A former medical examiner and forensic pathologist who has been associated with some of Georgia’s most sensational crime cases was indicted on additional felony charges accusing him of the illegal distribution of opioid painkillers, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta announced Thursday.
Dr. Joseph Burton—who was indicted on federal drug charges last fall—was charged Thursday with seven other individuals in a sweeping superseding indictment alleging a conspiracy to illegally distribute opioid painkillers. Federal prosecutors said the new indictment was part of Operation SCOPE (Strategically Combatting Opioids Through Prosecution and Enforcement). The indictments accused Burton of prescribing oxycodone outside the scope of professional service in exchange for sexual favors.
At the time of his arrest, Burton, a licensed physician, was in private practice as a consulting pathologist.
U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak announced the superseding indictment shortly after President Donald Trump announced that the federal government will begin suing pharmaceutical companies and prescription drug distributors over their alleged roles in perpetuating and exacerbating the nation’s opioid crisis. The president also said Thursday that drug dealers should face the death penalty.
The new indictment alleges that Burton, 72, engaged in romantic relationships with at least three women in exchange for opioid prescriptions in “inappropriate” amounts. The women, in turn, secured prescriptions for other individuals whom Burton had never met, according to the new indictment.
Federal agents began investigating Burton in early 2017 after state authorities discovered he allegedly was prescribing painkillers to a large number of patients even though he was not operating a medical clinic or regularly seeing patients, federal prosecutors said. Over a two-year period beginning in July 2015, Dr. Burton allegedly issued over 1,100 opioid prescriptions, equivalent to more than 108,000 individual doses, including over 66,000 30 mg oxycodone pills, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors are seeking the surrender of Burton’s professional license and assets, including property and his pickup.
Late Thursday, Burton’s attorney, former federal prosecutor Buddy Parker, defended Burton, who performed autopsies in the Atlanta child murders and was once the state’s premier medical examiner. In that role, Burton testified on behalf of multiple prosecuting authorities, “and helped them obtain justice for families … whose loved ones had been murdered, whose loved ones had been raped, had been molested, or had all kinds of harm committed against them,” Parker said.
But, Parker explained, a stroke and “a near-death experience” in an auto accident had led to changes in Burton’s conduct and his lifestyle. “He engaged in risk-taking activities, in conduct that is aberrational and contrary to the way he lived his life for decades,” Parker said. “Is that an excuse to exonerate him? It is an explanation.”
“There are many physicians in this country and in this state that do not believe that the prescription of opioids for pain relief is a violation of law as long as they believe in good faith they are doing no harm … by alleviating people in pain,” Parker added. “Pharmaceutical companies make billions from pushing opioids through the medical profession,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean the human beings involved were venal, corrupt, evil people.”