SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – An Iranian-born transplant surgeon accused of hastening a comatose man's death to harvest his organs has been acquitted of an abuse charge.
The California jury on Thursday found Dr. Hootan Roozrokh not guilty. The 34-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen faced up to four years in prison if convicted of abuse of a dependent adult.
The case is believed to be the first of its kind against a transplant doctor in the United States. In March, a judge dismissed two other felony counts against Roozrokh.
Roozrokh, 34, was accused of prescribing too much medication to Ruben Navarro, 26, when he died in February 2006 at a San Luis Obispo hospital. He had a debilitating neurological disease and was in a coma after a heart attack.
Roozrokh testified in his own defense, saying he did not try to hasten Navarro's death but did order painkillers to ensure the patient would not suffer when being withdrawn from life support.
"It was a prosecution that never should have been initiated," defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach said in a telephone interview.
A phone message left for prosecutor Karen Gray seeking comment on the verdict was not immediately returned.
Navarro's mother had authorized harvesting of his organs but because he was not brain dead, it was determined that the transplant procedure to be used would be "Donation after Cardiac Death," which requires withdrawal of life support leading to death prior to recovery of organs.
Navarro's organs could not be harvested because he did not die within an hour after being removed from life support. He died eight hours later.
During the trial, the prosecution relied on testimony of a doctor and nurse who accused Roozrokh of administering drugs to speed up Navarro's death.
The attending physician, Dr. Laura Lubarsky, was given immunity from prosecution for her testimony. She said she did not realize she was in charge that night.
"I had never experienced anything like that before, and I assumed they were following some sort of protocol," she testified.
Roozrokh testified that hospital staff and a transplant coordinator abdicated their duty to take care of the patient at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, leaving him no choice but to order the use of drugs.
"I felt he could suffer. My concern was to ensure Ruben would not suffer. No one was taking care of him," the defendant said.
Gray claimed it was a conflict of interest for Roozrokh, the transplant surgeon, to oversee care for the patient and said he ordered excessive amounts of morphine and the sedative Ativan.
Schwartzbach called an expert who said the dose was not excessive and another expert who came from Ohio to testify, saying he wanted to prevent harm to the practice of organ transplantation.
The Roozrokh case prompted the United Network for Organ Sharing last year to develop rules for cardiac-death donation and required 257 transplant hospitals and 58 organ procurement groups to do the same. Before that, the effort depended on individual hospitals or groups.
It's unknown whether Roozrokh, who was on paid leave, will return to his job, but Schwartzbach said he talked with his client's employers who indicated they want him to come back.
"It's too early to tell what he will do," Schwartzbach said. "This has been an enormous ordeal for him. He'll need some personal R&R."