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Life Sentence Sought for Va. Pain Doctor

Defense Attorney Calls Federal Prosecutors' Request 'Insane' and 'Obscene'

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page B02

Federal prosecutors urged a judge yesterday to send William E. Hurwitz to prison for life, saying the prominent former pain doctor repeatedly lied on the stand during his narcotics-trafficking trial last year.

In a memo filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, prosecutors said Hurwitz's "criminal behavior was simply disgraceful" and "blatantly violated his Hippocratic oath" to help patients. Hurwitz was convicted of running a drug conspiracy out of his McLean office and trafficking in narcotics that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 14.

William E. Hurwitz, shown in 1996, was convicted of running a drug conspiracy. But some patient advocates consider him a heroic figure. (Clement Britt -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via AP)

Hurwitz's attorney, Marvin D. Miller, called the government request for a life sentence "absolutely insane and way beyond the realm of rationality." Portraying Hurwitz as a caring doctor who wanted only to help his patients, Miller said, "This is obscene."

Miller said U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler should give Hurwitz a sentence of less than 25 years in prison.

The contrasting views of Hurwitz set up what promises to be an explosive sentencing hearing in a case that already has generated a lot of heat. As cancer patients and others in chronic pain became increasingly vocal about access to treatment, Hurwitz became a symbol in a nationwide debate. Advocates for patients with chronic pain portrayed him as a licensed doctor prescribing legal drugs to patients in dire need with nowhere else to turn; prosecutors said he took advantage of that hope.

Adding to the uncertainty about Hurwitz's sentence, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision made "advisory" federal guidelines that had been mandatory for judges. Hurwitz's is one of the first major cases to come up for sentencing in federal court in Alexandria since that decision.

The government accused Hurwitz of prescribing excessive amounts of dangerous drugs -- in one instance 1,600 pills a day -- to addicts and others, some of whom then sold the medication on a lucrative black market.

The case capped a three-year investigation, part of a broader federal crackdown, into doctors, pharmacists and patients suspected of selling potent narcotics and fueling an epidemic that ravaged Appalachia. Nationally, most other convicted pain-management doctors have received sentences much shorter than the one recommended in this case, law enforcement officials said yesterday, though one doctor convicted in Florida last year was sent to prison for life.

A federal jury in December convicted Hurwitz of 50 counts of the 62-count indictment, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Jurors acquitted him of nine counts and deadlocked on three.

Patient advocates have portrayed Hurwitz as a heroic figure who helped patients nobody else would treat. Advocates reacted with shock to the government's call for a life sentence.

"That's really something. That's unbelievable," said Russell Portenoy, chairman of pain medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. "Such an extreme sentence sends the message to the medical community that the government will continue to go after doctors."

The government memo lays out numerous examples of lies that allegedly were told by Hurwitz when he testified and that prosecutors cite in calling for a tougher sentence. In one example, the memo says, Hurwitz lied when he blamed the prescription of 1,600 pills a day to one patient on a "clerical error."

Prosecutors quoted from letters sent to the judge by relatives of Hurwitz's victims. One was from Mary Meyer, mother of Linda Lalmond, who died of a drug overdose in Fairfax County in 2000 shortly after meeting Hurwitz. She wrote that her daughter "left home hopeful and smiling, had 2 visits with Dr. Hurwitz and was returned home in a container."

"I request that Dr. Hurwitz be sentenced to the fullest extent of the law," Meyer wrote.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company