NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge threw out criminal charges against a former GlaxoSmithKline Plc lawyer midway through her trial for purportedly obstructing a probe into the company's marketing practices, saying prosecutors never should have brought the case.
Tuesday's acquittal of former Glaxo lawyer Lauren Stevens marks a huge rebuke to federal prosecutors, who have been aggressively seeking to pin blame on individual executives for potentially illegal promotional activities by drug companies.
Stevens, a former associate general counsel at Glaxo, had been charged with four counts of making false statements, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of falsifying and concealing documents. The charges related to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation of the marketing of antidepressant Wellbutrin as a weight-loss remedy.
U.S. District Judge Roger Titus in Greenbelt, Maryland, granted a defense motion for acquittal before the case reached the jury. He sent jurors home about two weeks into the trial, after they had heard evidence in the case, including testimony from a Glaxo marketing executive and FDA employees.
"I believe that it would be a miscarriage of justice to permit this case to go to the jury," the judge said in court, according to a transcript reviewed by Reuters. "I conclude that the defendant in this case should never have been prosecuted and she should be permitted to resume her career."
Judges rarely dismiss charges in the middle of trials -- this was the first time Titus did so in his seven and a half years on the bench, he said.
"We believe these charges were well-founded and that the jury should have been allowed to deliberate and decide this case," a Justice Department spokesman said.
Stevens' defense attorney, Reid Weingarten, called the judge's decision "a complete vindication" for his client. If convicted, she could have faced up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction charge alone.
A Glaxo representative said the company was pleased with the acquittal. The company has said in regulatory filings it is cooperating with the government's probe into its marketing practices.
Prosecutors said Stevens knew about the company's sponsorship of programs to promote Wellbutrin for unapproved uses such as weight loss, including payments to doctors to give hundreds of talks to other doctors.
She also was accused of withholding slides used by the doctors paid by Glaxo to promote Wellbutrin for the unapproved use.
The legal community was watching the case closely because it could have had implications for what advice in-house corporate lawyers provide. Such charges against a company lawyer are rare and Justice Department officials could not recall a similar case in recent years.
Stevens was originally indicted in November. In March, the judge threw out the indictment after ruling prosecutors committed errors in presenting their case to a grand jury. He allowed the government to charge Stevens again.
The case is U.S. v. Stevens, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland, No. 10-CR-694.
Additional reporting by James Vicini in Washington; Editing by Robert MacMillan, Andre Grenon and Steve Orlofsky