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Doctor asks NY top court to overturn conviction in opioid deaths

Dr. Stan Li enters a court room on

Dr. Stan Li enters a court room on Dec. 19, 2014, in Manhattan. Credit: Craig Ruttle

ALBANY – New York’s top court on Thursday heard the appeal of the first doctor in the state convicted of manslaughter for his opioid prescribing practices.

Dr. Stan Li, who operated a pain clinic in Queens, asked the Court of Appeals to vacate his 2014 manslaughter conviction in the deaths of two patients.

Li’s attorney Raymond Belair argued that, under current law, a doctor cannot be convicted of a homicide for prescribing a controlled substance where, “if taken as prescribed, the dose would not have been fatal.”

Belair also contended there was legally insufficient evidence that his conduct was the direct cause of the deaths of Joseph Haeg and Nicholas Rappold in 2009.

That sparked some skepticism from the seven-judge panel.

 Judge Eugene Fahey cited an investigator’s report showing Li wrote more than 21,000 prescriptions for controlled substances over a three year period, more than half of them for oxycodone. Payments were made in cash – and the cost was higher for expedited orders, the judge added.

 “There were just a series of things in the record that seems to establish the requisite conscious intent,” Fahey said. “As far as legal sufficiency goes, it seems to clearly be there.”

Belair said Li prescribed medications within recommended doses.

“He was not running a pill mill,” Belair said.

Haeg, a 37-year-old Center Moriches man, and Rappold, 21, of Queens, died within days of receiving a pain prescription from Li.

The judges also grilled the lawyer on whether Li should have noticed Rappold had become addicted. Records showed Rappold had claimed he’d lost his prescription and returned to Li’s office where he received more oxycodone and Xanax – which, taken together, can have dire respiratory effects, the judges noted.

 “By putting blinders on and saying I didn’t know there was addiction problem, did he act recklessly because an ordinary person would have realized?” Judge Leslie Stein said.

 “There was no demonstration, nothing that there was a risk this person would die – which is the statutory requirement,” Belair said, referring to manslaughter laws. “Did (Rappold) come in sweaty? Did he have respiratory problems? There is no indication anything like that occurred here.”

 A jury convicted Li not only of manslaughter but also six counts of criminal endangerment and 180 counts of illegal sales of prescriptions for controlled substances. He was given a sentence of 10-20 years in prison; he currently is an inmate at a Hudson Valley state penitentiary.

 A mid-level appeals court upheld his conviction. The Court of Appeals typically takes four to six weeks to issue a decision.

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