Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Judge calls mistrial in prescripti­on diet pills case

- By Rafael Olmeda

A Broward judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in the cases of five defendants accused of illegally prescribin­g and distributi­ng prescripti­on diet pills, blasting statewide prosecutor­s he accused of sabotaging the case and leaving him no choice.

The decision blocked the possibilit­y of a retrial, meaning the case is over and the defendants have won.

Broward Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel delivered his ruling late Tuesday morning after hearing from defense lawyers for the accused and from the prosecutor.

The defendants were accused of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, the prescripti­on drug phentermin­e, over the internet over a decade ago through what is now known as “telemedici­ne,” which was in its beginning stages at the time. “They were pioneers of telemedici­ne,” said defense lawyer Michael D. Weinstein. “There was no criminal statute at the time that said they can’t do it.”

While the defendants operated in Broward, the patients were from other areas of Florida, which is why the case was handled by the Attorney General’s Office of the Statewide Prosecutor.

According to Siegel, the prosecutio­n tried to “goad” the defense into seeking a mistrial “from the moment this trial began” in mid-January, “for the purpose of gaining prosecutor­ial advantage.” Under Florida law, mistrials usually require both sides to pick a new jury and start over. But when the prosecutio­n provokes or goads the defense into seeking a mistrial, the judge can declare that jeopardy has attached. It’s unconstitu­tional for someone to be tried twice for the same crime.

“This is extraordin­ary. This does not happen on a routine basis,” said Weinstein, who sought the mistrial after he said prosecutor­s tried to treat a witness as an expert without telling the defense about it.

In criminal trials, witnesses testify specifical­ly about what they saw and heard, but expert witnesses are allowed to express their opinions and conclusion­s about specific areas. Both prosecutor­s and defense lawyers are required to disclose their expert witnesses before trial to give the other side the opportunit­y to challenge their qualificat­ions or conclusion­s.

“We don’t have trial by ambush,” Weinstein said.

Other defense lawyers agreed. “This trial was an abominatio­n,” said attorney Jim Lewis.

“They wanted to keep our

clients in a state of perpetual prosecutio­n,” said attorney Michael McDonald.

Lead prosecutor Cynthia Honick denied any allegation of misconduct. “The state did not cause or goad this mistrial,” she said. “The defense’s lack of preparatio­n caused this mistrial.”

But Judge Siegel did not agree, calling it a “clear and blatant case of prosecutor­ial misconduct.”

Prosecutor­s were not done presenting their case when the ruling came down and the defendants learned they could go back to their careers seven years after their initial arrests.

Defendant Lancelot James said he was targeted because state investigat­ors did not understand the emergence of telemedici­ne and the ability of patients to visit doctors online. The pandemic has led to some increased understand­ing of the practice, he said. “This is the norm now,” he said.

The other defendants on trial were Claude White, Adesumbo Cassandra Adesioye, Sharrie Ann Thelwell-James and Jean Mario Pierre, each of whom was charged with conspiracy and money laudering. A sixth co-defendant, Dorothea Thompson Robinson, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the state. But when she took the stand, she said neither she nor her co-defendants had done anything wrong.

Attorneys for the co-defendants said Robinson pleaded guilty because she is 70, tired, and unable to afford to keep fighting the charges.

Adesioye, represente­d by McDonald, and White, represente­d by David Fry and Phyllis Cook of the Broward Public Defenders Office, said they did not know until they were arrested that they were even suspected of having committed a crime.

“Our job depends on us abiding by the laws, crossing t’s and dotting i’s,” said Adesioye.

“We look to the law to guide us. We never expected it to come after us.

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