SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge Monday reluctantly sentenced a Brigham City doctor to 20 years in prison for illegally dispensing pain pills, including some that resulted in the death of one of his patients.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson had little choice but to impose the minium mandatory term on Dewey C. MacKay as federal law requires. Benson called the sentence harsh and unjust.
"It's too long. That does not in any way say that I condone lawbreaking or that I in any way disagree with the jury's conscientious verdict. But it's too long," Benson said.
MacKay knew going into the hearing that he would receive a 20-year sentence.
"The law sucks," he told teary-eyed friends and family as he left the courtroom. "(Benson) had no choice going in. We knew that."
MacKay was convicted in August of 37 counts of illegally dispensing painkillers, including two that resulted in the death of 55-year-old David Wirick; and three counts of using a communication device in a drug trafficking offense. The jury acquitted him of 44 other counts.
"I am not a criminal and I am not a drug dealer," MacKay told the judge.
Assistant U.S. attorney Michael Kennedy agreed with Benson that the sentence is harsh, but said it is justified by the pain he caused.
"We have yet to hear one word from Dr. MacKay accepting one bit of responsibility, one bit of remorse for anything that has happened."
The 64-year-old doctor shouldered only partial blame for the crimes and took no responsibility for dispensing drugs related to Wirick's death.
"I believe the jury tried their best. I am bewildered at their verdict. I know with all my heart they were mistaken in their verdict," he said. "I do not believe David Wirick died from his medications. I believe he died of pneumonia."
Wirick, an ATK mechanical engineer with chronic back problems, overdosed on Lortab and Percocet in May 2006, three days after receiving prescriptions from MacKay. His exact cause of death, however, was the subject of conjecture during the trial.
His widow, Susan Wirick, said after the hearing that she feels bad MacKay received 20 years. But that he showed no remorse.
MacKay's attorney Peter Stirba said MacKay, who suffers from many health problems, including diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension, obesity, gout and cirrhosis of the liver, will die in prison.
"We believe a 20-years sentence in this case is essentially a death sentence for Dr. MacKay," he told the judge.
MacKay intends to appeal his conviction, Stirba said. His defense team filed a motion to keep the doctor out of prison pending the appeal, arguing he is not a flight risk or a danger to the community. Benson ordered MacKay to report to a yet-to-be determined federal penitentiary on Feb. 1, but will likely hear arguments on the motion before then.
"This case is not going to be over for quite a while," said Michael Hansen, one of MacKay's defense lawyers.
Rep. Rob Bishop R-Utah, and Utah Senate Assistant Majority Whip Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, were among several dozen people who wrote to the court vouching for MacKay's character.
The letters praise MacKay's community, professional and church work. He served in the military, served as an LDS Church bishop, raised money for cancer research and volunteered on the Box Elder County Search and Rescue scuba team. He was Brigham City's only orthopedic surgeon for many years. He changed his practice to pain management when poor health prevented him from doing surgery.
Prosecutors acknowledged the letters show MacKay did much good for his community, but demonstrate little or no firsthand knowledge of his medical practice or inappropriate relationship with one of his female patients.
"In short, the defendant was leading a double life with his crimes largely hidden from his present supporters," Kennedy wrote. "Charitable deeds in the community cannot negate the effect of the serious offenses committed by the defendant."
Mackay's practice amounted to asking patients what drugs they wanted and writing prescriptions for them, prosecutors said.
MacKay wrote 20,612 prescriptions for hydrocodone products from January 2005 to October 2009, totaling more than 1.9 million pills. He had the highest volume of prescriptions for hydrocodone in the state five years in a row.