The defense attorney for a Casper doctor accused of operating a broad-ranging drug conspiracy told jurors Monday that his client was misled by his patients and never intended to break the law.
An opening statement given by Michael Thompson, a Chicago attorney representing Dr. Shakeel Kahn in a federal trial here in Casper, gave the fullest insight yet into the doctor’s defense strategy against the 21 felonies he faces. The defense attorney said prosecutors will not be able to show Kahn acted with the intent required to convict him of the alleged crimes.
Thompson, instead, said the doctor should have been more thorough in his investigation of patients’ reported symptoms and more cautious in writing prescriptions for them. However, the doctor did not commit any crimes, he said.
“This case isn’t about whether Shakeel Kahn is a bad doctor,” Thompson said.
The doctor will testify in his own defense, the attorney added.
Drug dealing allegations
Thompson’s statements followed Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hambrick’s hour-long description of the evidence she plans to present in coming weeks. She said Kahn operated a drug conspiracy over the course of years, beginning in Arizona. She said the doctor used false medical records to cover up widespread drug dealing.
“The defendant in this case, Shakeel Kahn, is a magician — an illusionist,” the prosecutor said.
Hambrick said Kahn routinely wrote patients prescriptions for hundreds of pills. The prescriptions involved three different categories of drug: opioids, which are potent pain relievers; benzodiazepines, which are highly-addictive anti-anxiety drugs; and muscle relaxers — specifically carisoprodol, known by the trade name Soma. She said the doctor did so without performing basic medical tests, or, in some instances, without even seeing the patient.
He later modified medical records to indicate he had seen patients and performed medical tests in an attempt to deceive medical licensing authorities in Arizona, the prosecutor told jurors.
The doctor’s patients, she said, became trapped. Fearing withdrawal, they were forced to sell the pills in order to finance the office visits that procured their prescriptions, according to the prosecutor. If they tried to change doctors, Kahn would call the new doctor and warn that the patient was addicted, cutting off their supply of pills.
Kahn, Hambrick said, at one point wrote prescriptions for hundreds of pills for a man who was incarcerated. He later falsified medical records to indicate the man, Anthony Vargas, of Arizona, had made visits to the doctor’s office, Hambrick said. Vargas’s girlfriend, Jessica Burch, died months later of a drug overdose, only two days after Kahn prescribed her hundreds of opioids.
Hambrick said Kahn at one point asked Vargas how much the drugs were selling for on the street. Vargas lied to the doctor, Hambrick said, because he knew Kahn would increase the amount the doctor was charging if he knew the full resale value.
Kahn left his practice in Arizona and relocated to Wyoming after authorities began investigating his prescribing habits, Hambrick said.
When he moved to Wyoming, some of his customers followed him, Hambrick said. Of those, some obtained Wyoming identification issued in their names, and with their photos, but with Kahn’s office and home addresses listed. The local identification made it easier for those customers to fill prescriptions at Wyoming pharmacies, Hambrick said.
Over the course of the alleged conspiracy, the doctor prescribed nearly 900,000 Oxycodone 30mg pills alone, Hambrick said. Kahn wrote prescriptions in exchange for guns and stopped accepting insurance, charging more than $1,000 cash for some visits.
“Shakeel Kahn was nothing but a drug dealer in a white coat,” the prosecutor said.
Accusations of lying
After Hambrick turned over the podium to Thompson, the defense attorney said witnesses whom prosecutors intend to call will lie in court to protect themselves. The anticipated witnesses, whom Thompson characterized as drug-addicted serial liars, include several of Kahn’s former co-defendants — his wife and two patients — who have pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges as part of agreements with prosecutors.
Lyn Kahn, Thompson said, manipulated her husband for years and is now lying to prosecutors to protect herself. The defense attorney said he did not know what she would say in her testimony, before characterizing his expectations.
“I promise it will be whatever she thinks is in her best interest,” Thompson said.
Thompson said Vargas avoided prosecution altogether by blaming Kahn for his girlfriend’s death. The defense attorney said Kahn plans to take the stand in his own defense, look jurors in the eye and tell them the truth — that he had been taken advantage of by his wife and a host of addicted patients. He said Jessica Burch and the rest of Kahn’s patients made their own choices to lie to the doctor, telling him they were not abusing the prescriptions.
Kahn, who was raised in a sheltered environment, fell for it, Thompson said.
“Shakeel Kahn always acted in good faith to do what he thought was best for his patients,” the defense attorney said.
An attorney for Nabeel Khan, the doctor’s brother, who faces two felonies in the case, declined to give an opening statement Monday, saying she would make remarks before the defense begins its case.