Murder conspiracy case grabs media glare

A column analyzing the impact of recent court decisions on physicians

By — Posted July 10, 2006.

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In prosecutor parlance, State of Arizona v. Bradley Alan Schwartz was a "heater." It's a term prosecutors use when a criminal trial has at least one of these elements: a high-profile defendant, a high-profile victim, salacious facts or a heinous or unusual criminal act.

Arizona v. Schwartz had them all.

It started when pediatric ophthalmologist Brian Stidham, MD, the father of two young children, was found murdered in the parking lot outside his Tucson, Ariz., practice on Oct. 5, 2004. He had been stabbed 15 times and his skull was fractured.

Ten days later, Bradley Schwartz, MD, also a pediatric ophthalmologist, was arrested and charged with hiring one of his patients, Ronald Bigger, to kill Dr. Stidham. Physician and patient were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Both pleaded not guilty.

This "heater" was destined to draw attention.

When Dr. Schwartz's murder trial started in March, local media covering the trial were joined by Court TV, which provided live streaming video of the court proceedings at its Web site, and a crew from CBS's "48 Hours" that reportedly filmed gavel-to-gavel. The show is rumored to be considering an episode about the case, but show representatives said they could not comment on the rumors because the case in ongoing. Bigger is scheduled to go on trial later this year.

Experts said Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Stidham were not the typical "high profile" victim and defendant. Instead, the trial likely garnered national media attention because it is rare to have physician-on-physician crime.

"You don't see something like that come across the wire very often," said David Rudolf, whose Charlotte, N.C., law firm Rudolf, Widenhouse and Fialco specializes in criminal defense. "The fact that they are doctors made them more of a target. If it was two drug dealers, it wouldn't be such a big deal."

Attorney Brick Storts, who represented Dr. Schwartz, agreed. He said he tries four to five first-degree murder cases a year, and he doesn't see the level of interest in those that Dr. Schwartz's trial received.

"The whole issue was the fact that they were doctors," he said. Still, he said, "I don't know that that's a reason to be filming from start to finish."

In the courtroom

As details about the case emerged, there were a number of pieces that sparked media interest in the case because they were items not usually associated with physicians.

At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Dr. Schwartz hired Bigger to kill Dr. Stidham, his former partner, because Dr. Stidham's practice was "stealing" patients from Dr. Schwartz. Witnesses, including several ex-girlfriends, testified that Dr. Schwartz told them how much he hated Dr. Stidham and that he talked about killing him.

Prosecutors' key witness was a former Pima County prosecutor, Lourdes Lopez, who was once engaged to Dr. Schwartz. The Pima County attorney, in whose jurisdiction the murder occurred, had to ask a Pinal County prosecutor to handle the case because of Lopez's involvement.

When the two-month trial ended in May, the jury convicted Dr. Schwartz of the conspiracy charge. Pima County Superior Court Judge Nanette Warner declared a mistrial on the first-degree murder charge after jurors could not reach a unanimous decision.

The jury was not allowed to hear part of the story that surely piqued media interest in the case. Dr. Schwartz had been arrested by drug enforcement officials in fall 2001 and charged with writing prescriptions in Lopez's name and then taking them himself. Storts, whose request for a change of venue was denied by Warner four times, continues to argue that publicity about the DEA arrest and Dr. Schwartz's stint in drug rehab for addiction to Vicodin and Ritalin tainted the jury pool. Dr. Schwartz entered the program with the understanding that the DEA charges would be dropped if he stayed out of trouble.

Storts said the Tucson newspapers and television stations did an excellent job of painting Dr. Schwartz as a despicable person.

"There was a lot of hype that went into the whole case," he said. "The extremely intemperate comments [Dr. Schwartz] made to his girlfriends, the murder for hire, the legal problems with diversion in the past -- I do think it got out of hand."

Prosecutors refused to comment on Dr. Schwartz's case because they still have to prosecute Bigger.

But Chicago attorney Tom Needham, a former prosecutor who now practices criminal defense, said prosecutors in high-profile cases are well aware that their work is undergoing added scrutiny.

"In cases like this, the best people are on it," he said. "The prosecution will never be out-hustled or outspent." He said prosecutors expect to go against the best in defense attorneys when they prosecute doctors, lawyers or other prominent people or professionals.

"It's no different than finding a surgeon for yourself," Needham said. "You don't just pick someone out of the Yellow Pages, you ask around and find out who's the best."

Selecting a jury after the hype

It is often during jury selection where the profession or prominence of the defendant comes into play, experts said. Defense and prosecuting attorneys are likely to query prospective jurors about their own professions, their attitudes and their biases about certain things as they may pertain to the defendant or elements of the alleged crime.

Rudolf said that as a practical matter, the social status, prominence and profession of the defendant is figured into jury selection. And, Needham said, defense attorneys certainly will want to place people who have had recent positive experiences with doctors on the jury. But he cautioned that in a criminal trial, those positive experiences might not, in the end, be of much help to a physician.

"Hiring a hit man is a crime that a loan shark might commit," he said.

Carrie Mason, senior consultant at Varinsky Associates, a trial consulting firm in Emeryville, Calif., said that generally speaking, there are certain groups that would put physicians on a pedestal, including older people, people who have doctors in their family and people in other professions where there is the risk of being sued for malpractice.

But she also said that in a murder trial, with sufficient evidence, those biases aren't likely to matter.

Needham said the public's attitude toward prominent people or people in prominent professions has changed over the last 10 to 15 years with media reports about their bad behavior. "There is a cynicism in the jury pool that wasn't there 20 years ago," he said.

Whether Dr. Schwartz will be facing this jury cynicism again has yet to be determined. The prosecution has not yet decided whether to retry him on the first-degree murder charge. And Storts is appealing the conspiracy conviction.

Whether the national media will gravitate to a second trial for Dr. Schwartz also is unknown. It's very possible they will have moved on. Rudolf, for one, believes that some trials become high profile by timing as much as anything else.

"In any given news cycle, there are cases going on all over this county," he said. "How much media attention they get depends on what else is happening in the world, the country, even the local area."

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