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Doctor who exchanged drugs for sex faces sentencing

Renowned pathologist Joe Burton’s decision to trade hundreds of opioid painkiller prescriptions for sexual favors was the result of a stroke that left him without a moral compass, court motions filed this week said.

“Although Burton knew his conduct of prescribing controlled substances without justification in exchange for sexual activity was wrong, Burton could not control his behavior,” his lawyer, Buddy Parker, wrote.

In court filings, Parker asked U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross to give Burton a reduced prison sentence because he suffers from “significantly diminished mental capacity.” The 73-year-old former medical examiner to a number of metro counties is to be sentenced Aug. 29.

Burton pleaded guilty in May to federal charges.

In a court motion filed Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked the judge to give Burton a 20-year prison sentence.

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Former metro medical examiner Joe Burton. (Burton & Associates) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Over a two-year period, beginning in July 2015, Burton wrote more than 1,500 prescriptions for about 350 different people for controlled substances, including opioid painkillers, the motion said. The bulk of these prescriptions were for women in return for sexual favors. 

About 60 percent of the prescriptions were for oxycodone pills, the street value of which was more than $2 million, the motion said.

In two similar cases, Burton was also indicted in Cobb and Cherokee counties. In July, he pleaded guilty in Cobb, where prosecutors agreed to have Burton’s sentence there run concurrently with his federal sentence, provided it includes at least five years in custody.

In his sentencing memo, Parker said that forensic psychiatrist Matthew Norman of Atlanta had evaluated Burton and reviewed all of Burton’s medical records.

In 2010, Burton suffered a massive stroke that required hospitalization and resulted in behavioral changes, the memo said. The incident caused significant damage to the frontal lobe of Burton’s brain, home to executive functions.

“Burton’s moral compass has been destroyed by cardiovascular disease,” the memo said.

Parker asked Ross to sentence Burton to a term of between 41 months and 51 months.

In their response, prosecutors opposed leniency for Burton based on claims of diminished mental capacity. In the years after his stroke, they noted, Burton worked as a consultant in as many as 230 cases. Billing $45,000 a case or $500 an hour, he was repeatedly qualified to offer expert testimony involving trauma and death in car and airplane accident cases and criminal prosecutions.

For decades, Burton was relied upon by area prosecutors as a key witness in numerous high-profile cases. He served as chief medical examiner in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Paulding counties and associate medical examiner in Fulton County.

U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, at a press conference following Joe Burton’s guilty plea. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Parker attached letters to Ross from a number of prosecutors and lawyers who worked with Burton over the years. They described Burton as a dedicated — and decorated — public servant. He was at almost every homicide scene, often down on his hands and knees, sifting through evidence and closely examining the victim’s remains.

Burton’s greatest contribution to Georgia, and the nation, was his recognition and diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan wrote. Burton became one of the country’s leading authorities on the issue and his work led to legislation being passed in Georgia and other states requiring autopsies of children where there was no obvious cause of death.

Bob Wilson, another former DeKalb DA, said Burton was honest, unbiased and ethical in his work and a remarkably formidable presence on the witness stand.

“Attorneys who had to cross-examine Dr. Burton faced it with fear, the kind of fear that was predicated on enormous respect for his intelligence and skills,” Wilson wrote.

Gwinnett DA Danny Porter also praised Burton’s past work. This included his work helping to secure a conviction in the first murder case in Georgia tried without the body of the victim. Burton’s explanation of his findings at the crime scene was integral to convincing the jury that the victim had been killed and died at the scene, Porter wrote.

Decatur attorney Doug Peters struck a tone that ran through most of the letters.

“What has happened to Dr. Burton is heartbreaking,” Peters said. “At his core, he is an incredibly good and decent man. I hope that all that he has accomplished throughout his life will be taken into consideration in your sentencing judgment.”

Among others writing to the judge on behalf of Burton were former Cobb DA Tom Charron, former Clayton DA Bob Keller, former Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell, former U.S. Attorney and congressman Bob Barr and Jerry Word, who heads the state’s capital defender office.

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