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NEW YORK (AP) — A pain doctor convicted of manslaughter in two patients' overdose deaths was sentenced Friday to more than a decade in prison, after patients' relatives pleaded for a tough punishment and said he put money ahead of medicine.
Dr. Stan Li got a 10 2/3 -to-20-year term in a case that reflected the widening reach of criminal prosecutions of physicians accused of abetting prescription drug abuse. Believed to be New York's first manslaughter case against a doctor in an overdose death, it also invoked the specter of drug-related violence: One of Li's former patients shot four people in a pharmacy holdup.
"This is a fair and just sentence, given Li's egregious criminal conduct," city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said in a statement.
Li's lawyer, Raymond Belair, said he planned to appeal. He has called Li's conviction a "miscarriage of justice" and said Li just tried to help people who misused medications and misled him.
Li, a 60-year-old anesthesiologist and pain management specialist from Hamilton, New Jersey, was convicted in July of manslaughter, reckless endangerment and other charges.
He saw as many as 90 patients a day at a Queens weekend pain management clinic that charged on a per-prescription scale, making at least $450,000 in two years on top of his six-figure salary as a hospital anesthesiologist, prosecutors said.
Other doctors called to tell him about one suicidal patient's repeated overdoses. Another patient's father went to Li's office to implore him to stop, according to prosecutors. But Li kept prescribing.
"I cannot understand how someone who took an oath to protect people can kill another human being," Margaret Rappold wrote in a letter to the court. Li prescribed her 21-year-old son, Nicholas Rappold, scores of painkiller and anti-anxiety pills in the five weeks before he took too many and died in his car, slumped over a bottle of drugs Li had prescribed, prosecutors said.
Vincent Cornetta, whose brother Michael also was among Li's patients, called the physician a "ghoul" who exploited drug dependency instead of treating it.
"Li cashed in his humanity each and every time he turned his back on Michael and other afflicted addicts he cynically abused" to keep money coming in, Victor Cornetta wrote to state Supreme Court Justice Michael Sonberg. Michael Cornetta, 40, died of an overdose; his case spurred reckless endangerment charges against Li.
Li also was convicted of selling prescriptions to David Laffer, who shot and killed two employees and two customers while holding up a Long Island pharmacy for painkillers in June 2011. Laffer pleaded guilty to murder and is serving a life sentence.
Li's defense said the doctor was genuinely treating, not just enabling, people who were often physically dependent on pain medications. He often reduced dosages other physicians had prescribed, and he sometimes stopped treating patients who didn't take the medications as ordered, Belair said during Li's trial.
Manslaughter charges against doctors for overprescribing drugs are uncommon. Perhaps most notoriously, former cardiologist Conrad Murray was accused of giving pop star Michael Jackson a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol as a sleep aid in 2009 and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.
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