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Prosecutors May Seek Death Penalty for Pain Clinic Doctor, Even Though They Probably Can't Convict Him

We can probably all agree that pill mill doctors -- physicians accused of acting like Pez dispensers for high-powered pain meds -- should be legally accountable for their actions. But if a doctor's patient ODs, should the doctor head to death row?

This week, local prosecutors filed paperwork indicating they might make the case against John Christensen a capital one. The West Palm Beach doctor is facing two counts of first-degree murder related to the deaths of patients.

But you've got to wonder why prosecutors would whip out the death penalty when they've got such a terrible track record of successfully prosecuting pill mill cases to begin with.

Christensen was indicted in July for his role running clinics in West Palm and up the coast. But the first-degree murder charges are what stand out here. Pill mill prosecutions related to overdoses are usually only manslaughter charges. And even on those lesser counts prosecutors -- both federal and local -- don't seem to be able to successfully stick docs with the legal responsibility.

Best case in point on this is the summer's courtroom drama involving doctors Cynthia Cadet and Joseph Castronuovo. Although they were originally rounded up in a federal pill mill takedown that hauled in 11 doctors on criminal trials, Cadet and Castronuovo were the only defendants who didn't roll with a plea deal. For going to trial, they were hit with charges related to nine patient deaths -- retaliation for refusing to plead guilty, their lawyers argued. A jury eventually only convicted the pair of money laundering.

Prosecutors have struggled on trials that don't even involve charges of overdoses. In April in Jacksonville, three doctors and an investor were acquitted for their roles in a pain clinic. Last summer, prosecutors failed to bring down a Fort Myers doctor.

So, bringing us back to Christensen -- was his crime worse than all the others to merit a first-degree charge? Or, if these cases are coming to look more and more like long shots, what's the best option for prosecutors? It doesn't take a Perry Mason to figure out the answer: Don't go to trial. But you can't just cut loose the doctor (WEAK ON CRIME). So... why not overprosecute, dump on charges, even threaten the death penalty, whatever it takes, until the defendant is cowed enough to take a deal to avoid trial?

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