A Needham doctor and a nurse practitioner were acquitted Friday of charges that they improperly prescribed powerful painkillers to patients, including six who later died of drug overdoses.
After 26 days of trial and 23 hours of deliberations, a jury in US District Court in Boston found Dr. Joseph P. Zolot and nurse Lisa M. Pliner not guilty of charges that they plotted to violate drug laws by illegally distributing oxycodone, methadone, and fentanyl.
“This is an extremely important case,” Boston attorney Howard M. Cooper, who represents Zolot, said in a telephone interview. “Everybody recognizes that opiates are an issue in our community. What you hear a lot less about are the chronic-pain patients who need pain medication to have any quality of life and to get through the day.”
Cooper accused the government of overreaching with the prosecution and said: “Hopefully this jury verdict will allow doctors to do what they are supposed to do, use the tools available to them to treat patients.”
The US Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The trial was the second for Zolot and Pliner, and it came as the state has been facing a growing opioid abuse epidemic. The first trial, held last year, resulted in a mistrial when jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Federal prosecutors initially alleged that Zolot and Pliner caused the deaths of six patients between 2004 and 2005 by recklessly rescribing painkiller medications. But those allegations were dropped from the case after the US Supreme Court ruled in another case last year that prosecutors had to prove a drug dealer was responsible for a death because the drug he or she provided was the exact and only cause of death.
Zolot, 64, a specialist in nonsurgical orthopedics, moved to the United States from the former Soviet Union as a political refugee in the 1980s. In 2003, he opened his own practice, the Nonsurgical Orthopedic Center in Needham, working with Pliner.
In 2007, federal agents raided the practice and carted away most of his medical records, effectively shutting the business down, according to Cooper. Zolot voluntarily surrendered his medical license after state authorities launched proceedings to revoke it, he said.
In a statement released by his lawyers Friday, Zolot said: “My sincere hope is that doctors hearing about this verdict will realize that they should not be intimidated by the federal government in prescribing pain medication to their patients who are suffering in chronic pain.”
Pliner, who also emigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union and attended Simmons College and Regis College, said in a brief phone interview that she was overjoyed by the verdict.
“It’s a criminalization of medicine,” said Pliner, who was acquitted of all three charges she faced. “I am afraid to work as a nurse practitioner right now.”
Although she relinquished her nurse practitioner license, Pliner continues to work as a nurse.
Attorney Michael J. Connolly, who represents Pliner, said his client “has tremendous compassion for the families that lost their loved ones, but doesn’t feel that the prescription practices at the Nonsurgical Orthopedic Center were responsible.”
Prosecutors accused Zolot and Pliner of prescribing painkillers to patients, despite indications that they were abusing, misusing, or illegally distributing the drugs.
The defense argued that Zolot and Pliner offered the best treatment, based on their good faith medical judgment, to patients suffering from serious injuries and were not at fault if they were deceived by patients who were secretly abusing the drugs.