Va. Pain Doctor's Prison Term Is Cut to 57 Months
Saturday, July 14, 2007
A prominent pain doctor who received a 25-year prison term three years ago for drug trafficking was resentenced yesterday to less than five years by a judge who concluded during his retrial that he helped far more patients than he hurt.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema was a setback for federal prosecutors, who were seeking a life sentence for William E. Hurwitz.
Hurwitz, 61, a former pain specialist based in McLean, was a key target of a far-reaching investigation into doctors, pharmacists and patients suspected of selling potent and addictive painkillers. He was convicted twice of trafficking in narcotics, first in 2004, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
An appeals court threw out that verdict last year, saying that prosecutors had presented "powerful evidence" but that U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler improperly told jurors they could not consider whether Hurwitz acted in "good faith" when he prescribed large doses of medicine. A second jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria convicted Hurwitz on 16 counts of drug trafficking in April.
He has been in jail for about 2 1/2 years.
The case became a referendum of sorts on a national debate about whether licensed doctors prescribing legal medication to patients in chronic pain should be subject to prosecution if their patients abuse or sell the drugs. Patient advocates portrayed Hurwitz as heroic, saying that he only tried to help suffering people who had nowhere else to turn.
Hurwitz, a major figure in the growing field of pain management who was profiled on "60 Minutes," said he viewed himself the same way as his supporters. He told Brinkema yesterday that he was part of a "new enlightenment" of pain doctors and blamed his problems on a small number of patients. "I was ill-prepared for those who set out to exploit my practice," he said.
But prosecutors said that Hurwitz prescribed excessive amounts of oxycodone and other potentially dangerous narcotics -- in one case, more than 1,600 pills a day -- to addicts and others, some of whom sold the medication on the black market. "He crossed the line from a healer to a dealer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Rossi said at the hearing yesterday.
Brinkema seemed to lean toward the patient advocate side when she imposed her 57-month sentence yesterday. Although she said she agreed that Hurwitz had gone from being a doctor to someone who gave "drugs to people for illicit means," she said that the "overwhelming majority" of his patients were legitimate and that Hurwitz had tried to help them.
When she first took the case, Brinkema said she thought the dosages that Hurwitz prescribed were "absolutely crazy." But she said defense witnesses turned her around. "An increasing body of respectable medical literature and expertise supports those types of high-dosage, opioid medications," the judge said.
Some of the more than 40 supporters of Hurwitz who packed the courtroom said they were generally pleased. "I think the judge did her God-awful best to be fair," said Hurwitz's brother, Ken Hurwitz. "It's a harsh sentence, but it's vastly more reasonable" than the previous one, he said.
The first jury convicted Hurwitz on 50 counts, including trafficking that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. Jurors acquitted him of nine counts and deadlocked on three.
Before the second jury got the case in April, Brinkema dismissed the counts involving the patient who died and the two who were seriously injured. The second jury found Hurwitz guilty on 16 counts and acquitted him on 17 trafficking counts, and Brinkema dismissed the remaining 12 counts.
Brinkema's sentence was much lower partly because several of the dismissed charges would have brought Hurwitz a minimum prison term of 20 years. Brinkema also recalculated federal sentencing guidelines in ways that lowered the sentence, accepting the defense's argument that Hurwitz was not completely at fault because his patients had duped him.