ALEXANDRIA - A prominent Northern Virginia doctor accused of fueling a black market in potent prescription drugs was convicted yesterday of the some of the most serious charges against him and now faces a probable life prison term.
Dr. William E. Hurwitz, whose defunct McLean clinic specialized in treating patients with chronic pain, was found guilty of 50 counts contained in a 62-count federal indictment.
He was acquitted of nine counts. The five-woman, seven-man jury will continue deliberations this morning on the three remaining counts.
As the partial verdict was read aloud, Hurwitz' chin sank to his chest. His $2 million bond was immediately revoked by U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler, and the 59-year-old Hurwitz was led out of the courtroom by U.S. marshals.
The verdict came after four days of closed-door deliberations and a six-week trial during which prosecutors portrayed Hurwitz as a reckless physician whose therapies hooked some of his patients on drugs and led to the death of two of them by drug overdose.
Prosecutors said he prescribed thousands of pills to known drug abusers who then sold them on the street.
Testifying in his own defense, Hurwitz acknowledged that he prescribed massive amounts of painkillers to some patients, but insisted he always did so for sound medical reasons.
Prior to the verdict, he described his prosecution as a "political trial" by federal agencies who are now pursuing doctors instead of drug dealers.
The jury convicted the doctor of one of the most serious charges against him - prescribing drugs that caused the death of Linda Lalmond, who died in a Fairfax County hotel room June 1, 2000, a day after consuming morphine prescribed and dispensed by the doctor. The conviction carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison.
The jury has not yet reached a verdict on a second charge of distribution of drugs resulting in death. It did, however, convict Hurwitz of two counts of prescribing medications that resulted in serious bodily injury, convictions that also carry a minimum 20-year prison term.
The charges against Hurwitz stemmed from a two-year federal investigation into doctors, pharmacists and patients who allegedly marketed potent prescription drugs - primarily OxyContin, a widely abused and highly addictive painkiller.
Abuse of the drug has reached epidemic proportions in Southwest Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, prosecutors said.
But advocates for patients seeking relief from chronic, unrelenting pain said the convictions mean that government prosecutors are now free to reach into decisions that should be left to doctors, patients and medical regulatory agencies.
Anyone who suffers from chronic pain was convicted today, said Mary Baluss, director of the Pain Law Initiative. "They will suffer for years and years."
Siobban Reynolds, director of Pain Relief Network, praised Hurwitz as a "pioneer and hero" in treating patients who were in severe pain and couldn't get treatment elsewhere. She said his conviction will cause doctors to turn away patients in severe pain, especially those who are very ill, for fear of being arrested.
"Any doctor who encounters a patient in severe pain is going to head for the hills," she said. "It is no longer prudent for a doctor to treat someone who is in severe pain and near death. It means that government power has prevailed over science."
Hurwitz's attorney, Marvin Miller, called the verdict "disheartening."
"There is now no way for anyone to know what the rules are," he said. "Law enforcement has taken over the practice of medicine."
Hurwitz, a graduate of the Stanford University medical school, earned a reputation as an unconventional doctor in the use of potent drugs to combat chronic pain. But he has run afoul of authorities before. He has been disciplined by medical boards in Virginia and the District of Columbia for improperly treating pain patients.
His license to practice medicine in Virginia, granted in 1977, was suspended in 1996. His license was restored in 1998 after undergoing 120 hours of classes on techniques for the treatment of pain.
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