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Thursday, September 14, 2023

Dr. Lisa Tseng: When Does a Physician Become a Drug Dealing Murderer?

     In California, as in most states, a cocaine dealer can be convicted of second-degree murder if a person he sold the drug to dies of an overdose. Such a conviction is based on what is referred to as the felony-murder doctrine which holds that if in the commission of a felony (selling cocaine) someone dies, the felon can be held criminally culpable for that death. The element of criminal intent applies to the commission of the felony, not the resultant death. In other words, it doesn't matter that the cocaine dealer didn't intend to kill one of his or her customers. It's still murder.

     Dr. Hsiu-Ying (Lisa) Tseng and her husband ran a storefront medical clinic in Rowland Heights, California, an unincorporated community of 50,000 in Los Angeles County's Gabriel Valley. The clinic had a reputation among prescription drug addicts as a place one could go to acquire prescriptions for drugs such as Xanax, Oxycodone, Methadone, Soma and Vicodin. Dr. Tseng allegedly issued prescriptions for these pain and anti-anxiety drugs without asking too many questions or requiring an acceptable medical reason.

     In 2010 reporters with the Los Angeles Times linked Dr. Tseng's drugs to eight overdose deaths. (Not all of the people who overdosed had acquired the prescriptions from the doctor, many of her patients had sold the drugs to others who overdosed on them.) According to the Times, Dr. Tseng, from 2007 through 2010, had written more than 27,000 prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety medicine.

     In March 2012 state, county and federal narcotics officers arrested Dr. Tseng for murder in connection with the 2009 overdose deaths of three men in their twenties, all of whom had gotten prescription drugs at the Rowland Heights clinic. The authorities also charged Dr. Tseng with 20 felony counts of prescribing drugs to patients with no medical need for the medicine. (If this government-imposed standard were enforced strictly across the country we'd need a dozen new prisons just for physicians and chiropractors and street corner cocaine dealers would see their businesses shoot through the roof.) The 42-year-old doctor was placed in the Los Angeles County Jail under $3 million bond.

      At the time of Dr. Tseng's arrest there had only been a handful of prescription drug/felony-murder overdose prosecutions in the country. The Tseng case was the first of its kind in Los Angeles County. In June 2012, at a preliminary hearing before judge M. L. Villar de Longoria in a Los Angeles Superior Court to determine if the state had sufficient evidence to move the case to the trial phase, the assistant district attorney put on several witnesses. (In preliminary hearings held to determine if the government has a prima facie case there are no defense witnesses.)

     An undercover DEA agent took the stand and said he (or she) had been prescribed pain and anti-anxiety drugs without exhibiting tangible evidence of a physical injury. (What are the physical signs of chronic back pain?) Several family members of Tseng's patients testified that they had begged the doctor to quit issuing their addicted relatives prescription drugs. A representative of the Los Angeles Coroner's Office said he had warned Dr. Tseng that many of her patients were dying of prescription drug overdoses.

     On June 25, 2012, after three weeks of testimony, Judge Villar de Longoria ruled that Dr. Tseng could be held over for trial on the three murder charges. The judge, in justifying the ruling, told the defendant that she had "failed to heed repeated red flags" that her patients were drug addicts." (Since it's the role of a jury to make fact determinations like this, the judge's remarks were, in my opinion, inappropriate.)

     Assuming that Dr. Tseng had in fact intentionally or recklessly issued prescriptions to drug addicts, prosecuting her for second-degree murder was risky jurisprudence in a country with millions of prescription drug junkies. Retailers who sell booze aren't prosecuted for murder when drunks kill themselves in car wrecks. Gun dealers who sell firearms to people who use the weapons to blow their brains out aren't prosecuted for murder.

     If convicted of three counts of murder because she prescribed pills to junkies who overdosed on the drugs, Dr. Tseng faced up to life in prison. This was at a time when residents of 18 states, including California, could legally buy "medical" marijuana.

     In October 2015 a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court found Dr. Tseng guilty of second-degree murder. The judge, on February 5, 2016, sentenced her to 30 years to life in prison.

     In 2017 Dr. Tseng appealed her conviction to California's 2nd District Court of Appeals. In December 2018 the 3-judge panel found there was overwhelming evidence that the appellant, in prescribing drugs to patients who had overdosed, had been recklessly indifferent to their lives. Dr. Tseng's attorneys appealed this decision to the California Supreme Court which in March 2019 declined to review her case. Her conviction stood.  


  1. Your full of it, she is a Murderer

  2. Doctors take an oath when they become licensed to "do no harm." This doctor clearly did not obey by this oath, especially since she was warned many times that she was harming patients. Bartenders, gun dealers, and whom ever else you mentioned, do not.

  3. Doctors are ostensibly licensed to heal and help people. When they abuse that license to fraudulently make quick cash at the expense of junkies, they are making a mockery of the licensing process. She knew exactly what she was doing. In one case, if the patient took the drugs prescribed in the doses prescribed, that would cause death. Every doctor is responsible for knowing better than that.

  4. This writer is entirely correct. A physician writing prescriptions for complaints of unendurable pain should be held harmless, just like the local liquor store operator

  5. The nuances of this case make my head spin! From a simply philosophical point of view I think we need to realize this case highlights the sad state of addiction in this country and all the gutless, greedy, morally culpable purveyors of those substances. I need a bath yuck!

  6. While the outrage is evident, the solutions seem a little short in supply. There will always be profiteers, there will always be those prone to abusing. While I was being trained, I was advised that opium had been a problem for over 3,000 years. Progressive penalties resulted in death as punishment for the addict. It changed nothing in terms of the use of opium.
    Currently the U.S. has about 35,000,000 chronic pain patients that remain untreated due to fear. This episode will not help. I have had the opportunity to witness suicide in a small family practice because of unwillingness to become involved in the difficult process of treating chronic pain and its burdens.
    At this time, many states have developed a state of the art computer tracking system for detecting patients that may be abusing the system or "doctor shopping". I have yet to see these people held accountable for their part in the system. It is the Dr. that is held accountable. At $23,000 per day, the abusing Doctors would seem to stick out like a sore thumb. I would be difficult to convince that these quantities could not be tracked and would make themselves obvious.
    Take a look at Portugal.

  7. So then what do we do for people who ARE in pain? Is it the Dr's fault that some patients lied to her?