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Couple whose Kansas clinic linked to 68 overdose deaths challenges 'pill mill' convictions


WICHITA, Kansas — A Kansas couple convicted in 2010 for a moneymaking conspiracy at a Haysville clinic linked to 68 overdose deaths asked a federal judge Tuesday to give them a new trial because their defense lawyers were ineffective.

Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda Schneider, were convicted in 2010 of conspiracy, unlawfully prescribing drugs, health care fraud and money laundering at what prosecutors called a "pill mill." Stephen Schneider was sentenced to 30 years and his wife to 33 years in prison.

A federal appeals court has already agreed with their convictions and sentences, and the latest request from the couple is a long-shot legal move that allows the trial judge to narrowly consider whether the defense attorneys were so incompetent that the couple deserve a new trial.

That is going to be a hard sell to U.S. District Judge Monti Belot, who at sentencing told the physician that the evidence showed that he earned and deserved the nickname "Schneider the Writer" because in many cases writing scripts for prescription drugs was his only form of medical care.

The judge also reserved some of his most scathing comments at sentencing for Linda Schneider, who has a nursing degree but didn't practice medicine at the clinic, where she served as an office manager. He characterized her as more culpable for creating and perpetuating the clinic as a generator of income rather than a place for competent medical care.

The 50-page document written by the doctor from federal prison in Arkansas to Belot outlines the defense case Stephen Schneider believes his lawyers should have mounted. He contends they failed to use exculpatory evidence and witnesses, failed to use certain evidence and failed to provide jurors with clear instructions in a complicated trial that lasted eight weeks and involved 34 counts.

Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on the filing, saying prosecutors "don't have anything to add."

Stephen Schneider argues in his court filing that his attorneys failed to show that prescriptions were for legitimate medical reasons and that he and his wife's conduct was within the bounds of professional practice.

He detailed the witnesses and evidence that he thought should have been presented in his defense at trial, and the steps the clinic took to prevent abuse of prescription pain medications.

He also took issue with the defense failure to seek a change of venue for the trial, arguing that the negative publicity was endured since the initial September 2005 raid all the way up to trial in 2010. He wrote that was evident by the difficulty finding enough jurors that hadn't already formed a negative opinion of them.

At worst, the case belonged in front of a medical licensing board such as the Kansas Board of Healing Arts — not in the hands of the federal government, if there is an issue regarding the dosage or timing of painkilling medication, Stephen Schneider wrote.

The defense team failed to seek a retrial when a juror was dismissed, leaving fewer than 12 people on the jury, Schneider said, noting that the defense team felt at the time like they were winning the trial and didn't even think they needed to call any defense witnesses. There was also financial pressure not to extend the trial since the couple's assets had dried up. The defense eventually did put on the stand several defense witnesses, but the doctor felt others would have helped his case more.

At sentencing, the judge said the doctor was put on every possible notice that the controlled substances he was prescribing were addicting, harming and killing his patients — but did nothing to stop it.

In his latest court filing Schneider told the court that of the more than 60 deaths the prosecutor presented to the jury, only 17 had been reported by the coroner's office to the clinic and very few directly to him.

One of the jurors who attended the sentencing, Jim Hancock, told The Associated Press at the time that it was the number of notifications of deaths and overdoses that Stephen Schneider received — and his responses to them — that convinced jurors that the case went beyond negligence to a crime.

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