Life sentences mulled in Kan. 'pill mill' case

AP News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2010 3:05 AM
Life sentences mulled in Kan. 'pill mill' case

A Kansas doctor and his wife who ran a clinic blamed for dozens of overdose deaths are expected to learn Wednesday whether they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

The sentencing decision by U.S. District Judge Monti Belot follows a hearing Tuesday in which the families of the victims recounted the pain of losing loved ones, while defense attorneys for Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, pleaded for mercy.

The Schneiders were found guilty in June of unlawfully writing prescriptions, health care fraud and money laundering after a nearly eight-week trial. Jurors convicted them of a moneymaking conspiracy that prosecutors linked to 68 overdose deaths.

Prosecutors asked Belot to impose life sentences or the equivalent, saying the harm the couple caused will reverberate through families and communities for years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway said the case was the tip of the iceberg because the number of deaths do not account for those who died without autopsies or in other counties.

"The defendants have not even begun to pay the price for what they have done to the victims," Treadway said.

The government argued that jurors found the Schneiders' conduct resulted in the deaths of 10 patients. If it had been a serial murder case instead of a drug and health care fraud case, there would be no question that life sentences should be imposed, prosecutors said.

Neither the 57-year-old physician nor his 52-year-old wife spoke Tuesday in court, deferring to their lawyers.

Defense attorney Lawrence Williamson asked the judge to sentence the doctor to the mandatory minimum 20 years in prison. Williamson said the doctor was not trying to deal drugs and most of the patients who went to the couple's clinic in Haysville, a suburb of Wichita, were helped.

"This is not a case of a serial murderer," Williamson said. "This is not a case where someone intentionally acted to harm people and hurt people."

Defense attorney Kevin Byers, who represents Linda Schneider, told the court there was no reason to go beyond the 20 years to deter other medical providers from similar conduct.

Among those in the gallery was juror Jim Hancock. Outside the courtroom, he said he attended because he wanted to watch the case come to a close after spending so much time at the trial.

In the first public comments by any juror, Hancock told The Associated Press that it was the number of notifications of deaths and overdoses that Stephen Schneider received _ and his responses to them _ that convinced jurors the case went beyond negligence to a crime.

"The biggest losers are pain patients and doctors trying to treat them," Hancock said. "Something like this makes it more difficult down the road for legitimate practices and legitimate patients to be treated."

The indictment described the Schneiders' clinic as a "pill mill" that was open 11 hours a day. The clinic wrote prescriptions 76 times for patients after they went to hospital emergency rooms for overdoses _ sometimes involving the same drug, prosecutors said during the couple's trial.

Stephen Schneider testified during the trial that he was trying to help and had been duped by some painkiller addicts but never meant to hurt anyone. His wife did not take the stand.

The government contends losses for clinic services and prescriptions was more than $20 million, with some 93 insurance programs and more than 500 patients defrauded.