Doctor found guilty on all counts


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    MISSOULA, Mont. - A western Montana pain doctor plans to appeal his convictions on 22 felonies, including two counts of negligent homicide in the overdose deaths of two patients.

    Chris Christensen was convicted Monday in the deaths of Greg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker.

    Ravalli County prosecutors argued Christensen should have known his prescribing practices were putting patients at risk after the overdose deaths of five patients in Idaho in the 1990s.

    Defense attorney Josh Van de Wetering said they plan to appeal after Christensen is sentenced in late December. He says even if Christensen's prescriptions were misguided, that doesn't constitute a crime or make him responsible for anyone's death.

    The case began when other members of the medical community complained about Christensen's prescribing practices and some pharmacists refused to fill his prescriptions.

    The state Board of Medical Examiners revoked his medical license in January 2016. Jurors returned their verdict against Christensen Monday morning. They received the case on Thursday.

    Christensen also was found guilty of 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs and nine counts of criminal endangerment.

    With his family sitting behind the defense chair Christensen stood with his attorney to hear the verdict.

    It took a while to read the verdicts, beginning with the patients who died under Christensen's care, Gregg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker, and on down the list, guilty on all 22 counts.

    "It sets a precedent that says there's conduct that is not acceptable," said Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright, "that you can't just pretend to practice a profession."

    Fulbright said the verdict "affirms what his office has been working on for the last two years was the right thing to do."

    "This is a nice day of justice for a number of these victims," said the prosecutor, "including Gregg Griffin and Kara Philbrick, who are no longer with us."

    Griffin had struggled with drug addiction for as many as 10 years. He was a carpenter and the father of two young children.

    NBC Montana talked with Griffin's mother Monday afternoon.

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    Sharon Griffin said her son was a good person, always "a friend to the underdog. He never met a stranger," she said.

    She said her son was trying to wean himself off opioids. As a witness for the prosecution, Sharon said that her son had gone to Christensen to get a refill for a drug to help him help him withdraw.

    "He was doing very well on that prescription," she said.

    "When he came home that night," she said, Christensen had prescribed methadone and "he was not a happy camper."

    On the night of April 1, 2012, she recalled her son telling her, "Hi Mom, I'm home. I love you."

    The next morning Sharon Griffin found her son unresponsive. He had died of an overdose.

    "I was excited that (Christensen) was found guilty on all the charges," said Sharon Griffin, "because there are other people out there hurting, other people out there that have suffered through this. I want vindication for them as well, not just for me. This has been a long hard road."

    "His family has been through a lot," she said. "We've all grieved."

    After hearing of the verdict she said "I talked to my heavenly father and told him how grateful I am for not only my prayers being answered, but for the other families as well."

    "There's a feeling of relief," she said. "But we'll never ever forget."

    Prosecutors alleged Christensen overprescribed opiates and other drugs in dangerous combinations and should have known his prescribing practices were dangerous because five of his patients in Idaho died in the 1990s.

    NBC Montana talked to a man who came to court to support the doctor. He did not want to be interviewed on camera.

    He told us Christensen "doesn't belong in prison. He is a kind man," he said, who cared about his patients.

    Van de Wetering argued Christensen was a compassionate physician who prescribed drugs to ease patients' suffering.

    But Sharon Griffin said the problem she has now is to try to forgive Dr. Christensen. She said she needs to seek advice from her church bishop.

    "I need to forgive," she said, "and that's going to be a hard road for me. I feel sorry for Dr. Christensen's family."

    After the verdict was read Christensen talked quietly with his family. He left the courtroom with them and with his attorney.

    Christensen will be sentenced Dec. 27.

    Van de Wetering said they plan to appeal Christensen's conviction after he is sentenced in December.

    The state Board of Medical Examiners has suspended Christensen's medical license.

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