LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Southern California doctor was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison on Friday for over-prescribing drugs that caused the fatal overdose of three patients in a murder case capped by the first conviction of its kind in the United States.
The case against Dr. Hsiu Ying “Lisa” Tseng, 46, comes amid what public health officials describe as a national epidemic of drug abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the trend is fueling nearly 17,000 overdose deaths annually, as well as a rise in heroin addiction.
A Los Angeles jury in October convicted Tseng of three counts of second-degree murder in a case prosecutors said showed she put greed above patients’ wellbeing.
She was also found guilty of 19 counts of unlawfully prescribing a controlled substance and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
Her sentence requires Tseng to serve at least 30 years in prison before she is eligible for parole. The defense sought a 15-years-to-life term.
Addressing the court just before she was sentenced, Tseng expressed remorse for her patients’ deaths and their families’ loss, saying, “I know I cannot turn back the clock,” according to a courtroom account by City News Service.
Defense lawyers argued at trial that her patients put themselves in jeopardy by taking drug dosages far in excess of what Tseng prescribed.
Criminally prosecuting physicians for patients’ deaths is relatively rare, with one notable case being the 2011 involuntary manslaughter conviction of Dr. Conrad Murray for giving pop star Michael Jackson a fatal dose of a surgical anesthetic to help him sleep.
Prosecutors said Tseng’s conviction after a six-week trial marked the first time in which a U.S. physician was found guilty of murder for over-prescribing drugs.
Licensed to practice in 1997, Tseng opened a storefront medical office in 2005 in Rowland Heights, a hillside community east of Los Angeles that is home to many upper-middle-class and wealthy immigrants from China, Taiwan and South Korea.
At trial, prosecutors pointed to nine overdose deaths associated with Tseng’s practice in less than three years, during which they said she had made $5 million from her clinic, dispensing addictive medications to patients unnecessarily.
The drugs included powerful narcotics such as oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone, and sedatives like Xanax and Valium.
Tseng, a Michigan State University medical school graduate who specialized in internal medicine, surrendered her doctor’s license prior to arrest. Her license to prescribe drugs was revoked.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Alistair Bell and Dan Grebler