HAMILTON – Dr. Chris Christensen was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with another 10 years on probation, for his role in the overdose deaths of two patients.
In addition, he was sentenced to 10 years on each of the nine counts of felony endangerment and 11 counts of distribution of dangerous drugs in accordance with his prescribing habits. All of the counts are felonies, and the sentences will run concurrently with his negligent homicide sentence.
This is the first time in Montana that a doctor was prosecuted for prescribing drugs.
Yet Christensen, 69, walked out of the courtroom a relatively free man, at least for the time being, since Judge Jeffrey Langton stayed the sentence pending a promised appeal of Christensen’s conviction. He still has a $200,000 bond posted from when he initially was charged, and is under court supervision.
He was ordered to pay $25,867 in court costs for what Langton said was one of the most complex and lengthy trials over which he’s presided. Christensen's attorney later noted that with a debt of more than $1 million, the doctor can’t afford to cover the costs.
The complexity of the case was the main reason Langton allowed Christensen to forgo jail at this point, despite protests from Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright that the doctor had dodged his fate for too long.
“We are asking that there be no more delays and an execution of justice in this case,” Fulbright said, noting that Christensen was first charged in 2015, and wasn’t convicted on all 22 counts until November 2017.
Langton noted that Christensen has attended all of his hearings, and doesn’t pose a danger to the community. Christensen’s license to practice medicine was suspended by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners.
“I don’t find that he’s a flight risk,” Langton said. “Beyond all that, this is a complex case that did involve a number of novel applications of the law, and I think there’s a lot more the (Supreme) Court may wish to review. So I’m staying the execution of the sentence for as long as the appeal takes.”
Josh Van de Wetering, Christensen’s attorney, said he needs a copy of Langton’s written judgment before proceeding with the appeal, which he expects to file within the next few months. He added that it probably will take a year or longer for the Montana Supreme Court to review the case.
After the hearing ended, Van de Wetering said the Supreme Court can take any number of actions.
“They could dismiss it, they could send it back to this court, or they could affirm everything,” he said.
During the sentencing hearing, Van de Wetering said Christensen and others who prescribe opioids are being caught up in the national hysteria over opioid abuse. He compared this to previous prosecuting “fads” like sexual assault of children and shaken baby syndrome in the 1990s.
“We have vilified people, making them seem like some kind of criminal for taking pain medication,” Van De Wetering said. “I firmly believe we will look back at this as a time of hysteria over opioid prescribing and the vilification of people who prescribe them and the vilification of opioids themselves.
“It’s gotten to the point that anyone prescribing them is suspect, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Dr. Christensen has been caught up in this hysteria.”
He added that sentencing a 69-year-old man to prison after a lifetime of caring for people would be unjust.
“We seek probation in keeping with the uniqueness of the case, the defendant’s age and the tremendous, tremendous amount of good he has done in his life,” Van de Wetering said.
Christensen didn’t speak on his own behalf on the advice of Van de Wetering. While he “deeply regrets” the overdose deaths of Gregg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker, and the other patients’ addictions, Christensen still believes he’s not guilty of the charges, according to his attorney.
Christensen showed no emotion as the sentence was read. Afterward, he hugged his wife and family members, then moved through the filled-to-capacity courtroom into the hallway, where he declined to formally comment but talked at length with his supporters.
Fulbright acknowledged that more than 50 people, mainly former patients, wrote letters seeking leniency for Christensen. Still, he recommended a 50-year sentence to the Montana Department of Corrections, with none of it suspended, for the deaths of two of Christensen’s patients, his willingness to provide opioid prescriptions in large amounts, and his lack of remorse even today.
He called Christensen a “callous, arrogant narcissist” whose “care” also led to the deaths of five people in Idaho in the 1990s. While he was charged in those cases, Christensen wasn’t convicted.
“The court and state have been provided with a number of letters of support that suggest the 11 victims represented some sort of anomaly in the defendant’s practice,” Fulbright said. That wasn’t the case, he added, since it was his own medical community that made authorities aware of Christensen’s prescription practices.
“The defendant put a loaded gun in the victims’ hands,” Fulbright said.