Jury acquits Santa Rosa pain doctor of two murder charges, but hung on remaining murder charges
After nearly a week of deliberation, a jury found Friday that a Santa Rosa doctor who specializes in pain management was not guilty of second-degree murder in the deaths of two of his patients but failed to reach a verdict on several other charges.
Dr. Thomas Keller, 73, was accused of overprescribing dangerous combinations of drugs, including opioids, through his medical practice on Farmers Lane. He was arrested in August, and faced multiple charges brought by the California Attorney General’s Office, including second-degree murder in the deaths of four Sonoma County residents. Tripo Nelson, Ashlee McDonald, Dean Rielli and Jerri Lee Badenhop-Bionda all who died in 2016 or 2017 from drug overdoses while under Keller’s care.
The jury began deliberating March 11 and was called into court to deliver a verdict Friday. But the 12 jurors had yet to reach a consensus on several charges, prompting Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Chris Honigsberg to order them to continue their deliberations that day.
About 40 minutes later, the jury returned a not guilty verdict for four of the nine counts against Keller. The physician was found not guilty in the second-degree murders of Badenhop-Bionda and Rielli, and was also acquitted of recklessly prescribing medications to Steven Delacour of Forestville and an undercover agent who posed as a patient.
The jury was hung on the remaining five counts, including second-degree murder in the deaths of Nelson and McDonald and recklessly prescribing medications to Santa Rosa residents Jennifer Silver and Alyssa Rieden. The jury also was unable to reach a consensus on the charge of elder abuse for Keller’s treatment of his former patient, Susan Ross - a 67-year-old woman who died in 2015 from respiratory and other health issues in combination with dangerous levels of prescription drugs in her system.
Still, Keller and his attorneys were satisfied with the jury’s decision. When the verdicts were read aloud, Keller’s attorneys patted him on the back.
The verdicts conclude a nearly two-month trial, which marked the first time California Attorney General Xavier Becerra pursued murder charges against a doctor for deaths connected to opioid medications.
During the trial, state prosecutors referenced Keller’s personal journal, in which he wrote about his patients, frequently using crass and derogatory language. Prosecutors argued the journal showed Keller’s careless indifference for his patients’ lives, and read to the jury several passages where Keller called himself “a legal drug dealer.”
But Keller’s attorney, John Cox, accused the government of launching a witch hunt against his client at a time when the medical establishment was drastically shifting its stance on opioid prescribing. He argued that Keller treated patients with complicated problems, including mental illness and substance abuse, and that toxicology and pharmacy records for each patient didn’t show the neglect prosecutors tried to convey.
Keller, a former Army neurosurgeon, had a checkered medical career. He was found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with several patients in 1989, for which he served six months in jail. He also was temporarily stripped of his license, which was eventually reinstated in 1994.
He opened his Santa Rosa medical practice in 2008, and started focusing on pain management about three years later. He suspended his medical practice in fall 2018, after learning that federal authorities were investigating him in connection with health care fraud and illegally distributing opioids. Keller is now involved in an additional jury trial scheduled for June in federal court, where he faces three charges of prescribing drugs outside the scope of practice and two charges of Medicare fraud.
State prosecutors will now have to decide whether to set a new trial date for the five counts the jury could not reach a consensus on. Deputy Attorney General Thomas Brennan said after Friday’s proceeding that the office accepts all jury verdicts, but declined to comment further on the case.
“We’re pleased with the verdict, and we’re hopeful that the government makes the right decision moving forward,” Cox said after the court proceeding.
Cox argued in court Friday that, considering the acquittals and the growing threat of the coronavirus in the community, Keller should be released from Sonoma County Jail and allowed to return home. His client has been held on $12 million bail in the county jail since his arrest. Cox said that Keller has suspended his license and will not practice medicine anymore, adding that the virus is “a death sentence” for his elderly client.
Honigsberg ultimately set bail at $500,000, but said the two sides can reappear in court March 30 so he can hear additional arguments regarding bail.
You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or email@example.com.