More than 2 1/2 years after Anna Nicole Smith overdosed on a cocktail of powerful medications in a Florida hotel room, a judge Friday ordered two Los Angeles physicians and her boyfriend to stand trial for illegally providing her with prescription drugs.
The ruling by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry came after a 13-day preliminary hearing that saw the final years of the Playboy playmate's life chronicled through the testimony of witnesses, including a former lover and a bodyguard, and in hundreds of pages of records from pharmacies, doctors' offices and hospitals.
In rendering his decision, Perry said the witness accounts and medical files persuaded him that Smith was a drug addict and that there was "an ongoing and widespread effort" to obtain medication for her. The judge noted, however, that the standard of proof prosecutors had to demonstrate at the hearing was "very minimal" and far below that required for a trial conviction.
"I do find the people have met the test of convincing this court that there is strong suspicion the defendants committed the acts," Perry said.
A trial for defendants Howard K. Stern, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor and Dr. Khristine Eroshevich probably will begin next year and last two to three months, according to a prosecution estimate. The trio face potential prison sentences if convicted of conspiracy and other felonies related to violations of health and business codes governing prescriptions.
Kapoor, 41, a Studio City internist who was Smith's primary physician until about five months before her death, and Eroshevich, 61, a psychiatrist and friend who provided the sedatives blamed in the model's fatal overdose, are charged with prescribing controlled substances to an addict, writing opiate prescriptions in a false name and obtaining opiates by fraud. Stern, 40, Smith's longtime companion and attorney, is also charged with illegal prescribing under the theory that he aided and abetted the physicians. All three have pleaded not guilty and are expected to repeat those pleas at a Dec. 11 arraignment.
During the three-week hearing, witnesses suggested that Stern was the central figure in getting what prosecutors allege were excessive amounts of addictive medication for Smith. Investigators, pharmacists and others testified that he picked up pharmacy orders, called in refills, provided his name as an alias on prescription pads and interfered with attempts to get Smith drug treatment.
Smith's bodyguard and the father of her daughter told the judge that they believed she was addicted to the prescription drugs -- a smorgasbord of opiates and sedatives that at various times included Valium, methadone, Xanax, the anti-seizure medication Topamax, the muscle relaxant Soma, the sedative chloral hydrate and Dilaudid, a painkiller nicknamed "hospital heroin."
Bodyguard Maurice Brighthaupt said when he urged that Smith be sent to rehab, Stern replied, "It would kill her." Larry Birkhead, who fathered Smith's daughter, Dannielynn, said when she was being weaned off methadone at a hospital, Stern helped her sneak extra doses from a contraband bottle. Stern's attorneys insisted he is innocent and implied that he was only trying to help Smith deal with her complaints of chronic pain.
Steven Sadow, a lawyer for Stern, urged the judge Friday to dismiss the counts related to the use of pseudonyms, arguing that the aliases were an effort embraced by doctors and pharmacies to protect Smith's privacy from the tabloid media.
Among the prosecution witnesses, Sadow noted, was a psychiatrist from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who testified that the hospital treated Smith under the name "Jane Brown" because she was a celebrity.
"If everyone is doing it, how can you honestly say a lay person would know it's against the law?" Sadow said.
A prosecutor countered that accurate prescriptions were necessary for authorities to detect doctor-shopping and excessive prescribing.
"It completely thwarts the government's ability to provide oversight," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney.
"There is no celebrity exception?" the judge asked.
No, the prosecutor replied.
Defense attorneys declined to call witnesses. Outside court, they downplayed the significance of the judge's ruling, which, they said, was anticipated. "The standard is just so low that if there is anything at all that is suspicious, the judge has to send it on," Sadow said.
Eroshevich's lawyer, Adam Braun, said he was "tickled pink" by the decision of prosecutors, who have the option of presenting summaries of testimony, to call live witnesses. "We're going to pounce on them at trial," he said