Dr. Michael Belfiore, a Merrick physician charged with writing hundreds of opioid prescriptions for profit and causing the deaths of two South Shore men was found guilty on all 28 charges late Wednesday afternoon, after a five-week trial.
Belfiore was acting as a “drug dealer,” said U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue, when he wrote oxycodone prescriptions for John Ubaghs, of Baldwin, and Edward Martin, of East Rockaway, both of whom died of overdoses.
“The defendant lined his pockets with cash from patients in exchange for illegally prescribing oxycodone, a particularly dangerous and addictive drug, with lethal results,” Donoghue continued. “The Department of Justice recognizes the importance of holding corrupt medical professionals like Dr. Belfiore accountable for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic.”
Belfiore’s defense attorney, Tom Liotti, told jurors during closing arguments last week that prosecutors were unfairly trying to turn accidental death cases into a double homicide, and said that prosecutors' evidence was selective and his presentation was “smoke and mirrors . . . and a very big lie.”
Liotti also argued that doctors can differ on a patient’s need, because pain is subjective.
“A doctor has to go on the credibility of his patients, and what they tell him of their pain,” he said. “If he says his pain is a 10 out of 10, does Dr. Belfiore turn him away? No. He gave him four different medications and told him to use the oxycodone sparingly.”
According to DEA Special Agent-in-Charge James Hunt, however, the evidence aginst Belfiore was clear in the case, and his medical practice “enabled addiction and overdose.”
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder also praised the guilty verdict
“We have seen all too often how these prescriptions have had serious and fatal effects on our communities and residents,” Ryder said. “I would like to congratulate all of the investigative agencies for their hard work and dedication during this investigation.”
Throughout the jury's weeklong deliberations, Belfiore remained positive posting daily on Facebook that he was "holding his head up high," and a number of his former patients showed up every day in court to support him.
Laura Sherris, a Syosset attorney and a patient of Belfiore’s, said Belfiore was a “genius” doctor who had “cured or substantially improved” the quality of life for many of his patients.
Records indicate that Belfiore also prescribed fentanyl to Glen Cove restaurateur Mario Marra — the owner and chef at the popular eatery Marra’s — on March 7, 2009, eight days before he died of an overdose. His wife, Claudia Marra, who had witnessed his years-long struggle with an addiction to painkillers, guessed that Belfiore wrote Mario the prescription for 10 fentanyl patches “probably just to shut him up.” She told her story to the Herald in a series of articles published last summer.
On Wednesday, Marra said that she was elated when she heard the news of the guilty verdict.
“His conviction is a sign that people are finally listening,” Marra said. “I was on edge — hoping every day that he would be convicted. Sadly, those that passed under his care have taken their stories to their grave.”
Medical records in Mario Marra’s case were subpoenaed, but charges relating to his death were not filed against Belfiore.
Liotti said on Wednesday that he believed that there was "reasonable doubt all over the place" in the case against Belfiore, and that he would be filing an appeal.
"I honestly thought we had won the case," Liotti said, pointing to the 22 notes jurors sent to the judge requesting clarification during their deliberations. "Maybe not a record, but it suggested to me that the government hadn't met their burden," he added.
Belfiore will be in custody until his sentencing, which Liotti said will be in October. He faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, a $10 million fine and civil forfeiture, which will be determined later.
This story will be updated.