NATIONAL NEWS

Virginia doctor who prescribed more than 500k doses of opioids granted new trial

Feb 5, 2024, 1:20 PM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia doctor who was sentenced to 40 years in prison after prescribing more than half a million doses of highly addictive opioids in two years has been granted a new trial by a federal appeals court that found the instructions given to jurors at his trial misstated the law.

Joel Smithers was convicted in 2019 of more than 800 counts of illegally prescribing drugs.

During his trial, prosecutors said patients from five states drove hundreds of miles to see him to get prescriptions for oxycodone, fentanyl and other powerful painkillers. Authorities said Smithers headed a drug distribution ring that contributed to the opioid abuse crisis in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

In a ruling issued Friday, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Smithers’ convictions and ordered a new trial.

Jurors at Smithers’ trial were instructed that in order to find Smithers guilty of illegally prescribing drugs, they must find that he did so “without a legitimate medical purpose or beyond the bounds of medical practice.”

But the appeals court found that that jury instruction was improper, citing a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a defendant must “knowingly or intentionally” act in an unauthorized manner to be guilty of that charge. Even though the jury convicted Smithers in 2019, his case was subject to the 2022 Supreme Court decision because his appeal was still pending when that ruling was issued.

Justice Roger Gregory, who wrote the 3-0 opinion for the 4th Circuit panel, cited Smithers’ testimony at his trial, when he said almost all of his patients had had significant car or workplace accidents and that he believed there was a legitimate medical purpose for each of the prescriptions he wrote. Gregory wrote that even though “a jury might very well not have believed Smithers’ testimony that he acted with a legitimate medical purpose,” the defense provided evidence that could have led to a finding of not guilty on each of the unlawful distribution charges against Smithers.

“In sum, because there was evidence upon which a jury could have reached a contrary finding, the instructional errors were not harmless,” Gregory wrote.

During Smithers’ trial, a receptionist testified that patients would wait up to 12 hours to see Smithers, who sometimes kept his office open past midnight. Smithers did not accept insurance and took in close to $700,000 in cash and credit card payments over two years, prosecutors said.

“We understand the 4th circuit decision following a recent change in the law and look forward to retrying the defendant, ” U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh said in a statement Monday.

Beau Brindley, an attorney for Smithers, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment on the ruling.

National News

Associated Press

USPS commits to rerouting Reno-area mail despite bipartisan pushback and mail ballot concerns

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The USPS announced on Tuesday it will follow through with its plan to reroute Reno-area mail processing to Sacramento, a move that drew bipartisan ire from Nevada lawmakers while raising questions about the rate at which mail ballots can be processed in a populous part of a crucial swing state. Postmaster […]

35 minutes ago

Associated Press

The Rev. Cecil Williams, who turned San Francisco’s Glide Church into a refuge for many, has died

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Rev. Cecil Williams, who with his late wife turned Glide Church in San Francisco into a world-renowned haven for people suffering from poverty and homelessness and living on the margins, has died. He was 94. Williams and his wife, Janice Marikitami, who passed away in 2021, appeared in Will Smith’s […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Alabama lawmakers advance bill to ensure Biden is on the state’s ballot

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Senate voted Tuesday for legislation meant to ensure President Joe Biden will appear on the state’s November ballot, mirroring accommodations made four years ago for then-President Donald Trump. The issue of Biden’s ballot access has arisen in Alabama and Ohio as Republican secretaries of state warn that certification deadlines […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Transgender Tennessee woman sues over state’s refusal to change the sex designation on her license

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A transgender Tennessee woman sued the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security on Tuesday after officials refused to change the sex on her driver’s license to match her gender identity. The lawsuit was filed in Davidson County Chancery Court in Nashville under the pseudonym Jane Doe by the American Civil […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Ex-police officer pleads guilty to punching man in custody about 13 times

BOSTON (AP) — A former Weymouth, Massachusetts, police officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to assaulting a man in his custody nearly two years ago by punching him about a dozen times without justification. Justin Chappell, 43, pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, according to federal prosecutors. U.S. District Court […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Douglas DC-4 plane crashes into river outside Fairbanks, Alaska; not clear how many people on board

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — A Douglas DC-4 airplane crashed into the Tanana River near Fairbanks on Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers said. It was not immediately known how many people were on board. The website www.airlines.net said standard passenger seating for a DC-4 was 44 during its heyday, but most have been converted to freighters. Troopers […]

6 hours ago

Virginia doctor who prescribed more than 500k doses of opioids granted new trial