HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Luyao Guilty Of One Death, Trafficking
Pubdate: Tue, 07 Mar 2006
Source: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
Copyright: 2006 The Palm Beach Post
Author: Sarah Prohaska, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer


FORT PIERCE -- A suspended Port St. Lucie doctor who was one of the
first in the nation to be charged with causing the deaths of patients
from prescription drug abuse was found guilty Monday of manslaughter
in one of those cases.

After listening to more than two weeks of testimony and deliberating
for 3 1/2 days, a six-member jury also found Asuncion Luyao, 64,
guilty of racketeering and five counts of trafficking in oxycodone.

The single manslaughter conviction was linked to the death of Fort
Pierce resident Julia Hartsfield, 52, a patient of Luyao's from 1996
until she died in 2001.

The jurors acquitted Luyao of five other manslaughter counts and one
other trafficking count, but the verdict probably means she will spend
the rest of her life in prison.

Assistant State Attorney Erin Kirkwood said she was pleased with the
verdict, especially the racketeering conviction, which she said shows
Luyao was "running a storefront drug-dealing business."

"I don't quarrel with this verdict at all," Kirkwood said. "It was

Defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn called it an "odd verdict" and said
he plans to appeal.

"I think the jury tried hard, but that doesn't mean I can't be
bitterly disappointed," Hirschhorn said. "This could put someone
behind bars for the rest of her life for something I'm not convinced
is a crime, but unfortunately the state of Florida has made it so."

Inside the small St. Lucie Circuit courtroom packed with her family,
relatives of some of her patients and spectators, the petite
grandmother stared straight ahead with her hands clasped together as
she listened to the verdict.

These six jurors were able to do what six picked to decide the case
last year could not. Her original trial on the same charges ended in a
mistrial after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision on any of
the counts.

On Monday evening, jurors said they had studied all 200 exhibits sent
back to the jury room.

"Every single person read every single file and then we basically
hashed it out," said juror George Dietz of Port St. Lucie.

Prosecutors argued that a motivation to make money drove Luyao to stop
functioning as a legitimate medical doctor and became a "drug dealer
with a prescription pad."

But her defense attorney said she was a caring and compassionate
physician who was "taken in" by some patients who lied to her in order
to get prescriptions. He argued she might have been naive, but her
actions weren't criminal.

Luyao faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison on each of the
racketeering and trafficking charges. The manslaughter charge carries
a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. Luyao will be sentenced April

Kirkwood said Luyao's unscrupulous prescription practices led to the
deaths of six patients.

But Dietz and another juror, Alexandra Sanders, also of Port St.
Lucie, said the jury felt it had enough evidence to convict her only
in Hartsfield's death. Of the five, Hartsfield had been Luyao's
patient for the longest time.

"My heart goes out to the other five families," Sanders said. "But we
just didn't have enough evidence in those cases."

Prosecutors alleged Luyao ran a "pill mill" from her office in the old
Village Green plaza, where she gained a reputation as a doctor who
would prescribe large doses of powerful, addictive narcotics with few
questions asked and little to no examinations. If her patients were
addicted, prosecutors argued, they would continue to pay a required
$80 fee for each return visit required for a refill.

An undercover investigator with the state attorney general's office
testified that he visited Luyao six times during five months, posing
as a painter with nonexistent back and hip pain. She prescribed him
OxyContin on each visit, even though he said she never examined him
thoroughly or received records of his alleged injuries.

The five trafficking counts that Luyao was convicted of were linked to
five of the undercover investigator's visits to her office. The jury
acquitted Luyao only on the trafficking count connected to the
investigator's first visit.

Neither prosecuting nor defense attorneys changed their overall
strategies for the retrial, but both were able to get in some new
information this time that the original jury didn't hear.

Prosecutors attempted to give the jury a potential motive for Luyao's
alleged need to keep a large base of patients coming into her office.

During the first trial, they simply argued that greed motivated her.
This time, testimony showed Luyao had taken more than 280 trips on the
Palm Beach Princess gambling ship based in Riviera Beach from 1999 to

Hirschhorn argued the testimony proved only that Luyao was not a "high
roller" by failing to show how much money she made or lost during
those trips.

Ultimately, Dietz and Sanders said the gambling testimony did not
influence them.

"The defense did a good job of taking that apart," Dietz

Another change involved audiotapes the undercover officer recorded
secretly during his visits. Prosecutors submitted the tapes, but the
quality was so bad it was hard to understand much of what was said.
During the retrial, Hirschhorn was allowed to give jurors transcripts
of the tapes, which the defense had enhanced professionally.

The original jury did not get those transcripts.

Hirschhorn hoped they would help his client. On them, Luyao can be
heard warning the undercover investigator not to drink alcohol with
his pain medication and explaining to him how OxyContin works.

"I just don't understand how they could have convicted her on the
trafficking, especially with those tapes," Hirschhorn said after the

Hirschhorn also had input from the foreman of the original jury, who
watched some of the retrial and was present for the jury's verdict
Monday. He said he still believes Luyao is innocent.

Hirschhorn said the juror "reached out to me, and he did give me some

Connie Velie, the mother of one of the patients for whom Luyao was
found not guilty of manslaughter, also wanted to be in the courtroom
Monday when the verdict was announced.

She said she was disappointed but also was satisfied that Luyao "will
be off the street where she can't be a doctor anymore." The
trafficking convictions, she said, showed that Luyao "quit being a
doctor and started being a drug peddler."

"I really feel she caused my daughter's death," Velie said. Find this
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