A former West Palm Beach doctor may be facing the death penalty, medical malpractice defense attorneys in Fort Lauderdale report. John Christensen, 61, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder following the overdose deaths of almost three dozen of his patients. If convicted, Christensen will be one of only a handful of doctors in Florida who have been handed the death penalty for severe or deliberate negligent patient care.
In the majority of cases in which Florida physicians have been accused of killing their patients with improperly prescribed drugs and overdoses, most of them have been charged with manslaughter crimes. Denis Deonarine was the first Palm Beach doctor to be indicted in a first-degree murder case after prescribing OxyContin to a patient who later died, but he was ultimately acquitted. Authorities from the State Attorney’s Office have not yet decided whether the prosecution will be allowed to similarly seek the death penalty, but this early in the trial, they are not eliminating the option. A final decision is expected from the office’s Death Penalty Committee, after case review, next month.
Christensen operated out of medical offices not only in West Palm Beach, but Port St. Lucie and Daytona Beach as well. He was arrested in July, after a two-and-a-half year investigation into the deaths of 35 patients. The doctor has been accused of first-degree murder for prescribing oxycodone, methadone, and anti-anxiety pills to two patients, who later overdosed on their medications.
Although the charges Christensen is facing carry severe penalties under state law, medical malpractice defense attorneys in Fort Lauderdale say that the prosecution will face an “uphill battle” in securing a conviction against the doctor, which would eliminate the need to ask for the death penalty. Prescription drug overdose cases are often difficult to connect solely to a person’s primary doctor, or even the doctor who wrote the prescription. Christensen’s attorney has stated that at least one of the patients’ toxicology reports indicated the presence of other drugs besides the ones Christensen authorized.
In order to secure a conviction, and convince the jury of the need for the death penalty, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that Christensen is solely responsible for the deaths of his patients. Partial responsibility is not enough to justify such a strict sentence. In Florida, only capital crimes can warrant an execution—first-degree murder, felony murder, capital drug trafficking, and capital sexual battery.
Florida is the only state in which a majority jury vote of seven can sentence a convict to death. Every other state requires a unanimous decision from all 12 jurors, except for Alabama, which requires 10 votes. Although several state senators introduced legislation that sought to change the requirement from seven votes to all 12 earlier this year, Fort Lauderdale medical malpractice defense lawyers say that the bill has yet to be passed.
The medical malpractice defense attorneys at Fort Lauderdale law firm Lubell Rosen represent doctors and medical professionals who are facing criminal charges in overdose cases, as well as any other malpractice crimes.