now-infamous industrial-strength anesthetic propofol.

Actress Brittany Murphy died just before Christmas 2009 at her Hollywood home from multiple drug intoxication and pneumonia (possibly complicated by iron deficiency anemia). Coroner officials said Murphy went into sudden cardiac arrest soon after taking drugs (including the painkiller Vicoprofen and the antidepressant Sarafem), and that her death was accidental.

But for an example of pharmaceutically-induced death, actor Heath Ledger’s demise is one for the books. He died from an overdose of prescription drugs, a combination of painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine. Ledger’s death was officially classified as an accident.

All three stars died of drug overdoses, and died in essentially the same way. Yet Michael Jackson’s death was a homicide, while the deaths of Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger were accidents.

Why? It’s important to realize that the description of these deaths as “accidents” reflect a legal definition provided by a coroner—not the common definition of “accident.” The accidental death is also a common Hollywood euphemism: with a few notable exceptions (such as River Phoenix and Chris Farley), celebrities rarely die of drug overdoses any more; instead they die of “accidents.” Stars keep earning money long after they’re dead from residuals, and their estates prefer to put as positive a light on the demise as they can.

When most people think of accidental deaths, they probably picture someone involved in a car crash or falling off a cliff, not someone who took half a dozen prescription drugs and went into cardiac arrest. These stars have more than enough money to afford top-quality medical care and advice, and surely they knew that mixing drugs could be lethal. I learned that in fifth grade.

Michael Jackson’s death was a homicide because another person, Dr. Murray, administered it to the victim. Had Murray merely been an anonymous lackey who helped Jackson doctor-shop (instead of procuring the drugs and delivering them into Jackson’s body), he would likely not be facing four years in prison.

The deaths were accidents in much the same way a death in the game of Russian roulette is accidental. The participants know there’s a real risk, but they do it anyway. They don’t intend to kill themselves, yet when the bullet ends up in the chamber, the resulting death can hardly be called an “accident.”

It seems that many celebrities are different than the rest of us, at least in terms of the “accidents” that kill us.