The Oklahoman News –
A former Midwest City doctor accused of running a pill mill was convicted Friday of one count of second-degree murder in the death of a 21-year-old patient who suffered an overdose involving prescription opioid drugs.
The jurors, after deliberating more than 24 hours, acquitted Regan Ganoung Nichols, a 60-year-old osteopathic physician, of four other counts of second-degree murder in other patients’ overdose deaths.
Prosecutors told jurors Nichols showed a blatant disregard for life by prescribing hundreds of pills to each victim without a legitimate medical need.
Nichols faces at least 10 years in prison on the single count. Her sentencing will come at a later date.
Attorney General Mike Hunter issued a statement after the verdicts were disclosed saying justice had prevailed.
“The facts and the evidence in this case were clear — through her reckless overprescribing, Regan Nichols put her patients in danger, which led to tragic deaths,” Hunter said in the statement. “The victims, and the many who became addicts because of her irresponsible behavior, were individuals who trusted her with their lives. She put profit over their very existence, which is not only criminal, but also immoral.”
Oklahoma’s ongoing battle against opioids
The verdicts came amid the attorney general office’s ongoing efforts to fight opioid addiction and hold companies accountable for the crisis, including a 2019 verdict out of Cleveland County, where District Judge Thad Balkman returned a $465 million nonjury verdict against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries.
That decision is under appeal at the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
In the Johnson & Johnson trial, evidence showed the manufacturer blanketed the state with sales representatives who were given financial incentives to persuade doctors to prescribe more opioids.
In closing arguments for the Nichols case, defense attorney Tommy Adler seized upon the attorney general’s fight against opioid manufacturers, saying prosecutors have talked “out of both sides of their mouths,” when it comes to ascribing blame for prescription opioid deaths in Oklahoma.
The attorney general’s office presents a “devious” prescription opioid sales force that targets doctors like Nichols, “and then they turn around and charge her with murder,” Adler told jurors.
According to prosecutors, Nichols prescribed to patients, with little medical examination, hundreds of pills in suspect combinations.
Chealsy Dockery, 21, was prescribed possibly fatal medication because she had diabetes, according to a court affidavit report by an agent with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
The jury returned not guilty verdicts on all of the counts except for that of Dockery.
The state medical examiner reported all five deaths in the second-degree murder case were the result of multi-drug toxicity. The deaths occurred between 2010 and 2013.
“We’re very surprised by the one conviction,” Adler, the defense attorney, said. “We believe they (the jurors) worked hard and reached what was their true verdict.”
Adler said the conviction will be appealed.
Case could set possible precedent for Oklahoma doctors
Senior Deputy Attorney General Joy Thorp said the trial could set a precedent for cases involving doctors who have a record of over-prescribing medications to patients.
“I think this is probably somewhat of a compromise with the jury,” Thorp said in regard to the four not-guilty verdicts. “These cases are very difficult, a lot of these individuals had major medical issues.”
Nichols was placed on five years’ probation by the Oklahoma State Board of Osteopathic Examiners following a hearing in September 2015 related to complaints of six patient deaths, according to the affidavit.
Authorities began looking into Nichols in May 2014 after a concerned former patient notified law enforcement, according to the affidavit. During a March 2015 interview with investigators, Nichols admitted to writing prescriptions since 2005 for highly abused drugs before seeing patients, according to the affidavit.
Adler argued there is no such thing as risk-free medicine, and investigators never bothered to ask Nichols about the patients and their cases, which included chronic health problems and severe pain.
If Nichols hadn’t prescribed the drugs to ease their pain, she could’ve been accused of malpractice, Adler said.
From 1999 to 2019 in the United States, nearly 247,000 people suffered overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids more than quadrupled during that period, the CDC said.
From 2018 to 2019, Oklahoma experienced a nearly 23% decrease in opioid-involved deaths, from 172 to 133.Tags: Homicide Opioid Crisis Over Prescribing Overdoses Patient Harm Pill Mills Provider Arrest Rx Fraud