HAMILTON — A Ravalli County District Court jury has found Dr. Chris Christensen, accused of over-prescribing prescription drugs, guilty of all charges.
Christensen was charged with two counts of negligent homicide for allegedly prescribing the drugs that caused the overdose deaths of Gregg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker.
He also was charged with nine counts of criminal endangerment, and 11 counts of distribution of dangerous drugs.
Ravalli County Deputy Attorney Thorin Geist, who prosecuted the case along with County Attorney Bill Fulbright, said they're pleased with the result. Geist has worked on the case literally for years, since before Christensen's clinic in Florence was raided on April 1, 2014.
"It's been a long case, with a lot of twists and turns," Geist said. "It was more than a little frustrating when he got a year's continuance and things got pushed back."
However, that did allow the prosecution to craft a case in which each witness built upon the previous testimony. The case started out with the pharmacological aspects, building to testimony from pain experts and Christensen's former patients.
"The jury needed to get an understanding of every piece of the puzzle," Fulbright said. "A lot of education was needed just to be able to talk about the care and all of the issues. This was a great team effort."
Christensen's attorney Josh Van de Wetering said he obviously was disappointed with the verdict, but it will be appealed after sentencing, which probably will take place in January.
Christensen stood stone-faced as the verdicts were read in the Ravalli County District Court. The jury had begun deliberations last Thursday afternoon, and were out about 12 hours in total.
Christensen wasn't taken into custody Monday, but was ordered to stay in Ravalli or Missoula counties until sentencing, and to participate in a pre-sentence investigation.
Each of the two negligent homicide counts is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The nine criminal endangerment counts each are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and the 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs call for jail terms of up to 25 years. All 22 counts include fines of up to $50,000 on each count.
Van de Wetering said Christensen is holding up well for a man just convicted of 22 felony counts.
"He's doing OK, given the circumstances," Van de Wetering said.
Geist and Fulbright noted that the conviction was a group effort, from the federal to the local level. Geist said that in particular, one of the witnesses in the case, Dr. Brett Bender, put in a lot of time helping explain medical issues.
"Doctors are kind of like lawyers in the sense that nobody wants to talk ill about another doctor or lawyer. But there was a tipping point, where all of a sudden a lot of medical professionals understood what was going on, and then they did everything they could to help," Geist said.
He also praised Van de Wetering's defense effort, noting that he was one of Geist's professors in law school.
"There's a lot of cases where you get opposing counsel on the other side the you don't like. It can be maddening," Geist said. "So I was really pleased when Christensen retained Josh."