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US Supreme Court ruling gives new life to Kansas painkiller case linked to 68 deaths

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WICHITA, Kansas — A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has breathed new life into the case of a former Kansas doctor and his wife, who were convicted for a moneymaking conspiracy at a pain clinic linked to 68 overdose deaths.

Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, were convicted in 2010 of conspiracy to commit health care fraud resulting in those deaths, unlawfully prescribing drugs, health care fraud and money laundering at a Haysville clinic the government portrayed as a "pill mill." Schneider was convicted on 18 counts and sentenced to 30 years, while his wife was convicted on 32 counts and sentenced to 33 years.

A federal appeals court has already agreed with their convictions and sentences, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear their case.

But what had been a long-shot motion asking the trial judge for a new trial due to ineffective legal counsel gained added momentum in the wake of the high court's ruling in a separate case in January 2014. In that case, the victim's drug use had to be the actual cause of death — not merely a contributing factor — for convictions under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot appointed new attorneys for the couple to specifically address that ruling's impact in the Schneiders' case, and he is now mulling over a string of court filings involving the issue that culminated Thursday in federal court in Wichita. None of the lawyers involved are commenting on the case.

The Schneiders could potentially receive a new trial or sentencing if the judge agrees with the couple's attorneys that jurors should have been instructed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the deaths involved in several of the counts against them were directly caused by a specific prescribed drug, and not merely a combination of drugs.

Even if the evidence was enough for a conviction, the attorneys argued, such a jury finding could affect the sentence because different types of controlled substances carry varying sentences. That means that some of the counts under which the Schneiders were convicted that had carried potential sentences of 20 years to life could be reduced to no more than five years depending on which drug jurors determine caused the death.

For its part, the government maintains the motion from the couple's attorneys to overturn the convictions is "without merit" and should be denied. Prosecutors contend they presented sufficient evidence of the causes of the deaths, argued the trial lawyers were not ineffective and wrote that the Schneiders cannot make a claim of actual, factual innocence. Even if an error had occurred, it was harmless because it had no effect on the jury's verdicts, the government argued.

Prosecutors also said the relief the couple seeks from imprisonment is reserved for the few persons whom society has wronged.

"Stephen and Linda Schneider are not among those few persons," the government wrote. "Instead, the Schneiders were convicted of crimes that grievously harmed those who they claimed to be helping. They were convicted, fairly, on the basis of overwhelming evidence and proper jury instructions."

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