Page Pate recently won a criminal trial for a doctor who had been charged with unlawful distribution of controlled substances by “issuing” pre-signed blank prescriptions. The case had already been appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court prior to trial. It raised a number of difficult legal issues concerning the interpretation of Georgia statutes and the intersection of professional regulation and criminal law.
A recent article in the Daily Report describes how the case arose from an investigation into the 2006 death of Cynthia Eaton from a prescription drug overdose. The written prescription was that of Dr. Paul Raber, who worked at a clinic in Hartwell, GA, and it was later discovered that the prescription had been pre-signed by the doctor and given to his nurse practitioner, Myra Bowie. Bowie’s daughter, Tracy Mason, stole a number of the pre-signed prescriptions, one of which she is believed to have given to Eaton. Eaton then overdosed on the painkiller fentanyl, which can be lethal in even small doses for those not already resistant to opioid painkillers. Mason too died of a drug overdose as well in 2009, using another one of the pre-signed prescriptions she had stolen years earlier.
Page told the Daily Report, “It was an unfortunate and tragic situation, but it was not Dr. Raber’s fault…Those scripts would not have been available had someone not committed some other crimes. Theft. Forgery. There were several places along the line where this should have been stopped.” Dr. Raber was indicted in Hart County on 33 felony counts—one for each prescription discovered in nurse Bowie’s home safe—under O.C.G.A. § 16-13-41(h), which prohibits “issuing” pre-signed prescriptions in blank. At trial, Page argued to the jury that Dr. Raber had acted in the best interests of his patients, who might otherwise have been unable to receive needed refills and suffer needlessly, despite breaking a Georgia Composite Medical Board rule prohibiting pre-signing prescriptions. Furthermore, while pre-signing prescriptions is clearly restricted by the medical board’s regulation, the criminal statute Dr. Raber was prosecuted under prohibiting “issuing” blank signed prescriptions, and it is not at all clear that giving pre-signed prescriptions to a nurse for later patient use can legitimately be called “issuing.” Indeed, only a single other state, South Carolina, has ruled that it is, but only a misdemeanor.
Frankie Gray, Clerk of the Hart County Superior Court, reported that 75 people attended the trial in support of Dr. Raber. He also noted that a larger-than-normal jury pool had to be called because so many people in Hart County are patients of Dr. Raber. Because of the enormous outpouring of support on his behalf and his own persuasive testimony at trial, Dr. Raber and Page ultimately decided against calling the nearly 20 character witnesses who were available to testify on his behalf. The defense rested after calling only Dr. Raber and the jury returned its not-guilty verdicts in just 25 minutes.