Families of the victims of a Rowland Heights doctor convicted of second-degree murder for the drug overdose deaths of three of her patients confronted her Monday in court.
“During which office visit did you no longer see my son as a person and only as a deposit into your bank account?,” asked Verlene Crawford, the mother of Naythan Kenney, who overdosed on Sept. 20, 2008. “Did you ever look in the mirror and were sickened by what you saw?”
Hsui-Ying “Lisa” Tseng sat quiet and emotionless in blue jail clothes as mothers, fathers, brothers, aunts and other family members stood to make tearful statements to the court, recalling lives cut short.
Crawford said if Tseng believed she wasn’t guilty, she would be able to look family members “straight in the eyes” and closed her victim impact statement by telling the doctor, “God help you.”
The physician was convicted Oct. 30 in the deaths of Vu Nguyen, 28, of Lake Forest; Steven Ogle, 24, of Palm Desert; and Joseph Rovero III, a 21-year- old Arizona State University student from San Ramon, between March and December 2009.
“All of these tragedies were avoidable,” Rovero’s mother April said of the deaths of her son, who overdosed after mixing alcohol with Xanax and oxycodone prescribed by Tseng, and the other victims.
“I hope in time she will feel the remorse she should,” she said.
Those who hold Tseng responsible for the deaths of their relatives go well beyond the three families of the victims whose deaths she was convicted of causing.
Kenney and at least two other Tseng patients — Matthew Stavron and Ryan Latham — overdosed between 2007 and 2008. At least three other families have filed lawsuits against Tseng in the overdose deaths of family members.
Tseng’s case marked the first time a doctor in the state was charged with murder for the deaths of patients for whom he or she had prescribed drugs.
Latham’s father told Tseng her responsibility was “the same as if you had held a loaded gun … and pulled the trigger.”
“You’ve earned it,” he said of Tseng’s anticipated prison sentence.
Tseng’s sentencing, originally set for Monday, is now set for Feb. 5. She faces up to life in prison for the three murder counts, 19 counts of unlawful controlled substance prescription and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
Many of the family members mentioned the difficulty of facing the holidays without their loved ones, with Ogle’s mother telling the court that she would spend her time visiting her son’s gravesite.
“You froze time for all of us and the lives you so carelessly took,” Desiree Ogle-Spillman said.
During trial, prosecutor John Niedermann told jurors that Tseng, 46, faked medical records to cover up her misdeeds. The defense countered that while Tseng could be been better at practicing medicine, she was not a murderer.
Niedermann said Tseng prescribed “high levels of opiates” out of her storefront office without medical justification to patients who did not need them even after learning some had overdosed.
“She is warned again and again and again. They’re dying, they’re dying, they’re dying,” Niedermann told the jury. “She understands what she’s doing, the harm of it, and she does it anyway.”
Tseng had received calls from coroner’s officials about deaths of some of the patients she had seen, along with fielding calls from family members who had told her not to prescribe to or see their loved ones, he said.
Nine of Tseng’s patients died in less than three years, a period when Tseng took in $5 million from her clinic, according to the prosecutor.
Niedermann said Tseng’s medical records were “manufactured by the defendant at a later date” in an effort to back up the prescriptions she had written and that she failed to keep any records of dozens of visits.
Defense attorney Tracy Green accused investigators of a “rush to judgment” and of singling Tseng out while failing to interview other doctors who may have treated the patients, who she said took “far in excess” of the dosages prescribed by Tseng.
The defense attorney claimed there was “no evidence” that her client was simply handing prescriptions to patients who asked for them, and that the doctor was trying to taper down the medication of some patients.
“She is trusting the patient … in hindsight too much,” Green told jurors while conceding the defendant “could have practiced better.” She said the mother of two was “working in the trenches of a clinic, probably working too much.”
“Is it so bad as to be criminal?” she asked of her client’s actions. “She wasn’t so heartless or careless that she didn’t care what happened …”
Tseng agreed in February 2012 to surrender her license to practice, just before being taken into custody in connection with the criminal charges. She has been behind bars in lieu of $3 million bail since her March 1, 2012, arrest.
— Wire reports