Florida prosecutors overreached when they charged a Palm Beach County physician with first-degree murder after one of his patients died of a drug overdose, a Florida judge ruled January 29. Palm Beach County prosecutors charged Dr. Denis Deonarine in July 2001 under the state's felony murder law, which allows the bringing of first-degree murder charges if the death takes place during the commission of another crime.
Dr. Deonarine, like dozens of other physicians across the country, has been indicted on drug trafficking charges -- he faces 79 counts related to the prescription of opioid painkillers, including Oxycontin -- and those felony counts made up the crime prosecutors alleged was being committed when Michael Labzda, 21, died after a night of hard-drug partying.
Even prosecutors admitted at the time that the murder charge was a "novel legal theory." Unfortunately for them, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Richard Wennet agreed last Thursday. The murder charge could not be supported, he said, and dismissed it. "It didn't occur during the actual trafficking, during the movement of the actual narcotics," the judge explained.
Yeah, said Deonarine's attorney, Richard Lubin, who pointed out that the alleged felony -- the unlawful prescribing of painkillers to Labzda -- took place two days before his death. "If he died after, it's not felony murder," Lubin said. There has never been a successful prosecution under the legal theory anywhere in the country, he added.
Labzda died after a night of drinking and drug-taking on February 8, 2001. According to the Palm Beach medical examiner, he died of "polydrug toxicity." Labzda's family sued Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, but in September a federal judge dismissed their wrongful death suit. Purdue Pharma could not be found negligent because Labzda caused his own death by drinking rum and beer, gobbling down Xanax tablets, and snorting Oxycontin tablets he crushed to get around their time-release mechanism, the judge found.
Palm Beach prosecutors may still try to nail Dr. Deonarine on a murder charge, they told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. They will go back to a grand jury and attempt to indict him for murder under a section of state law that says he can be charged if the death results from the "unlawful distribution" of a derivative of the opium poppy, which includes OxyContin.
Florida has already scored one first in the persecution of pain doctors. In February 2002, Panhandle physician Dr. James Graves became the first doctor convicted of manslaughter in a patient's overdose death. He is currently serving a 63-year prison sentence while appealing his conviction.