Wichita An appeals court Wednesday tossed out a federal judge’s order limiting the prosecution of a Kansas doctor and his wife whose clinic has been linked to 59 drug overdose deaths.
Federal prosecutors had charged Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, in 21 deaths of patients from the clinic they operated in Haysville.
But a week before their trial was to begin last year, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot ruled that the Schneiders could be tried only for four deaths.
The prosecutors appealed that ruling.
A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Belot acted improperly in imposing the limit.
Messages seeking comment on the appellate ruling were left Wednesday night with the Schneiders’ attorneys and federal prosecutors.
In setting the limits in January 2009, Belot said the trial would go on forever with no useful purpose if every death were included.
He also questioned the need to present so much information that could end up confusing a jury.
The couple was arrested in December 2007 on a 34-count indictment alleging they wrongfully prescribed drugs, which caused or contributed to the deaths, and overbilled for medical services.
The Schneiders contend they are innocent and that the federal government is improperly interfering in the doctor-patient relationship.
Prosecutors claim a total of 59 clinic patients died from overdoses, but filed charges in 21 of those deaths.
Three of the indictment counts were tied to individual deaths, but prosecutors had lumped 18 deaths in a single count. Belot trimmed that multi-death count to one death.
The appeals panel ruled Belot abused his discretion when he in effect dismissed the majority of the charged conduct in that charged count without authority.
“Significantly, the trial court merely picked the first name listed rather than inquiring whether this particular patient was the government’s strongest representative of the allegations,” the justices wrote.
Prosecutors also appealed Belot’s ruling that gave them just 10 days to present testimony in their case. The appeals court noted the parties had estimated the trial would take eight weeks, but the judge limited it without consulting the parties and despite their objections.
Because its ruling on the number of deaths alters the scope of the evidence to be presented at trial, the appeals court declined to address the issue of how many days should be allotted for the trial.
But the appellate panel said in its ruling it was confident now that the case has been sent back to the trial court, that the judge will “accord a fair opportunity for the government to present the entirety of its case and provide the Schneiders adequate time to present their defense.”