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33 Patients. A Charming Surgeon. A Spineless System.

We’re at our most vulnerable when we go to our doctors. We trust the person at the other end of that scalpel. We trust the hospital. We trust the system. Dr. Christopher Duntsch was a neurosurgeon who radiated confidence. He claimed he was the best in Dallas. If you had back pain, and had tried everything else, Dr. Duntsch could give you the spine surgery that would take your pain away. But soon his patients started to experience complications. And all they had to protect them was a system ill equipped to stop the madness. From Wondery, the network behind the hit podcast Dirty John, DR. DEATH is about a medical system that failed to protect these patients at every possible turn. Reported and hosted by Laura Beil.

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Breaking News

 

Duntsch Appeal 12/11/18

 

Judges on a Texas court have denied Christopher Duntsch’s appeal for a new trial. In a ruling issued December 10, two of the three judges on the appeals court in Texas’ fifth district affirmed the jury’s decision. The former neurosurgeon was convicted in February 2017 of “knowingly or intentionally” injuring an elderly person during a surgery that left patient Mary Efurd in pain and partially paralyzed.

Duntsch now has 15 days to ask the court to reconsider. Prosecutors from the Dallas district attorney’s office said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, only hears a fraction of denied appeals.

In a decision that would form the core of Duntsch’s appeal, prosecutors during the trial not only presented Efurd’s case, but other patients that Duntsch left paralyzed or dead after their operations. His appeals attorney argued that bringing in other botched surgeries unfairly influenced the jury, but judges writing for the majority opinion disagreed. “That’s a very good feeling for the appellate court to agree with our decisions and to affirm the conviction,” said Michelle Shughart, the assistant DA who led the prosecution team.

Messages to Duntsch’s defense team were not answered by Wednesday evening.

Duntsch’s attorney also argued that an email admitted in court, which became State’s Exhibit 160, should not have been allowed. The message was sent to his nurse practitioner, with whom he was also romantically involved. In it, Duntsch at one point says he is ready “to become a cold blooded killer.” Both during the trial and on the appeal, his defense team said the inflammatory language was an unfair reflection of his state of mind. However, the appellate court said “we disagree with appellant’s position that the jury had no evidence of his alleged mental state other than State’s Exhibit 160.”

The ruling came quicker than predicted. Jaclyn Lambert, an assistant DA in the appellate division, said rulings typically take at least six month or up to  a year. Duntsch’s appeal was only heard last fall. However, some judges on the court lost their seats in last November’s election, and might have been trying to clear their docket before leaving office.

Duntsch is serving a life sentence in state prison. He will be eligible for parole in 30 years.

About the host

Laura Beil has more than 20 years of experience in health and science writing. She has received medical journalism awards from the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She began her career in newspapers, and was the longtime medical reporter for the Dallas Morning News. In 2006, She left the world of daily journalism to write mostly for magazines. She is a contributor at Men’s Health, and a correspondent for Science News magazine. While she specializes in matters of health and science, she has also written about gun-toting liberals for D Magazine, and was the writer-reporter of the “Thugs” episode for the NPR series This American Life. She grew up in the piney woods of East Texas, but now lives outside Dallas.

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