A federal judge in Alexandria sentenced William E. Hurwitz yesterday to 25 years in prison, accusing the prominent pain doctor of lying to the jury during his narcotics trafficking trial and ignoring repeated warnings that he was prescribing dangerous quantities of drugs.
In a courtroom crammed with supporters, U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler told Hurwitz that he knew some of his patients were selling or abusing OxyContin and other drugs but that his prescription writing never slowed. He said Hurwitz lied when he denied seeing track marks on the arm of a patient who was a notorious drug abuser.
William Hurwitz, right, shown in 1996, was convicted of drug trafficking and conspiracy charges connected to overprescribing OxyContin, morphine and other painkillers.
(Stuart T. Wagner -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via AP)
"Dr. Hurwitz, I don't feel sorry for you," Wexler told the former McLean pain doctor as Hurwitz stared back and bowed his head slightly. "By your behavior, you put people in jail. By your behavior, you ruined people's lives. By your behavior, you seriously injured people. By your behavior, you killed people."
The sentencing of Hurwitz, 59, reflected the charged emotions in a case that became a symbol of the national debate over whether doctors should be able to prescribe medication in massive doses to patients in chronic pain who might be abusing or selling it. Hurwitz was convicted in December of running a drug conspiracy out of his office and trafficking in narcotics, causing the death of one patient and seriously injuring two others. He faced a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, and prosecutors wanted to send him to prison for life.
As Hurwitz entered the courtroom, many supporters cheered. The judge allowed others to stand in the back, a rare practice at the security-conscious courthouse. In all, more than 125 people packed the room.
But when Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Rossi held up a binder with transcripts of Hurwitz's trial testimony and said that "every page contains numerous lies," Hurwitz supporters gasped. Wexler then threatened to throw them out of the courtroom.
Patients and family members on both sides of the debate over the care provided by Hurwitz testified and sobbed as they described him as either a common criminal who violated the trust of his patients or a devoted doctor who gave hope to people in pain.
"I was eight months pregnant the day Dr. Hurwitz killed my mom,'' said Jennifer Click. Her mother, Linda Lalmond, died of a drug overdose in Fairfax County in 2000 shortly after meeting Hurwitz and being prescribed massive doses of morphine. Jurors convicted Hurwitz of causing her death.
"I never got to tell my mother one last time that I loved her, and this man gets to see his family once a week,'' Click said, pointing at Hurwitz, who looked down, grim-faced.
But Eyssel Franklin drove from North Carolina to tell the judge that Hurwitz "literally saved my life" when she went to see him in 1994 for a ruptured disk in her back. She said that the pain was so bad it felt like her hand was "over an open flame" but that the massive doses of morphine Hurwitz gave her enabled her to recover.
Prosecutors accused Hurwitz of prescribing excessive amounts of dangerous drugs -- in one instance, 1,600 pills a day -- to addicts and others, even though he knew some patients were abusing the drugs or selling them on the lucrative black market. The case is part of an ongoing investigation, within a broader federal crackdown, into doctors, pharmacists and patients suspected of selling potent narcotics and fueling an epidemic that ravaged Appalachia.
Jurors convicted Hurwitz on 50 counts of the 62-count indictment, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. They acquitted him on nine counts and deadlocked on three.
Patient advocates have portrayed Hurwitz as a heroic figure and expressed concerns that his conviction would have a chilling effect on the willingness of doctors to write prescriptions for chronic pain.
But Drug Enforcement Administration chief Karen P. Tandy said yesterday that although federal agents will continue to target any abuse of prescription drugs, the vast majority of pain doctors "have nothing to fear.''
"Dr. Hurwitz was no different than a cocaine or heroin dealer peddling poison on a street corner,'' she said at a news conference called by U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty to announce the sentencing. Hurwitz was also fined $1 million.
Defense attorneys yesterday argued that Hurwitz never intended to cause harm and was misled by a small number of patients. "All of the good he did for all those patients has to count for something,'' said defense attorney Marvin D. Miller, who said he will appeal the conviction and sentence.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark D. Lytle said Hurwitz was "not someone who was fooled or duped, but simply someone who was cunning and calculating. He had all the education in the world . . . and he continued to knowingly give drugs to drug dealers.''