Can doctors be convicted for prescription drug deaths?

New reports suggest that Michael Jackson's doctor is now being investigated in a manslaughter probe.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Houston narcotics officer leaves the office of Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, on Wednesday. Los Angeles police and US Drug Enforcement Administration agents were searching for evidence of manslaughter, according to news reports.
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The doctor hired to care for Michael Jackson in anticipation of his upcoming tour has been officially identified as a suspect in his death, according to news reports.

Both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported Friday that a recently unsealed search warrant states that authorities sought to search Conrad Murray's medical office for "items constituting evidence of the offense of manslaughter that tend to show that committed the said criminal offense."

Several prominent convictions from the past three decades suggest that doctors can be held legally responsible for the role prescription drugs played in a patient's death.

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In general, states have been playing closer attention in recent years to doctors in an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse. As abuse has become more widespread in the US, 38 states have enacted prescription-drug monitoring programs, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration website.

The three states where Dr. Murray is licensed to practice – California, Nevada, and Texas – all have prescription-drug monitoring programs. The data regarding specific healthcare professionals may be reviewed if an official complaint is received.

In the police search of Murray's office Wednesday, authorities seized items including "27 tablets of the weight loss drug phentermine, a tablet of the muscle relaxant clonazepam, two hard drives, notices from the IRS, and a controlled substance registration," according to the Associated Press.

While police have previously interviewed Murray, he had not been formally listed as a suspect. Murray's lawyer denies the reports that his client is a manslaughter suspect.

Manslaughter convictions for doctors giving prescription drugs can be traced back at least to 1981, when a Pennsylvania court upheld the conviction of James Youngkin for involuntary manslaughter.

Dr. Youngkin was charged after a teenage girl in his care died from asphyxiation indirectly caused by a sedative Dr. Youngkin prescribed for her. In this case, the court declared that the prescription practice was "decidedly reckless and dangerous" and led, ultimately, to the patient's demise.

More recently, in 2006, Thomas Merrill of Florida was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of unlawful dispensing of controlled substances resulting in death. For four years, Dr. Merrill prescribed drugs, including Xanax, Valium, and the highly addictive OxyContin, to patients without first conducting physical exams.

In 2000, also in Florida, James Graves was convicted of manslaughter after four of his patients died from overdoses of drugs he prescribed to them. Throughout his trial, Dr. Graves maintained that he provided standard medical care for his patients, but Russ Edgar, the prosecuting attorney, described the doctor as "no more that a drug dealer," according to The New York Times.

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