Portales doctor acquitted on one drug charge; guilty on another

Staff and wire reports

A federal jury in Albuquerque this week acquitted a Portales physician of illegally dispensing methadone to a man who died of a drug overdose in 2008.

Arnold Sotello, 36, was found dead in an Amarillo motel Sept. 22, 2008.

But the jury convicted Dr. Patricia J. Green on a second charge that she unlawfully dispensed methadone to an undercover narcotics agent who told Green that he did not need the drug to control pain.

Green’s attorney, Randall Harris of Clovis, said Wednesday that Green had faced possible life in prison if jurors had convicted her of the federal charge related to Sotello’s death.

“I’ve represented Dr. Green for three years and she is a wonderful and passionate physician and she was wrongfully accused of Sotello’s murder and the jury saw through that,” Harris said. “She epitomized what a doctor should do. She loved her patients and she went above and beyond what anyone should do. She’s the kind of doctor you want to be involved with.”

The jury was apparently swayed by testimony from Dr. Ross Zumwalt, New Mexico’s chief medical examiner, who told jurors that Sotello had died of an overdose of cocaine, not methadone or a second drug prescribed by Green, Harris said.

Green, who owns and operates the Sparrow Medical Clinic in Portales, faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, according to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales’ office.

Green was remanded Tuesday to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending her sentencing hearing, which has not been scheduled, the statement said.

Green’s attorneys hired Zumwalt to analyze the findings of Texas investigators who performed an autopsy of Sotello’s remains.

The New Mexico Region V Narcotics Task Force began investigating Green in September 2008, shortly before Sotello’s death, to determine if Green was prescribing methadone for purposes other than pain management. Methadone is a synthetic opioid often used to treat addiction to heroin and other drugs derived from opium. The drug is also used to treat chronic pain.

Green was authorized to prescribe methadone to control pain but not to treat addiction.

During her six-day trial, Green told jurors that she prescribed methadone to combat the severe pain associated with heroin withdrawal, not to treat the addiction itself, Harris said. Harris said he plans to appeal Green’s conviction.

An undercover narcotics officer testified last week that he went to Green’s office wearing a recording device Sept. 9, 2008, and asked Green to complete a Department of Transportation medical certification he needed to obtain a commercial driver’s license, according to the U.S. attorney’s office statement.

While Green was completing the certification form, the officer told her he had a drug habit and asked about treatment options. At a second appointment, Green told the officer that she couldn’t prescribe methadone to treat his heroin addiction, but agreed to prescribe the drug for “back pain,” the statement said.

“As for her conviction with selling to an undercover officer, I can tell you that I have a lot of emotion and I have not begun to end defending Dr. Green,” Harris said “Jail is not where a kind, compassionate doctor should be. She does not deserve to be incarcerated.”