After hearing wrenching testimony from
parents of young adults who died from overdoses involving the
painkiller OxyContin, a federal judge Friday sentenced three top
executives of the company that makes the narcotic to three years'
probation and 400 hours each of community service in drug treatment
In announcing the unorthodox sentence, Judge James P. Jones of
United States District Court indicated that he was troubled by his
inability to send the executives to prison. But he noted that
federal prosecutors had not produced evidence as part of recent plea
deals to show that the officials were aware of wrongdoing at the
drug's maker, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn.
The sentences announced by Judge Jones came at the end of a lengthy
and highly emotional hearing at small brick courthouse in this small
town in far western Virginia. Parents of teenagers and young adults
who died from overdoses while trying to get high from OxyContin
arrived here from as far away as Florida, Massachusetts and
Given the opportunity to speak, they both memorialized their lost
children and lambasted Purdue Pharma and its executives, saying they
bore a responsibility for those deaths. They also urged Judge Jones
to throw out the plea agreements, which included $34.5 million in
fines, and send the executives to jail.
"Our children were not drug addicts, they were typical teenagers,"
said Teresa Ashcraft, who said that her son Robert died of an
overdose at age 19. "We have been given a life sentence due to their
lies and greed."
Another women held up a jar that she said contained the ashes of the dead son.
OxyContin, which is a long-acting, time-release form of the narcotic
oxycodone, is used to treat serious pain. Several reports have
suggested that Purdue Purdue may have helped fuel widespread abuse
of the drug by aggressively promoting it to general practitioners
not skilled in either pain treatment or in recognizing drug abuse.
The company has insisted such a connection does not exist.
This bucolic small town is not far away from the spine of the
Appalachian Mountains and communities in Virginia as well as nearby
Kentucky and Tennessee, where abuse of OxyContin exploded in early
2000, just a few years after it was first sold. Both addicts and
young experimenters quickly discovered that a pill needed only to be
chewed or crushed before ingesting to release large doses of
oxycodone, which produced a heroinlike high.
In May, a holding company affiliated with Purdue Pharma pleaded
guilty to a felony charge that it had fraudulently claimed to
doctors and patients that OxyContin would cause less abuse and
addiction than competing short-acting narcotics like Percocet and
Vicodin. The Food and Drug Administration had allowed the company
only to claim it "believed" the drug, because it was long-acting,
might be less prone to abuse.
To settle that charge, Purdue Frederick, a holding company, agreed
to pay $600 million in fines and other payments. In accepting that
deal, Judge Jones put the company on five years' probation.
In a statement issued today, Purdue Pharma said that "Judge Jones's
acceptance of the settlement concludes this matter and we welcome
That ruling, however, does not mean the end of legal problems for
Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, known for its
contributions to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York. A number of insurers had lawsuits against it seeking what they
claims were unnecessary prescriptions for OxyContin, a very
expensive drug, based on the company's false marketing claims.
For their part, defense lawyers for the three executives involved -
Michael Friedman, the company's president until recently; Howard R.
Udell, its top lawyer; and Dr. Paul D. Goldenheim, its former
medical director - all urged Judge Jones not to put their clients on
The executives had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of
misbranding, a crime that does not require prosecutors to show that
they knew about wrongdoing or intended to defraud anyone. And
defense lawyers said they only "crime," as it were, was heading
Purdue Pharma at time when others were committing crimes.
Also, they painted their clients in glowing terms. For example, Mary
Jo White, a former United States attorney in New York who
represented Mr. Udell, described the lawyer as the "moral compass"
of Purdue Pharma. Had he known about wrongdoing, Ms. White said, he
"would have done everything in his power to stop it."
Judge Jones appeared unmoved by such arguments. And while he said a
lack of jail time was the "most difficult" part of accepting the
plea agreements, he added his hands were legally tied because
prosecutors had not provided him with evidence on which to act.
Still, he appeared to be sending out a message by placing the
executives on three years of probation and ordering them to perform
400 hours of service in a drug abuse or drug treatment program.
"As we have heard today, prescription drug abuse is rampant in all
parts of this country," Judge Jones said.
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