Privacy vs. Justice

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Dr. Bernard Rottschaefer’s appeal for a new trial, an appeal based on clear, post-conviction evidence that the prosecution’s star witness lied under oath.

That’s unfortunate, but expected.

A woman named Jennifer Riggle testified in the criminal trial that Dr. Rottschaefer gave her OxyContin and Xanax prescriptions in exchange for oral sex. Her testimony took a hit when, after the trial, when her boyfriend was released from prison, and produced dozens of letters in which Riggle admitted to him that she had made up the oral sex stories and lied under oath in exchange for leniency with respect to her own drug charges. Despite those dozens of letters, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Rottschaefer — Mary Beth Buchanan — refused to drop or lessen the charges against him, and to date has also refused to pursue perjury charges against her star witness.

But the case isn’t over just yet. The four other women who testified at Dr. Rottschaefer’s trial have since launched civil suits against him, and all of them have given testimony during discovery that directly contradicts their testimony at trial.

The civil trial’s discovery process revealed that one woman was getting from another doctor the same medication Dr. Rottschaefer was convicted of prescribing to her — at several times the dosage Dr. Rottschaefer was prescribing. That doctor was not prosecuted, casting some doubt on the prosecution’s claim that Rottschaefer had no “legitimate medical” rationale to prescribe the medications. Others testified that they did, in fact, have some ailments that would necessitate the scripts Dr. Rotschaefer was writing.

None of this came out during the criminal trial. Taken together, the testimony of these women shows a clear case of doctor shopping and deception, and shows that Dr. Rottschaefer — like so many of the doctors the DEA has brought down — was guilty at worst of being a poor judge of character. Hardly the kind of thing for which you put someone away for 25 years.

It’s also clear that all of these women were facing their own drug charges, charges that were reduced based on their testimony against Dr. Rottschaefer.

One particularly outrageous aspect of these cases is the way HIPAA’s privacy provisions tie the hands of defense attorneys. We’re only now finding out about these women’s histories with other doctors because defense attorneys were prevented by HIPAA from knowing of or viewing their medical records, even when a man’s freedom was at stake. The prosecution was free to make spurious claims to the jury — claims they knew or should have known were inaccurate — but the defense was barred from looking at the very medical records that would have rebutted many those spurious charges.

Of course, is the prosecution knew of potentially exculpatory evidence — that is, their witnesses’ dealings with other doctors — and didn’t disclose it to the defense, Ms. Buchanan’s office might soon be forced to answer some difficult questions about prosecutorial misconduct.

Medical privacy is important, of course. But if the DEA is going to continue to go after these doctors with charges that hinge on the medical histories of some of their witnesses, defendant doctors ought to be able to peruse those histories for evidence that could help proove their innocence.

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