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Mistrial in Needham doctor’s drug case

Juror tells of 11-1 vote to convict

Judge Patti B. Saris declared the mistrial after more than 30 hours of deliberations by the jury in the trial of Dr. Joseph P. Zolot.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Judge Patti B. Saris declared the mistrial after more than 30 hours of deliberations by the jury in the trial of Dr. Joseph P. Zolot.

The jury in a federal case against a Needham doctor and a nurse practitioner accused of recklessly prescribing powerful opioids to drug addicts came back deadlocked Monday, a disheartening end to a grueling trial that highlighted the dilemma of treating patients grappling with addiction and chronic pain.

US District Judge Patti B. Saris declared a mistrial in the case against Joseph Zolot and the nurse practitioner, Lisa Pliner, who were accused of prescribing drugs such as Oxycodone and methadone to patients in violation of federal drug laws. Six of their patients died of overdoses between 2004 and 2006.

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Two jurors said the panel was deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction.

“This really was just one person” who stubbornly refused to vote for conviction, said one of the jurors, who agreed to speak to the Globe at length on the condition of anonymity. “It was very frustrating. . . . A lot of people were very upset.” Unanimous agreement by the jurors was needed for a guilty finding.

Zolot and Pliner were each charged with conspiracy to violate drug laws. Zolot was charged with seven counts of illegal drug distribution and Pliner was charged with two counts. Eleven jurors were ready to convict on the conspiracy charges as well as most of the drug distribution charges, according to the juror.

Through a spokeswoman, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz released a terse statement, saying, “We are disappointed that the jury did not reach a verdict. It is our intention to retry the case.”

The jury pored over the evidence for seven days, sustained by sandwiches, pizza, and scant breaks. Deliberations became so intense that on Monday morning the lone holdout sent a note to Saris asking to be dismissed because she felt bullied by fellow jurors who she said seemed more interested in going home than deliberating.

Saris instructed the jury to continue. Three hours later, they told her they were still deadlocked.

The trial, which lasted more than a month, came as the state faces a growing opioid abuse epidemic that is based largely on the abuse of prescription painkillers. Defense attorneys and pain specialists watched the case closely to see if the jury would agree with prosecutors, who said that Zolot and Pliner prescribed vulnerable patients powerful opioids and conspired to keep them high solely to profit from their addiction.

Zolot and Pliner were indicted by a federal grand jury in 2007. Their lawyers said they were caring members of the medical community who were trying to ease the pain of patients with chronic conditions. They told the jury that any negligence was the result of drug-addicted clients who duped them to keep their prescriptions coming.

Anne Marie Foley, whose 36-year-old son Christopher Bartoloni died in 2006 after becoming addicted to methadone prescribed by Zolot and Pliner, urged prosecutors to pursue another trial.

“What happened is absolutely disgraceful,” she said. “Doctors have to be more responsible and show some character. They need to care more about their patients.”

Pliner and Zolot hugged each other after Saris declared the mistrial. Pliner’s daughter wept and Zolot’s wife clung to his side.

Pliner’s lawyer, Michael J. Connolly, said he had hoped for an acquittal.

“It’s an unsatisfying outcome,’’ Connolly said of the hung jury. “Most defense lawyers would say it’s a victory. But we were hoping that the seven years of agony that Lisa Pliner has gone through were finally behind us. We live to fight another day.’’

Zolot’s lawyer, Howard Cooper, said he understood why the jury struggled.

“It is not surprising that the jury was unable to reach a verdict given the highly complicated issues and evidence they heard about over many weeks,” he said. “Even within the medical community itself, there is disagreement among pain doctors as to how to treat patients who present with legitimate pain and a need for prescription medication, but who also exhibit possible drug aberrant behavior.”

The juror who spoke at length to the Globe said that for the majority of the jury, the defendants’ guilt was clear: The evidence showed that Zolot was warned repeatedly by one of the victims’ loved ones that he was abusing the drugs. Jurors believed Zolot also ignored drug tests that showed his patients were abusing the painkillers.

“It was just the constant prescribing of medicine even after bad drug tests and people coming in and telling him that family members were having [addiction] issues,” the juror said. “We really didn’t have concrete evidence. It was all evidence that we put together. That’s the conclusion we came to.”

Particularly damning to the defense, the juror said, was the death of Dennis Dillon, a 36-year-old so addicted to the Fentanyl patches he was supposed to wear on his skin that he cut them open instead so he could suck out the drug.

Shortly before he died, family members warned Zolot twice that Dillon’s addiction was becoming a major threat to his health, prosecutors said.

“We thought that one was a slam-dunk,” the juror said.

But the holdout refused to accept the conclusion of the majority, the juror said.

“She really stuck to her guns," the juror said. “She was very adamant right from the get-go. . . . She just kept saying, ‘I have reasonable doubt.’ But she didn’t have any good answers.”

The Globe could not verify the identity of the holdout juror. But Monday morning, with the jury out of the courtroom, Saris discussed the note the holdout sent her with the lawyers, who said they were concerned by her suggestion that jurors were compromising their votes in order to end deliberations.

“She’s claiming that they’re not voting their conscience, that they’re voting more to get this case over with,” said Michael J. Crawley, one of the prosecutors, according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Cooper moved for a mistrial, but Saris instructed the jury to continue deliberating. However, three hours later, the judge declared a mistrial.

The juror who spoke to the Globe denied that the jury wanted to leave.

“I just felt like there has got to be something more we could do,” the juror said. “I was hoping if we waited it out a few days maybe she would give in. But I really don't think she would have.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer. John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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