Former Georgia medical examiner sentenced for opioid conspiracy
ATLANTA – Dr. Joseph L. Burton, a former county and state medical examiner and forensic pathologist, has been sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to illegally distribute opioid painkillers. Dr. Burton was indicted along with seven other individuals in February 2018. Four of Dr. Burton’s co-defendants have already been sentenced, and two more are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to similar charges.
“As a medical professional, Dr. Burton violated both his legal and ethical responsibilities when he knowingly wrote hundreds of illegal opioid prescriptions in exchange for sexual favors,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “We will continue to work closely with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to hold those accountable who unlawfully distribute opioids in our community.”
“Addressing the country’s prescription opioid epidemic continues to be one of DEA’s top priorities,” said Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division. “Dr. Burton prescribed powerful opiate-based pills outside the normal course of professional practice in exchange for sexual favors. Correspondingly, DEA, its law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office used every available resource to ensure he was brought to justice for his egregious prescribing practices. He will now spend well-deserved time in prison.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment, and other information presented in court: Dr. Burton, a licensed physician, operated as a consulting pathologist to determine the medical causes of diseases and death. Federal agents with the DEA began investigating Dr. Burton after agents with the Georgia Drug & Narcotics Agency and the Georgia Department of Public Health visited him in early 2017 and discovered that he was prescribing painkillers to a large number of patients without operating a medical clinic or regularly seeing patients. Over a roughly two-year period beginning in July 2015, Burton wrote over 1,500 prescriptions for controlled substances – including over 1,100 prescriptions for opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone – irrespective of any legitimate medical purpose and outside the normal course of professional practice. These illegitimate prescriptions amounted to over 108,000 individual doses of opioids, including over 66,000 30 mg oxycodone pills. Burton wrote the bulk of these prescriptions to women in exchange for sexual favors and romantic affection. With his knowledge, many of the recipients of these prescriptions, in turn, sold or bartered the prescriptions. The approximate street value of the oxycodone pills that Burton prescribed exceeds $2 million.
Dr. Burton prescribed opioids to individuals without: diagnosing legitimate medical conditions, conducting medical exams, reviewing medical records, taking precautions for proper usage or drug screening, or, on occasion, ever meeting the recipients. Several of Burton’s co-defendants, as well as other individuals who were not federally indicted, each engaged in a sexual relationship with Dr. Burton in exchange for prescriptions in their names, as well as the names of others. These women would fill their prescriptions and sell the pills, and then obtain more prescriptions from Burton for other people, who paid them for getting the prescriptions. Dr. Burton also supplied the co-defendants with blank prescriptions and instructed them on how to fill them out.
Joseph Lawson Burton, 73, of Milton, Georgia, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release on August 29, 2018. Burton pleaded guilty on May 22, 2018 to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances outside of the normal course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose.
The following co-defendants have also pleaded guilty or been sentenced:
●Jennifer Hunter, 29, of Acworth, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 2, 2018. Hunter’s sentencing is scheduled for September 11, 2018.
●Tiffany Willis, 26, of Cartersville, Georgia, was sentenced on August 15, 2018, to four years, seven months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 2, 2018.
●Michelle Danner, 45, of Acworth, Georgia, was sentenced on August 9, 2018 to five years, 10 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 15, 2018.
●Jerry Stephens, Jr., 30, of Cartersville, Georgia, was sentenced on August 28, 2018 to four years in federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances and one count of distribution and dispensation of a controlled substance on May 8, 2018.
●Rodney Kennedy, 63, of Cartersville, Georgia was sentenced on August 9, 2018 to two years, nine months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances on May 10, 2018.
This case is being investigated by the DEA. The case is part of a coordinated effort with the Acworth Police Department, Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, Bartow County District Attorney’s Office, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Cartersville Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office, Clayton County Police Department, Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, Cobb County Police Department, Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Floyd County District Attorney’s Office, Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Department of Community Supervision, Georgia Composite Medical Board, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Jonesboro Police Department, Oakwood Police Department, Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, and the Rome Police Department.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys John T. DeGenova and C. Brock Brockington, Deputy Chief of the Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs Section are prosecuting the case.
This case was presented as a part of Operation SCOPE, (Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement), an initiative that targets individuals who illegally prescribe opioids and drug traffickers who also distribute these dangerous and addictive drugs.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta recommends parents and children learn about the dangers of drugs at the following web site: www.justthinktwice.gov.
For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov(link sends e-mail) or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.
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