People v. Stiller

Citation242 Mich. App. 38,617 N.W.2d 697
Decision Date11 April 2000
Docket NumberDocket No. 209844,Docket No. 210864.
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant. v. Ernest William STILLER, Defendant-Appellee. People of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Ernest William Stiller, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan (US)

617 N.W.2d 697
242 Mich.
App. 38

PEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant.
v.
Ernest William STILLER, Defendant-Appellee.
People of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Ernest William Stiller, Defendant-Appellant

Docket Nos. 209844, 210864.

Court of Appeals of Michigan.

Submitted April 11, 2000,

Decided July 25, 2000, at 9:05 a.m.

Released for Publication October 3, 2000.


617 N.W.2d 699
Jennifer M. Granholm, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, James Cherry, Prosecuting Attorney, and Michael J. Sepic and Aaron J. Mead, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for the people

State Appellate Defender (by Peter Jon Van Hoek), for the defendant on appeal.

Before METER, P.J., and FITZGERALD and O'CONNELL, JJ.

617 N.W.2d 698
METER, P.J

In Docket No. 210864, defendant appeals as of right from his conviction by a jury of second-degree murder, M.C.L. § 750.317; MSA 28.549, and unauthorized practice of medicine, M.C.L. § 333.16294; MSA 14.15(16294). The trial court sentenced him to concurrent terms of eight to twenty years' imprisonment for the second-degree murder conviction and two to four years' imprisonment for the unauthorized practice of medicine conviction. In Docket No. 209844, the prosecutor appeals as of right, challenging the second-degree murder sentence. We affirm.

Factual Background

This case involves the death of Loretta Sloan, a thirty-five-year-old woman who, on the evening of February 4, 1997, was taken from her apartment to the hospital and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Defendant had treated Sloan for years and had spent much of February 4 at her apartment treating her for what he described as flu symptoms. Dr. Stephen Cohle, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy on Sloan approximately nineteen hours after her death and found the following drugs in her blood: hydrocodone (a painkiller similar to codeine), at a concentration of 146 nanograms a milliliter (ng/ml); Prozac (an antidepressant), at 930 ng/ml; and Benadryl (an antihistamine), at 3,000 ng/ml. Cohle attributed Sloan's death to mixed-drug intoxication. Defendant's experts contended that because of a medical phenomenon called "postmortem redistribution," the drug level in Sloan's blood at the autopsy was much higher than that actually present in her blood before death. Consequently, they did not believe that she died of drug intoxication. Additionally, defendant contended that he did not have the requisite state of mind to be convicted of murdering Sloan.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Defendant first argues that the prosecutor presented insufficient evidence to support the convictions. We disagree. In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, this Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proved beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Johnson, 460 Mich. 720, 723, 597 N.W.2d 73 (1999). In reviewing a sufficiency argument, this Court must not interfere with the jury's role of determining the weight of the evidence or the credibility of witnesses. People v. Wolfe, 440 Mich. 508, 514-515, 489 N.W.2d 748 (1992), amended 441 Mich. 1201, 489 N.W.2d 748 (1992).

Examining first the validity of defendant's second-degree murder conviction, we conclude, contrary to defendant's argument on appeal, that sufficient evidence existed to support the conclusion that Sloan died of mixed-drug intoxication. Dr. Cohle so testified, and, although defense experts contradicted this conclusion and argued that postmortem redistribution rendered the concentration of drugs in her body at the time of death indeterminable,

617 N.W.2d 700
these arguments were relevant to the weight—not the sufficiency—of the evidence

The next question is whether the evidence supported a finding that defendant caused this fatal mixed-drug intoxication with "malice." People v. Hopson, 178 Mich.App. 406, 410, 444 N.W.2d 167 (1989). Malice is defined, inter alia, as a defendant's wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of his behavior is to cause death or great bodily harm. Id.; see also People v. Bailey, 451 Mich. 657, 669, 549 N.W.2d 325 (1996), amended 453 Mich. 1204, 551 N.W.2d 163 (1996), and People v. Aaron, 409 Mich. 672, 728, 299 N.W.2d 304 (1980). "Malice can be inferred from evidence that a defendant intentionally set in motion a force likely to cause death or great bodily harm." People v. Djordjevic, 230 Mich.App. 459, 462, 584 N.W.2d 610 (1998).

