ATLANTA – A well-regarded former Georgia medical examiner known for his work on high-profile cases is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday for conspiring to prescribe opioids in exchange for sex.
Dr. Joseph Burton of Milton pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to illegally distribute drugs. The 73-year-old forensic pathologist is a former county medical examiner who handled cases from seven Atlanta area counties, including some of the region's most notorious murders.
Prosecutors said in a court filing that Burton should be sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. Burton's attorney asked the judge to give him a sentence below the sentencing guidelines, arguing that his client suffers from diminished mental capacity.
Burton and seven others were indicted on conspiracy charges in February. Prosecutors say Burton, who has a medical expert consulting business but doesn't see patients, wrote more than 1,500 prescriptions from July 2015 to August 2017 without a legitimate medical purpose.
Burton wrote most of the prescriptions to women in exchange for sexual favors, and he was aware that many of the recipients sold or bartered the prescriptions and pills, prosecutors wrote.
Burton's attorney, Buddy Parker, wrote in a court filing that Burton's actions are largely the result of a massive stroke he suffered in 2010 that damaged his brain's frontal lobe. A doctor's report submitted to the court says Burton suffers from mild vascular neurocognitive disorder, impairing his executive functions, which include "taking the time to think before acting, resisting temptations, and staying focused."
Although he knew what he was doing was wrong, he couldn't control his behavior, Parker wrote: "Burton's moral compass has been destroyed by cardiovascular disease."
Prosecutors argue that his continued professional activity following the stroke contradict his claims of reduced mental capacity. He continued to practice as a forensic pathologist, owning and operating his own business and testifying on complex matters in hundreds of cases, prosecutors wrote. He billed $45,000 per case or $500 an hour for his services.
Parker provided the court with a dozen character letters written by former district attorneys, defense attorneys and others who worked with Burton. They describe him as brilliant, fair and professional, with many saying he was among the best expert witnesses they ever encountered.
Most of the letter writers said they were unable to reconcile the man they knew with the behavior that landed him in court. While they said they understood he must be punished, many urged the judge to take his extensive record of public service into account.
One of his greatest contributions was in the recognition and diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, work that led to laws in Georgia and other states that require autopsies whenever there is no obvious cause of death for a child, former DeKalb County district attorney J. Tom Morgan wrote.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter recalled that Burton's testimony and expertise helped secure the conviction of Charles Thomas White III even though no body had been found. Burton's "walk through of the work up of the crime scene was integral to convincing the jury that the victim was dead and had died at the scene," Porter wrote.
Burton also worked on the infamous Atlanta child murders case, investigating the killings of black boys and young men from 1979 to 1981.