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UPDATED: Supreme Court reverses Bitterroot physician's homicide convictions

UPDATED: Supreme Court reverses Bitterroot physician's homicide convictions

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Chris Christensen

Former Florence doctor Chris Christensen was released Monday from jail after the Montana Supreme Court granted an "out-of-time" appeal. Christensen is convicted of 22 felonies, including two negligent homicides, for over-prescribing opioids.

A split Montana Supreme Court decision on Wednesday reversed the two negligent homicide convictions of a former Bitterroot physician convicted in 2018, but upheld other convictions stemming from his "obscene" over-prescribing of opioids to his patients.

Chris Arthur Christensen was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison with 10 suspended in 2018 after a jury found him guilty of 22 felonies, including negligent homicide for the drug overdose deaths of Greg Griffin in 2012 and Kara Philbrick in 2013. The charges came from an investigation into Christensen's prescribing overwhelming amounts of opiates and other pills to 11 patients from 2011 to 2014.

The majority of the state Supreme Court justices found the prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence to establish that Christensen's actions were the direct cause in the deaths of Griffin and Philbrick. 

Christensen, 72, has not yet reported for prison, however; the Ravalli County District Court judge who presided over his case immediately stayed the sentencing pending appeal to the high court.

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fullbright was in meetings Wednesday afternoon and not immediately available for comment. Christensen's attorney, Josh Van de Wetering, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force raided Christensen's Florence clinic in April 2014, two years after pharmacists in the surrounding areas reported concerns to law enforcement about the large opioid prescriptions Christensen had issued. He was initially charged with 400 felonies, mostly criminal distribution of dangerous drugs, although those charges were whittled down to 22 counts by the time Christensen went to trial.

Ravalli County prosecutors had argued at trial that Christensen contributed directly to the deaths of Griffin and Philbrick, his prescriptions akin to handing "each a loaded gun." 

In the opinion vacating Christensen's negligent homicide convictions, however, Chief Justice Mike McGrath said doubt remained in whether Christensen's prescriptions were the "cause-in-fact" of their deaths. The toxicologist reported both deaths were "accidental" overdose deaths and caused by "mixed drug toxicity," a stew of substances which included illegal drugs not prescribed by Christensen. Additionally, McGrath wrote, no expert testimony at his trial pointed directly to the Methadone and benzodiazepine Christensen prescribed as the cause of death.

Five of the seven justices held up the physician's 11 convictions for criminal distribution of dangerous drugs, writing the evidence presented to the jury showed "Christensen used his prescription writing authority as a pretext to act as a drug dealer, supporting drug tolerance or feeding addictions for all eleven patients," well outside the scope of his professional practice.

Three justices signed a dissenting opinion arguing there was indeed enough evidence for the jury to find Christensen guilty in the deaths. 

Five justices voted to uphold nine convicted counts of felony criminal endangerment, writing that the high rate of his prescriptions created a situation in which Christensen would have been aware of the risk of death or serious injury to nine of his patients.

Two justices in a separate dissenting opinion argued the case should have fallen into civil proceedings through a medical malpractice lawsuit rather than a criminal case. These justices would have reversed the convictions on all counts.

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“I’m glad we didn’t do this 30 years ago because there were a lot of things different back in those days. The regulations were not as stringent, people’s mindsets were different and I think we’re doing a far far better job of it now than we probably could’ve conceived of 30 years ago and I’m very glad for that.”

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