Conspiracy convictions tossed in Anna Nicole case
Los Angeles: After a prolonged, costly prosecution that put Anna Nicole Smith`s prescription drug use under a legal microscope, a judge dismissed two conspiracy convictions Thursday against her boyfriend-lawyer and psychiatrist and reduced one remaining count against the doctor to a misdemeanor.
It was an ignominious ending for prosecutors who had touted the high-profile case as a way to send a message to physicians who over-prescribe opiates to celebrities.
Superior Court Judge Robert Perry suggested authorities had chosen the wrong case to prove their point, and indicated they did not understand the legislative intent of the law involving prescription drugs.
"The court has no doubt that abuse of prescription medications is a troubling problem for many persons," Perry said in his ruling. "There is no doubt that there are doctors who are nothing more than pill pushers and should be prosecuted and imprisoned. This case did not involve such doctors."
The judge noted that the California Patients Bill of Rights passed in 2006 recognized the concept of the "pseudo addict," which is defined as "a person whose drug seeking behavior is primarily due to the inadequate control of pain."
The judge, citing testimony about Smith`s quest for pain relief, said, "I certainly believed she was not an addict under the law."
After a three-week preliminary hearing and a nine-week trial, jurors returned guilty verdicts on few of the 11 charges against the three original defendants.
Howard K. Stern, 41, and Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, 63, were convicted of conspiring to violate the false name statute to obtain painkillers for the former Playboy model. Eroshevich also was convicted of obtaining Vicodin by fraud.
Dr. Sandeep Kapoor was acquitted of all the charges against him.
Perry said he considered the minimal jury verdicts "a strong repudiation of the prosecution`s case," which he described as overly complicated and not supported by sufficient evidence.
During the trial, he said he saw weaknesses in the case but decided to let it go to the jury.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said he would appeal the dismissals.
"His decision denigrates the substantial investigative efforts conducted by the state Department of Justice and the medical board," Cooley said in a written statement. "It diminishes the huge social problem of prescription drug abuse facilitated by irresponsible caretakers and unscrupulous medical professionals."
Later Thursday, Stern said in an interview: "This was just a dishonest prosecution with no purpose but to ruin our lives and for their publicity and political gain."
He praised the judge`s ruling as "a huge victory and vindication for Anna and the person she really was, not the person the prosecution tried to portray her as."
His attorney, Steve Sadow, said he felt that he knew Smith through his client`s descriptions and "I became incensed at how they were portraying her. I wanted the truth to come out."
He and his co-counsel, J. Christopher Smith, said they believed the prescription drug case was motivated by political aspirations.
The case was launched last year amid much fanfare by then-California Attorney General and now-Gov. Jerry Brown, who denounced the defendants as conspirators in over-prescribing prescription drugs to Smith, whom he called "a known addict." He also accused the defendants of being lured by Hollywood glamor.
Judge Perry acknowledged Smith`s celebrity status and said, "In our media-driven society, there is a strong interest on the part of celebrities for privacy." He added that the use of prescription drugs can be misinterpreted by the public and can harm a celebrity`s career.
The judge found that Stern never had the intent to defraud when he used his name and others to protect Smith`s privacy in obtaining prescriptions for her.
Perry also found that Eroshevich was acting out of concern for Smith and cited her long medical career and service to the community in deciding to sentence her to no more than one year of probation and a $100 fine for obtaining one Vicodin prescription under a false name.
"The evidence is that Howard Stern did not have an intent to break the law," Perry said in dismissing the conspiracy convictions against Stern.
Without Stern`s participation, the judge said, there was no conspiracy between him and Eroshevich, and he dismissed those counts against her as well.
The ruling marked the denouement of the long-running drama centering on the blonde beauty`s troubled life, which was documented on reality TV, in tabloids and in trial testimony.
Smith also made headlines in a continuing court fight with the estate of her oil tycoon husband. Smith died of an accidental drug overdose in February, 2007, but the defendants were not charged with causing her death.
Stern said he was thinking of Smith, his lost love, when the judge announced his decision.
"I was looking up in the sky and thinking, she`s vindicated," Stern said.
He said he was pleased that Perry recognized Smith was a victim of chronic pain, not addiction.
Eroshevich also said she was happy with the outcome.
"I can live with the misdemeanor," she said. "I don`t want to be a martyr. Everyone makes mistakes."
Stern and Eroshevich could have lost their professional licenses if their felony convictions stood.