It was a fitting end to a bizarre trial that featured a novice judge and a pill-pushing doctor who insisted on representing himself as his own lawyer.
It took the jury an incredible two hours tonight to read a verdict that found the doctor who allegedly ran a pill mill that catered to outlaw bikers and strippers guilty on 123 out of 127 counts.
Why did it take two hours? Because Judge Nitza Quinones, who was confirmed in June 2013 and has had limited experience presiding over federal criminal trials, had the court clerk read every word of every count out loud, including all the relevant titles, codes and statutes, and then ask the jury foreman whether the jury had reached a unanimous verdict on each count of guilty or not guilty.
As a result, the court clerk stated a mind-numbing 121 times that Dr. William J. O'Brien 3d was accused of violating Title 21 of the United States Code, Section 841, by distributing controlled substances while operating "outside the usual course of medical practice," and prescribing controlled substances for "no legitimate medical purpose." Amateur hour continued when the court clerk polled the jury, and read the name of every juror out loud, rather that follow the usual custom and refer to jurors by numbers.
By the end of the reading of the two hour verdict, one juror was slumped over; others were dazed and staring off into space. Court observers were shaking their heads and saying they had never seen anything like it.
The bizarre climax to the trial threatened to overshadow the fate of Dr. O'Brien. A jury of six men and six women, deliberating for just a day, found the doctor guilty on 123 out of 127 counts.
The jury found Dr. O'Brien guilty on two counts of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, 117 counts of distribution of controlled substances, as well as guilty on one count of money laundering, guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud, and guilty on one count of making a false oath during bankruptcy proceedings.
But the most serious charge the jury found the doctor guilty of was Count 124, distribution of a controlled substance resulting in the death of a patient.
Joseph Ennis of Levittown, who originally went to see Dr. O'Brien after he hurt his back, was found dead in his bedroom on December 2013, by a relative. Days earlier, according to the federal indictment, Dr. O'Brien had written Ennis prescriptions for oxycodone, methadone and cyclobenzaprine "for no legitimate medical purpose."
The charge of distributing a controlled substance resulting in the death of a patient carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Beth Leahy.
"Oh God, that's horrible," O'Brien's mother said in the courtroom when the jury foreman read the verdict on Count 124.
O'Brien stayed calm during the reading of the verdict. At times, he cradled his face in one hand. Another time, he put his head down on the defense table. Sometimes he talked to the lawyer appointed by the court to assist in his defense. Sometimes, he turned around and stared at his mother, to see if she was all right.
The judge sent sentencing for Oct. 5th.
"Dr. O'Brien, we will see you in the near future," the judge told the defendant.
"Thank you, Your Honor," replied the defendant, as he was led in handcuffs back to jail, where he has been held for the past eighteen months and has lost a hundred pounds.
"Have a good night," the doctor told the judge.
The prosecutor told reporters she was happy with the verdict.
"The evidence was overwhelming in this case," she said. "At the end of the day, justice prevailed."
Asked if she had ever seen a court clerk read every word of every charge before, the prosecutor replied, "I really can't even say."
Asked if she had ever seen a court clerk read the names of jurors in court, the prosecutor replied, "I've never seen that before."
Adding to the mayhem, the prosecutor in court accused a companion of O'Brien's mother of writing down the names of jurors, as they were recited by the clerk, for possibly nefarious purposes. The judge responded by having the clerk confiscate the list of jurors.
O'Brien's mother was subdued as she left the courtroom. "I really have nothing to say," she said. "I don't believe my son is guilty."
During a five-week trial, the prosecution had alleged that Dr. O'Brien had pocketed $1.8 million over three years by writing prescriptions for fake patients who were part of a pill mill operation set up by members of the Pagans outlaw motorcycle gang.
The government contended that some Pagans were making $10,000-a-week selling drugs like oxycodone, methadone, Xanax and Percocet that O'Brien had prescribed for clients recruited by the Pagans. The government alleged that Dr. O'Brien was paid $200 per visit to do little more than write a prescription. The fake patients made about $500 each after having their prescriptions filled and turning the drugs over to the Pagans and their associates, guys with nicknames such as "Redneck" and "Tomato Pie."
Throughout the trial, the judge, who seemed like an incredibly kind person, gave the defendant plenty of leeway to play defense lawyer. That leeway resulted in many bizarre exchanges between the doctor and the government's witnesses, as well as some incredibly long cross-examinations conducted by the doctor. But thanks to the freedom the judge gave the defendant, which many courtroom observers thought was excessive, it may be hard for any subsequent defense lawyer to find any appealable issues.
Today's court session began shortly before 10 a.m., when the judge locked the doors of the courtroom while she charged the jury for 90 minutes.
The jury got the case and began to deliberate shortly before 11:30. After lunch, the jury foreman sent four different questions to the judge. The questions were all about whether the judge could spell out persons named in the indictment who were involved in alleged criminal activities, but identified only by numbers.
In some cases when those persons were previously identified in court, the judge was happy to disclose their identities to the jury. Jurors also asked to see prescriptions for specific patients under the doctor's care.
The mood in the courtroom was light-hearted before the verdict came in.
"I was deathly sick this weekend," the defendant told the judge, after she complained about having a cold.
The doctor advised the judge to take three Advil every six hours.
"Still prescribing, huh?" the judge told the doctor.
"I am what I am, Your Honor," the doctor replied. He added that in jail, they wouldn't let him have any medication for his cold.
By 5:44 p.m., the clerk announced the jury had reached a verdict.
Dr. O'Brien seemed outwardly confident. He told the marshals that his mother would make chicken cutlets and spinach ravioli for them, presumably when he was released after being found not guilty on all the charges.
The jurors filed into the courtroom at 5:53 p.m. for the reading of the verdict, By the time the jury foreman was done, it was 8 p.m.
At the 2009 federal corruption trial of former state Senator Vincent J. Fumo, it took the jury foreman only 11 minutes to pronounce Fumo guilty on 137 counts.
The jurors in the pill doctor case may deserve medals for making it through this trial. Especially the jury foreman who was on her feet for two hours while the court clerk conducted her filibuster.
But if that two-hour verdict is upheld on appeal, the U.S. Attorney's Office won't have anything to complain about.