A federal jury convicted a prominent former pain doctor on drug trafficking charges yesterday, siding with prosecutors in an increasingly contentious nationwide dispute over whether prescribing large doses of powerful narcotics is criminal behavior or good medicine.
Jurors found William E. Hurwitz guilty of running a drug conspiracy out of his McLean office, convicting him on 50 counts -- including trafficking that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. They acquitted him of nine other counts and deadlocked on the final three in the 62-count indictment.
William E. Hurwitz is "a hero and a medical pioneer," said Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network.
U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler ordered the jury back to the federal courthouse in Alexandria to resume deliberations today. He then revoked Hurwitz's $2 million bail. Hurwitz removed his tie, handed the change in his pockets to his attorneys and walked out of the courtroom in the custody of U.S. marshals. He had bowed his head slightly when the verdict was read.
The convictions marked the downfall of a controversial doctor whose treatment methods attracted loyalty from many patients but also scrutiny from area medical boards as early as 1991. Hurwitz, a major figure in the growing field of pain management who was once profiled on "60 Minutes," faces up to life in prison even with the acquittals.
As cancer patients and others in chronic pain became increasingly vocal about access to successful treatment, Hurwitz became a symbol in a nationwide debate. Advocates for patients with chronic pain portrayed him as a fully licensed doctor prescribing perfectly legal drugs to patients in dire need with nowhere else to turn.
But the government accused Hurwitz of prescribing excessive amounts of dangerous drugs -- in one instance more than 1,600 pills a day -- to addicts and others, some of whom then sold the medication on a lucrative black market. Prosecutors said the dosages led to the deaths of three patients overall.
The nearly complete verdict capped a massive three-year investigation into doctors, pharmacists and patients suspected of selling potent narcotics and fueling an epidemic that ravaged Appalachia and triggered scores of other crimes.
It is part of a broad federal crackdown on what authorities call over-prescribing of OxyContin and other painkillers.
Although hundreds of people have been charged, Hurwitz is one of only a few doctors convicted on federal charges that bring such serious penalties. He is also, authorities and experts on pain management agreed, perhaps the most prominent doctor to be targeted.
Patient advocates reacted to the verdict with tears and fury, blasting the government for what they called criminalizing medical decisions that should be left to doctors. They predicted that many of the estimated 30 percent of Americans suffering from chronic pain would now be left untreated.