A doctor from Southern California was charged guilty last Friday of murder for overprescribing drugs that led to the death of three patients, a landmark case that the public closely followed and prosecutors called the first conviction of its kind in the United States.
After a six-week trial, osteopathic physician Dr. Hsiu Ying “Lisa” Tseng, age 45 and specializing in internal medicine, was found guilty of three counts of second-degree murder after a Los Angeles county superior court jury deliberated her case for nine days.
In addition, Dr. Tseng was found guilty of 19 counts of illegal prescription of controlled substance, as well as one count of fraudulent access to a controlled substance.
In custody since March 2012, Dr. Tseng faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment when she comes back to court Dec. 14 to be given her sentence.
Prosecutors focused on nine overdose fatalities linked to Dr. Tseng’s practice within less than three years. During that time, she was said to have raked in $5 million as earnings from her storefront clinic.
The drugs dispensed improperly included oxycodone, methadone, and hydrocodone, all powerful narcotics, as well as sedatives such as Xanax and Valium.
The three deaths associated with the fatal overdoses were those of 28-year-old Vu Nguyen, 24-year-old Steven Ogle, and 21-year-old Arizona State University student Joseph Rovero.
None of the three patients lived near Rowland Heights, where Dr. Tseng opened a medical office in 2005 amid many upper middle class and wealthy Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean immigrants.
According to deputy district attorney John Niedermann, Dr. Tseng did not keep records of patients’ visits or the details of dozens of prescriptions. She even faked medical data at the dawn of investigations.
Defense lawyer Tracy Green argued that the patients themselves took dosages of medication that were “far in excess” of Dr. Tseng’s prescription.
Tseng obtained a medical degree from Michigan State University and was licensed in 1997. Her federal license for prescribing drugs had been revoked and she volunteered to surrender her license prior to being arrested.
The case erupted in the middle of national attention to prescription drug abuse and over-prescription. The disturbing trend, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had led to almost 17,000 annual deaths from overdose along with increasing heroin addiction.
Other healthcare practitioners were slapped with lesser charges. In 2011, Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for prescribing pop superstar Michael Jackson the surgical anesthetic that ended his life.
There are experts, however, who expressed worry over a “chilling effect” from Dr. Tseng’s conviction, which could make potent painkillers less accessible to patients who truly need them.
Photo: Beth Cortez-Neavel | Flickr