Evidence that defendant exhibited a wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of his behavior would be to cause a fatal mixeddrug intoxication may be gleaned from a number of facts. First, it is uncontroverted that during the four months immediately preceding Sloan's death, defendant prescribed hydrocodone, a schedule three narcotic not intended for long-term use, for Sloan in very large quantities having no rational relationship to a bona fide therapeutic purpose. Furthermore, an area pharmacist testified that, on January 6, 1997, she orally cautioned defendant regarding his large prescriptions of hydrocodone and subsequently furnished him with medical literature supporting her concern, but this warning apparently did not deter defendant. Additionally, one of defendant's expert witnesses conceded that the amount of hydrocodone for which prescriptions were filled for Sloan on January 8, 9, and 10, 1997 (totaling three hundred 7.5-mg tablets), was excessive and did not constitute good medicine. Another pharmacist cautioned defendant that the hydrocodone prescription of January 8, 1997, was an "early fill," but defendant replied that it was permissible to dispense it. In short, from January 2 through February 1, 1997, various area pharmacies filled prescriptions written or called in by defendant for Sloan totaling 750 hydrocodone tablets, equivalent to about twenty-five tablets a day during that interval; this far exceeded the recommended dosage. From this the jury could properly conclude that defendant had notice that Sloan was consuming dangerous amounts of hydrocodone but nevertheless continued to supply her with that and other medications, and that his doing so caused her demise.

Second, ten prescriptions defendant wrote for Sloan were filled in one day, January 14,1997. Included were prescriptions for both Prozac and Eldepryl, which defendant admitted should not to be taken together. Admittedly, no Eldepryl or its metabolic products were found in Sloan's blood at the time of the autopsy, and the prosecution does not argue that Eldepryl caused Sloan's death. Nevertheless, the fact's that Prozac and Eldepryl were prescribed together and that, at the time of Sloan's death, at least thirty of the Eldepryl tablets were missing from their container and defendant claimed he did not know where they went suggests that defendant was taking unconscionable risks with Sloan's health.

Third, one of the prosecution's experts testified regarding his concern that defendant prescribed other drugs for Sloan without any indication in her history that the drugs were needed. The testimony established that in a person like Sloan, with a history of cardiac arrhythmia, these other medications prescribed by defendant could put her at greater risk of rapid heart rate. This evidence again tends to show that defendant was taking unconscionable risks with Sloan's well-being.

Fourth, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan testified that defendant's drug prescription rate for Sloan from January 14, 1997, to the date of her death created "not just a possibility,

617 N.W.2d 701
but a probability of great bodily harm." This witness testified that "[l]ooking at [defendant's] prescription patterns, I would say that he is creating significant risk of great bodily [sic] or potentially death based upon what he has prescribed in the amounts that he has prescribed within the time frames that we're talking about."

Fifth, defendant's actions on the day of Sloan's death were suspicious. The apartment manager testified that on February 4, 1997, she went to Sloan's apartment at approximately 1:00 p.m., toward the end of her lunch hour, that she found defendant there, very agitated and sweaty, that she was told by defendant that Sloan was very ill, and that she saw defendant leave at about 1:30 p.m., returning at approximately 2:00 p.m. with what appeared to be an intravenous medicine (IV) bag. Yet defendant denied being agitated or sweaty when speaking with the witness. Defendant further indicated that he left Sloan's apartment around noon because Sloan was feeling better and that when he returned around 2:30 p.m., he did not bring an IV bag. The testimony of the apartment manager and defendant, together, corroborated defendant's culpability.

Finally, it is undisputed that defendant wrote Sloan at least two prescriptions for Benadryl between October 1, 1996, and February 4, 1997. We note that defense witnesses testified regarding an experiment conducted by defendant after his arrest in which he purposely consumed a quantity of hydrocodone and Prozac to demonstrate that the blood levels of these medications found in Sloan's body were not fatal to him. However, it is significant that, during this experiment, defendant did not take any Benadryl. Despite his explanation of why he did not do so, we agree with the prosecution that defendant's "deliberate decision not to take Benadryl in the face of the allegation that it had contributed to Sloan's death was revealing."

The totality of the evidence, when considered in the light most favorable to the prosecution, was sufficient to show that defendant had a wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of his behavior was to cause death or great bodily harm. In Djordjevic, supra at 462, 584 N.W.2d 610, this Court cited ...

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