The federal prosecution of Roanoke, Virginia, pain specialist Dr. Cecil Knox and his employees suffered a blow October 9 when a federal judge dismissed a set of charges against him and two coworkers and dismissed all charges against an area contractor caught up in a federal sting directed at his practice. Knox and officer manager Beverly Gale Boone face life sentences if convicted of charges that they improperly prescribed opioid painkillers leading to the deaths of eight patients. Three employees faced lesser charges; one has since pled guilty under duress and testified against Knox last month.
The prosecution of Knox is one of a series of arrests of pain management specialists as part of a coordinated federal campaign to crack down on the diversion of opioids into the black market. But advocates for pain patients and doctors argue that the Justice Department is encouraging prosecutions even when doctors' prescription practices are within accepted medical guidelines. (See http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/304/prn.shtml and http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/239/rico.shtml for our earlier coverage of the Knox case.)
Prosecutors have attempted to portray Knox and his Southwest Physical Rehabilitation and Medicine clinic as a "pill mill" where mercenary medicos carelessly prescribed opioids such as Oxycontin to junkies masquerading as patients. But more than that, prosecutors are blaming Knox for the deaths of patients. In cross-examination, however, Knox's attorneys were able to point out that the deaths occurred long after Knox quit prescribing to those patients. Defense attorneys were also able to present patient witnesses who testified to Knox's ability and willingness to treat their intractable pain.
While Chief US District Judge Samuel Wilson did not dismiss the most serious charges against Knox and Boone, he threw out charges that Knox traded Oxycontin to local resident Edwin Shoemaker on 10 occasions. Shoemaker testified for federal prosecutors, but was unable to identify Knox, either in the courtroom or from a photograph. The judge also dismissed all charges against a third defendant, licensed counselor Willard Newbill, who had worked with the clinic. A day earlier, Judge Wilson dropped all charges against therapist Kathleen O'Gee, who was facing years in prison on medical fraud charges derived from the alleged improper prescribing.
After seeing her charges dismissed, O'Gee told the Roanoke Times she had been the target of two years of intimidation by federal agents and prosecutors. "I'm happy that truth and justice came out of it," she said. "I think that it's important to people when they're standing in the truth not to back down."
Not everyone involved in the case shared O'Gee's fortitude. Knox's longtime receptionist, Tiffany Durham, testified for the prosecution after pleading guilty to two counts of not reporting a felony -- the prescription practices of her boss, Dr. Knox. Durham had stood tough after also being charged with crimes carrying a life sentence, but that changed in August. Maybe it was because, as defense attorneys suggested, that meant that Durham, the mother of three young children, would no longer face that life sentence.