Federal prosecutors in Boston have been forced to scale back criminal charges against Dr. Joseph P. Zolot, 64, a specialist in nonsurgical orthopedics in Needham, Massachusetts. Prosecutors accused the doctor and his nurse practitioner in the deaths of six of his patients by recklessly prescribing painkiller medications, as well as charging them with conspiracy and drug dealing. The case was put on hold in the fall after defense attorneys notified the court that the United States Supreme Court was considering an issue central to the case.
The charges are being lessened after prosecutors acknowledged that they now face tougher standards under a recent US Supreme Court decision. Those standards, set in a little-noticed ruling in January, require prosecutors to prove that a drug dealer was responsible for a death because the drug he or she provided was the exact and only cause of the death. Under the new precedent, the drugs in question cannot be a contributing cause of death, they must be the only cause. Angela Campbell, an attorney in the underlying Supreme Court case, noted that the “standard should be very high, not just in the doctor’s scenario, but in any scenario.” “If you’re going to be put people in prison for 20 years or higher, you should have a much higher standard.”
Announcing that they have no proof that the prescribed drugs were the only cause of death for any of the victims, the prosecutors in the Boston case will no longer seek the “cause of death” charges, which would have boosted potential sentences to a minimum of 20 years. Under the conspiracy and drug dealing charges, the defendants currently face a maximum of 20 years.
Legal analysts say the new standards make it more difficult to prosecute people in fatal drug overdoses, including both doctors and street-level heroin dealers. In addition, the analysts said that prosecutors in recent years have overreached in charging people with causing a death, even when an overdose fatality could have been based on several outside factors. The families of the victims are upset, contending that their loved ones never would have taken various opiates, including methadone, if Dr. Zolot had not prescribed them.
Read more in the Boston Globe.