On October 30, Rowland Heights internist Hsiu-Ying Tseng, DO was convicted of second-degree murder for killing three patients who overdosed on what a prosecutor described as “crazy, outrageous amounts” of painkillers she prescribed. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office noted that the convictions were the first against a US doctor for recklessly prescribing drugs.
It’ is rare for homicide charges to be filed against a physician; however, the case came amid a prescription drug abuse epidemic that resulted in lawmakers to try to curb so-called pill mills that dispense medications with little scrutiny. “You can’t hide behind a white lab coat and commit crimes,” noted Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann. He added, “Writing a prescription to someone knowing that they’re going to abuse it and potentially die was the theory of second-degree murder that we had.”
The actual number of Dr. Tseng’s patients that died was 12; however, prosecutors only brought three murder charges because of other factors involved in some of those deaths, including drugs prescribed by other doctors and a possible suicide. Dr. Tseng showed no emotion as the convictions were read out loud; however, her lawyer said she was emotional and very upset later. The jurors deliberated for 10 days before reaching the verdicts. In addition, Dr. Tseng was convicted of illegally writing prescriptions for two of the deceased patients and 16 other individuals, including two undercover agents who were investigating how readily she prescribed addictive pain pills after brief office visits. She was acquitted of illegally writing a hydrocodone prescription to a third undercover officer.
The physician 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; she earned $5 million during one three-year period. One patient even overdosed in her office and had to be revived. Dr. Tseng’s attorney said her client naively trusted her patients. Defense lawyer Tracy Green stated that patients testified that they were legitimately in pain and later became dependent on the drugs, hiding their addictions by seeing other physicians and picking up prescriptions from different pharmacies.
Mr. Green asked the jurors to acquit Tseng on all but one drug count. He said that Dr. Tseng should not have been convicted of anything more than manslaughter and plans to appeal. Dr. Tseng faces up to life in prison when sentenced on December 14. She was convicted of killing Vu Nguyen, 29, of Lake Forest, Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert, and Joseph Rovero, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon. The three patients died of overdoses between March and December 2009.
Mr. Niedermann said that Dr. Tseng maintained minimal records on the three men until she was contacted by the Medical Board of California. Then, she fabricated charts to make it appear that she kept thorough records of diagnoses and noted she was weaning them off drugs. Apparently, Dr. Tseng ignored pleas from family members of patients who demanded she stop prescribing drugs to them. April Rovero, who lost her son almost six years ago, said she had waited for justice so long that she almost could not believe it when she heard the words “guilty” uttered repeatedly. She noted that her son and others were culpable at some level; however, they had lost the ability to stop themselves and Dr. Tseng took advantage. If her son were alive today, she would tell him that his bad choice led to an outcome that could have a broader impact.