A former Bitterroot physician awaiting sentencing on 20 felony drug counts received another reprieve Wednesday after a Missoula judge granted a continuance on lifting the stay that’s kept him out of prison.
Originally sentenced in 2018 to 20 years in prison with 10 suspended after a jury found him guilty of 22 felonies, including two counts of negligent homicide, the 72-year-old Chris Arthur Christensen has yet to serve a day of that prison sentence.
In September, the Montana Supreme Court reversed two negligent homicide convictions of the former Florence physician but upheld 20 other convictions for what the court called his “obscene” over-prescribing of opioids to his patients.
After assuming jurisdiction on the case Tuesday, Missoula District Judge Jason Marks accepted Christensen’s attorney, Josh Van de Wetering’s request Wednesday for a hearing where he plans to argue that his client should remain out of prison pending an appeal the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Dr. Christensen is a 72-year-old man with a health history that puts him at very high risk for COVID at a time when COVID is racing through the prison,” Van de Wetering said during Wednesday’s hearing. “So, even in the absence of needing to go to the Supreme Court…I would probably be asking for a stay for Dr. Christensen’s health.”
The next hearing tentatively will be scheduled for the week of Nov. 16. Christensen will be required to be present in the courtroom. Marks said Christensen should be prepared to be taken into custody that day.
“I will say that I feel like the Montana Supreme Court was very thorough in their review of the legal issues, so you probably have an uphill climb in convincing me that there is something the U.S. Supreme Court” would consider, Marks told Van de Wetering. “Mr. Christensen should plan his affairs with the expectation that he may go into custody.”
Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright argued Wednesday the stay should be lifted and Christensen required to report to the county detention center.
Fulbright said former Ravalli County District Judge Jeffrey Langton took “an extraordinary step” when he stayed imposition of Christensen’s sentence pending appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has now rendered its decision,” Fulbright said. “We’re approaching three years. It’s been a long process. (Christensen) enjoyed the benefit of that stay throughout this time. It’s time for that to end.”
“The defendant has been told very clearly that he would have a chance to take his appeal to the Montana Supreme Court,” Fulbright said. “He’s done that. The Supreme Court, while they reversed two convictions — the two negligent homicide convictions — they clearly left 20 felony convictions in place, including the illegal distribution of opiates to the victims who died.”
“This is the time for the sentence to go in effect,” Fulbright argued.
Christensen’s Florence clinic was raided by the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force in April 2014 after pharmacists for surrounding areas reported concerns about large opioid prescriptions issued by Christensen. Initially, he was charged with 400 felonies in 2015, most of which were criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
Christensen was also charged with negligent homicide in the overdose deaths of Greg Griffin in 2012 and Kara Philbrick in 2013. In a split decision, the Supreme Court found that prosecutors didn’t present sufficient evidence to show that Christensen’s prescriptions were the cause of the deaths that a toxicologist reported as accidental overdoses caused by several substances, including illegal drugs not prescribed by Christensen.
But five of the seven justices upheld convictions of 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs saying evidence presented at the trial showed “Christensen used his prescription writing authority as a pretext to act as a drug dealer, supporting drug tolerance and feeding addictions for all eleven patients.”
The case took nearly two years to go to trial. The appeal process was delayed through a series of extensions from both sides.
Wednesday’s hearing was held via Zoom. The next hearing will be held in the courtroom, with Christensen required to attend.