A New York state judge sentenced an anesthesiologist to a minimum of 10 years and 8 months in prison for operating a pain pill mill in New York City and recklessly causing the deaths of two patients.
In July, a jury found Stan Xuhui Li, MD, guilty of two counts of second-degree manslaughter in the fatal overdoses of Joseph Haeg and Nicholas Rappold and six counts of recklessly endangering the lives of six other patients, two of whom also overdosed and died. Dr Li was convicted of a plethora of other criminal charges, including 180 counts of selling prescriptions for controlled substances to 20 patients. One of them, David Laffer, was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for shooting four people to death at a New York pharmacy during a pain pill robbery.
Prosecutors said Dr Li callously put profit above the welfare of his patients. “[The] defendant systematically betrayed the trust of his patients, their families, and the public at large,” they wrote in a court memorandum urging a stiff sentence.
According to court records, Dr Li was a full-time anesthesiologist at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton, New Jersey, who operated a weekend pain management clinic 80 miles away in a basement office in the New York City borough of Queens. He prescribed opioids such as oxycodone and antianxiety drugs such as alprazolam to 70 to 100 patients on Saturdays, and sometimes on Sundays. His cash-paying customers would line up on the sidewalk before the office opened, and some immediately resold their drugs after filling their prescriptions.
Dr Li turned a blind eye to evidence that his patients were abusing prescribed pain meds, reselling them, overdosing, and ruining their health, according to prosecutors. And he continued to prescribe to high-risk patients over the objections of other physicians and family members.
The brother of one overdose victim, Michael Cornetta, wrote the judge in Dr Li’s case that “Stan Li knew Michael was an addict, prone to overdosing and in dire need of counseling, care and direction; nevertheless Li showed no mercy and wrote one bogus prescription after the next.”
Fellow physicians of Dr Li, relatives, and others described a different defendant in letters to Judge Michael Sonberg in New York’s Manhattan Supreme Court seeking leniency. “He is repeatedly described as caring and sensitive to patients,” Dr Li’s attorney Raymond Belair said in his own letter to Sonberg.
Another of Dr Li’s attorneys, Steven Smith, told Sonberg that there was plenty of blame to go around in his client’s case. He pointed to the “culpable conduct” of Dr Li’s patients, whom he said lied to his client about their condition, abused prescription pain pills, and sometimes sold them on the street. In addition, other physicians were prescribing controlled substances to his patients as well.
“Placing the blame for these misfortunes solely on Dr Li’s shoulders ignores a larger and more endemic problem that goes beyond Dr Li’s behavior as a physician,” Smith wrote in a letter to the judge.
Prosecutors asked Sonberg to sentence Dr Li to a minimum of roughly 10 years in prison and a maximum of 20 years. Sonberg did just that, ruling that once Dr Li serves his minimum term, a parole board will determine a possible release date before the 20 years is up.
“This is a fair and just sentence given Li’s egregious criminal conduct, motivated by greed, and the severity of the harm that he caused,” said New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan in a news release. “We hope that the sentence will serve as a deterrent to other medical professionals who may be tempted to engage in similar criminal conduct.
“We also hope it will raise awareness among medical professionals and in the public at large of the dangers posed by these very powerful medications.”