A Los Angeles-area doctor was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in the deaths of three patients who overdosed on painkillers she prescribed.
The prosecution of Dr. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng was a rare murder case against a physician at a time when prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic and lawmakers have tried to make it harder for so-called pill mills to easily dole out medications with little scrutiny.
A dozen of Tseng’s patients died, including one who overdosed in her office. Prosecutors only brought three murder charges because of other factors involved in some of those deaths, such as drugs prescribed by other doctors and a possible suicide.
Tseng, 45, was convicted of all but one of 21 drug-related counts. She showed no reaction as the verdicts were being read.
She was also charged with illegally writing prescriptions for two of the deceased patients and 16 other people, including three undercover agents who were investigating whether she easily prescribed pain pills after brief office visits.
Tseng prescribed “crazy, outrageous amounts of medication” to patients who didn’t need the pills, Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann told jurors in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The doctor repeatedly ignored warning signs even after several patients died as she built a new medical clinic in Rowland Heights with the money she made from them.
“I know this is going to kill them, but I don’t care because I have a business to run,” Niedermann said in summing up the doctor’s attitude.
“Something is wrong with what you’re doing if your patients are dying,” he said.
Tseng’s lawyer said her client naively trusted her patients. Defense lawyer Tracy Green said patients testified they were legitimately in pain and later became dependent on the drugs, hiding their addictions by seeing other doctors and picking up prescriptions from different pharmacies.
Green conceded the doctor had provided a prescription to a patient’s husband and said she should be convicted of that felony. However, Green said prosecutors had failed to prove that Tseng was guilty of anything else and should be cleared of the murder counts and drug charges.
“After she deals with punishment on that one count she can go home to her children,” Green said.
Jurors had the option of convicting Tseng of involuntary manslaughter.
Vu Nguyen, 29, of Lake Forest, Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert, and Joseph Rovero, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, died of overdoses between March and December 2009.
Tseng barely kept any records on the three men until she was contacted by the Medical Board of California. She then fabricated records to make it look like she kept thorough records of diagnoses and noted she was weaning them off drugs, Niedermann said.
Tseng ignored pleas from family members of patients who demanded she stop prescribing drugs to them, Niedermann said.
He said Tseng should have known her patients were prone to abuse because they were returning for refills before they should have run out of pills.
“If you give someone who claims to be a drug abuser the very drug they abuse and they overdose and die, that’s a likely foreseeable outcome,” Niedermann said. “But for her these people would not have died.”