A West Palm Beach doctor no longer faces first-degree murder charges in the overdose deaths of two patients.
Acknowledging that key parts of a law that allowed the state to charge Dr. John Christensen with murder didn’t exist when the deaths occurred, prosecutor Barbara Burns on Thursday dropped the last remaining murder charge against the 62-year-old physician.
Christensen, who owns a $1.7 million house on the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, instead now faces two counts of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of two patients. Manslaughter is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison. The doctor also faces dozens of charges of illegally distributing drugs, mostly oxycodone.
At one time, prosecutors said they intended to seek the death penalty against Christensen for causing the 2007 overdose death of Florence Faye Garrett, 47, of West Palm Beach, and the 2008 overdose death of Pawel Staniszewski, 31, of Royal Palm Beach.
After further researching the law, Burns said she was convinced the charges were improper. Until 2010, only certain drugs were listed in a state statute that allows prosecutors to charge people with first-degree murder by drug distribution. For instance, methadone, a drug that was in Staniszewski’s system, wasn’t one of them.
Richard Lubin, the attorney who represents Christensen, said he was pleased prosecutors finally acknowledged they couldn’t charge his client with first-degree murder.
Lubin has claimed that contrary to the indictment, Christensen never prescribed methadone to Garrett. And he said the last drugs Staniszewski got from Christensen’s A1A Health & Wellness Clinic — the drugs that presumably killed him — were written by another doctor in the office.
Similar murder claims were made against Drs. Cynthia Cadet and Joseph Castronuovo, who were charged in federal court with causing the deaths of six and two patients, respectively. A jury last year cleared them of the charges that could have sent them to prison for life. Both instead were convicted of money-laundering in connection with their work for clinics run by Wellington resident Chris George. They are to be sentenced today.
The state’s decision to drop the murder charges also means Christensen may get out of the Palm Beach County Jail, where he has been held since he was indicted last summer. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge David Crow said he would hold a bond hearing soon but did not set a date.
Christensen is accused of operating a lucrative pill mill out of his clinic on Broadway in West Palm Beach. He also ran a similar clinic in Port St. Lucie, police said.
After raiding the clinics in August 2011, agents for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement combed through his files. Focusing on 35 patients from several counties who died after Christensen prescribed them high-powered narcotics, agents concluded they had sufficient evidence to charge him with two counts of murder, an FDLE spokeswoman said when he was arrested last summer.