A former Rowland Heights osteopathic doctor, who was the first physician in the country to be convicted of murder in the overdose deaths of patients given prescriptions for drugs, was sentenced Friday to 30 years to life in state prison.
“The defendant is responsible in part, no matter what she may state, for the tragic deaths of three men,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli said shortly before imposing the term requested by prosecutors for Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng.
He called Tseng’s conduct “reckless” and said he found it “egregious” that the highly educated doctor continued her prescribing practices after getting “ample warnings” about deaths of patients that she had treated.
The judge said there seemed to be an effort by Tseng, 46, to “put the blame on someone else,” including her patients, other doctors and pharmacists who filled the prescriptions.
Tseng was convicted Oct. 30 of three counts of second-degree murder, 19 counts of unlawful controlled substance prescription and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
The murder charges stemmed from 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.
In a brief statement during which a courtroom bailiff told her to sit down twice, Tseng said she wanted to apologize to the patients and their family members and said she would do everything she can to “take responsibility.”
“No words can really properly describe the sadness and remorse that I feel, and I cannot imagine what you have gone through,” Tseng said. “It’s very tragic for anyone who suffered such great loss, but most especially tragic for those who lost their children and their siblings. I know I cannot turn back the clock.”
She said she will be praying for her patients and their loved ones.
In a more detailed letter to the judge, Tseng wrote that she wanted him to “understand how shameful and remorseful I feel as a result of having broken all the professional rules and standards while practicing medicine and having my treatment and prescriptions be part of my patients’ addictions.”
She wrote that she realized she was in denial over her prescribing practices and their effects and that she knows she was not properly trained in addiction medicine or pain management and for writing pain management prescriptions.
“I know that being remorseful for my failures as a doctor and as a person does not reverse time or does not help the families heal their grief,” Tseng wrote. “I would like to think that the past four years in county jail in solitary lockup 23 hours a day has helped me partially earn the right to write about my remorse.”
Tseng also noted in the letter that she offered to enter a plea before trial in exchange for a 20-year term that would give her hope in getting out of prison to see her two children — who are 8 and 11 — and other family members, but that no such deal was worked out.
The judge rejected the defense’s request to sentence Tseng to the minimum 15-year-to-life term, saying that the punishment has to fit her conduct.
Defense attorney Tracy Green told the judge that her client had “taken a lot of responsibility in this case,” and it was “not fair in this case to blame her (Tseng) solely.”
“Lisa Tseng is here as one piece of a puzzle that affected a lot of individuals’ lives,” Green told the judge, noting that the prescriptions were filled by pharmacies and that some of Tseng’s patients were seeing other doctors, as well. Green added that Tseng had surrendered her license to practice osteopathic medicine before she was arrested in March 2012 in connection with the charges. Tseng has remained in jail since then.
Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann told the judge, “I am flabbergasted that even to this day, the defense is trying to shift (the) blame.” Tseng’s mother said outside court through an interpreter that she felt the sentence was “not fair.”
“My heart is broken,” she said, declining to give reporters her name.
Outside court, Rovero’s mother, April, who formed a national coalition against prescription drug abuse after her son’s death, said her “family feels that justice has been done. We are very satisfied with the sentence.”
She said her son went to see Tseng and was dead nine days later.
“We would never have guessed this would happen to Joey or our family, and yet here we are in this very high-profile case that’s gotten really international attention, so it’s surreal,” she said. “We’re really glad to put this behind us … The pain of losing Joey is going to be with us for every day of our lives.”
She said she was glad that Tseng took the time to say she was sorry, but that her apology “didn’t feel like it was necessarily heartfelt. It seemed more like a desperation move from my perspective, but given the alternative of not saying anything, I think it was better that she did.”
Ogle’s mother, Desiree Ogle-Spillman, told reporters that she felt Tseng didn’t take responsibility for her actions.
“I think the judge saw that and I think the judge was very serious and held back a lot but got the message across that this was not going to be put on the families or the pharmacies or the (other) doctors,” Ogle-Spillman said.
She said Tseng’s imprisonment “won’t bring any of our children back, but she won’t be hurting any other children, either.”
Attorney Larry Eisenberg, who handled eight wrongful death lawsuits against Tseng that have been settled, called the sentence “exceedingly fair.”
“There were no true mitigating factors in this case. Dr. Tseng had to know what she was doing, and what she actually did through her conduct was she perpetuated the addiction of her patients, both physically and emotionally,” Eisenberg told reporters outside court.
In their sentencing papers, Niedermann and Deputy District Attorney Grace Rai wrote that, “While amassing a fortune of millions of dollars, and despite repeated warnings pertaining to the danger to her patients, the defendant’s prescribing practices never changed and in some patients actually increased … The defendant’s concern was not for the well-being of her patients but rather the monetary benefits they provided her.”
The prosecutors wrote that it was even more compelling that Tseng knew that three of her other patients had overdosed before Nguyen, Ogle and Rovero died and that she continued to prescribe controlled substances “in a reckless manner knowing the possible consequences of her actions.”
Niedermann told jurors that Tseng faked medical records to cover up her misdeeds.
“She is warned again and again and again. They’re dying, they’re dying, they’re dying,” Niedermann told the panel. “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.
Tseng’s attorney 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 contended that 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.
In her sentencing papers, Green wrote, “The defense in this case was not simply to blame the victims. There was no doubt, however, that the three patients — Rovero, Ogle and Nguyen (as well as the other patients) — contacted Lisa Tseng, presented themselves as pain patients with injuries, and sought prescription medications. Lisa Tseng has her professional duties but she did not seek them out, advertise them or use marketers to find ‘addicts’ or some other method.”
The defense attorney said the patients then took “numerous intervening acts that had nothing to do with Lisa Tseng — from going to the pharmacies to get the medication and then taking excessive doses and mixing the medications prescribed by Tseng with other drugs not prescribed by her or alcohol,” leading to their deaths.
Green said her client plans to appeal her conviction.
—City News Service