By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007
A prominent pain doctor was convicted yesterday for the second time of trafficking in narcotics, handing prosecutors another victory in a nationwide debate over the prescribing of dangerous narcotics to patients who may abuse or sell the medication.
Federal jurors in Alexandria found William E. Hurwitz guilty of 16 counts of drug trafficking, determining that he prescribed massive quantities of medicine to patients in chronic pain. The 12-member jury acquitted Hurwitz on 17 other trafficking counts, but Hurwitz faces up to 20 years in prison for each count on which he was convicted. He will be sentenced July 13.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema dismissed the remaining 12 counts, saying she did not want jurors to have to come back Wednesday to resume deliberations, prosecutors said. The jury would have been unable to deliberate sooner than that because a juror had travel plans.
The verdict marked perhaps the final step in the long legal and medical odyssey of Hurwitz, a major figure in the growing field of pain management who was once profiled on "60 Minutes." He was convicted on similar charges in U.S. District Court in 2004, but an appeals court threw out that verdict. Yesterday's conviction came after a retrial.
In the first trial, jurors convicted Hurwitz on 50 counts -- including trafficking that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. They acquitted him of nine counts and deadlocked on the final three in a 62-count indictment.
Hurwitz was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned that verdict last year and granted Hurwitz a new trial. A three-judge panel ruled that prosecutors had presented "powerful evidence" but that U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler improperly told jurors that they could not consider whether Hurwitz acted in "good faith" when he prescribed the large doses of medicine.
Hurwitz became a symbol in a nationwide debate as cancer patients and others in chronic pain became increasingly vocal about access to successful treatment.
Advocates for patients in chronic pain have portrayed him as a heroic figure, prescribing legal drugs to help suffering patients who have nowhere else to turn. They have criticized the government, saying it criminalized medical decisions that should be left to doctors.
But prosecutors contended that Hurwitz prescribed excessive amounts of Oxycodone and other dangerous narcotics -- 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.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said the case "is not about the lawful practice of medicine . . . but rather about the unlawful drug trafficking of pain medication. Drug traffickers come in all shapes and sizes. This one just happened to wear a white coat and be a doctor."
Richard Sauber, a lawyer for Hurwitz, said defense attorneys are "disappointed in the verdict. We think that Dr. Hurwitz was a doctor first and foremost and not a drug dealer." He added that Hurwitz "saved a number of lives."
Sauber said he did not know whether the defense would appeal.
Last week, Brinkema dismissed the counts involving the patient who died and the two who were seriously injured, leaving 45 counts for the jury to decide.
During the four-week retrial, prosecutors argued that Hurwitz was a common drug dealer whose McLean waiting room was filled with sleeping and incoherent patients with track marks on their arms. The prosecution presented 41 witnesses, including 12 former patients who had been convicted of drug crimes.
"He crossed the line from a healer to a dealer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Rossi told the jury in closing arguments April 18.
Defense lawyers presented testimony from 10 former patients of Hurwitz. The defense portrayed him as a medical pioneer, a caring and courageous doctor who just wanted to help people in unbearable pain.