By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles-area doctor was found guilty on Friday of three counts of murder for over-prescribing drugs that caused a fatal overdose in patients, in a case that prosecutors said marked the first such conviction in the United States.
In addition to the three counts of second-degree murder, Dr. Hsiu Ying "Lisa" Tseng, 45, was found guilty on 19 counts of unlawful prescription of a controlled substance and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
Tseng, who has remained in custody since March 2012, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison when she returns to court on Dec. 14 for sentencing, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said.
The case comes amid what public health officials describe as a national epidemic in over-prescribing narcotic painkillers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year the trend was fueling nearly 17,000 overdose deaths annually, as well as a rise in heroin addiction.
Criminally prosecuting physicians for patients' deaths is relatively rare, with one notable case being the 2011 involuntary manslaughter conviction of Dr. Conrad Murray for giving pop star Michael Jackson a fatal dose of a surgical anesthetic to help him sleep.
Prosecutors said Friday's verdict marked the first time in which a U.S. doctor was found guilty of murder for over-prescribing drugs.
Licensed to practice in 1997, Tseng opened a storefront medical office in 2005 in Rowland Heights, a hillside community east of Los Angeles that is home to many upper-middle-class and wealthy immigrants from China, Taiwan and South Korea.
Prosecutors said nine of her patients died during a span of less than three years, while Tseng raked in $5 million from her clinic, dispensing potent, addictive medications to people who did not need them.
She was convicted in the 2009 deaths of three of them - Vu Nguyen, 28, Steven Ogle, 24, and Joseph Rovero, 21. None resided anywhere near Rowland Heights, and one, Rovero, was an Arizona State University student from the San Francisco area.
Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann told jurors Tseng failed to keep records of patient visits or prescriptions in dozens of instances and faked medical records when authorities began investigating her.
Defense lawyer Tracy Green said patients put themselves in jeopardy by taking drug dosages "far in excess" of what Tseng had prescribed, according to an account of closing arguments by City News Service.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)