Courts - California Opening statements set in Anna Nicole Smith trial Jurors told not to confuse this trial with Michael Jackson's doctor's

By Linda Deutsch

AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- With a jury ready to hear evidence, lawyers in the Anna Nicole Smith drug conspiracy case were scheduled to launch their cases Wednesday with opening statements.

Prosecutors were expected to accuse three key figures in the Playboy model's life of illegally giving her massive amounts of opiates and sedatives in the years before she died.

Superior Court Judge Robert Perry has stressed that the defendants have not been charged with causing Smith's death. He told jurors that they must not confuse this trial with the issues in the case of Michael Jackson's doctor who is charged with involuntary manslaughter.

"What we are trying is a legality of prescribing medication case," he said.

Perry presided over a three-week preliminary hearing last year in which prosecutors delved deeply into Smith's troubled life and painted Dr. Sanjeep Kapoor, Dr. Khristine Eroshevich and Smith's lawyer-boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, as conspirators who fed the celebrity's desire for prescription drugs.

All three pleaded not guilty and their lawyers have suggested they were desperately trying to save the doomed model during a period when she gave birth to a daughter and lost her grown son to a drug overdose.

After hearing 17 witnesses in the preliminary hearing, Perry concluded that the trio of defendants cared deeply for Smith but said there was sufficient evidence to support convictions if a jury should find them guilty. If convicted they could face more than five years in prison and the doctors would lose their medical licenses.

Prosecutors call Stern an aider and abettor of the two doctors who are charged with improperly prescribing the drugs that killed Smith.

Defense attorneys, who presented no witnesses in the preliminary hearing, had said they were holding back their evidence for trial. Opening statements will provide the first look at their case.

Smith died of what was ruled an accidental overdose of at least nine medications in February 2007 at a Florida hotel. She had been living in the Bahamas and was allegedly receiving deliveries of prescription medications from her Los Angeles-based doctors.

Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose battled during pretrial hearings to inject details of Smith's final days into the trial. But the judge wasn't persuaded.

Recently, Rose made a surprise move to add Smith as a coconspirator in the case, saying that without her craving for drugs the prescriptions would not have been written.

Kapoor's lawyer, Ellyn Garafalo has told the judge then the trial's outcome could have serious consequences for doctors and patients everywhere.

"Criminalizing a doctor's efforts to help a difficult patient is problematic," she said. "A doctor's even poor judgment is not criminal. Good faith is involved. "

Eroshevich's lawyers maintain she was a friend before she was Smith's psychiatrist. Prosecutors contend that both she and Kapoor stepped over the line that divides professional and personal relationships.

Stern is charged with conspiring with them and is linked to deliveries of drugs as well as allegedly allowing his name to be used on prescriptions destined for Smith.

Authorities claim that 44 different medications were prescribed for Smith under a number of other names, including Stern's.

Dave Kettel, a former federal prosecutor who handled prescription drug cases, and is now a defense attorney, said the case may be difficult to prove because of the multiple defendants. He said prosecutors could have a hard time showing that the doctors knew they were acting improperly and that one knew what the other was doing.

He also said prosecutors may have erred by naming Smith as a coconspirator in the case.

"Despite her personal problems, people liked her," he said. "The last couple years of her life were so sad. I don't think anyone wants to blame her."

Published: Thu, Aug 5, 2010