Joe Burton, medical examiner for Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Douglas, Paulding and Rockdale counties during the 1980s and 1990s, testifies during a trial in 1997. (AJC file image)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Former medical examiner Joe Burton charged in drugs-for-sex case

Federal authorities have charged former metro medical examiner Dr. Joe Burton with illegally distributing opioids and say they believe the nationally known pathologist traded drugs for sexual favors.

Burton, now a private consultant, once served as medical examiner for Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Douglas, Paulding and Rockdale counties. Prosecutors routinely relied on him to provide critical testimony in high-profile cases, and he once estimated he performed more than 10,000 autopsies.

Burton was arrested Oct. 11 on a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and released on $50,000 bond the next day. Federal agents received a tip early this year from pharmacists at a Publix in Marietta who said they were continually turning away patients trying to fill oxycodone prescriptions written by Burton, according to court filings.

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

At the same time, Acworth police said they were investigating local drug dealers who were obtaining controlled substances from Burton’s prescriptions, the court filings said.

In March 2017, agents interviewed an informant who said Burton was romantically involved with and providing controlled-substance prescriptions to a person who worked at a dance bar frequented by Burton, the filings said. Eventually, Burton provided the informant, whose name was not disclosed, with controlled-substance prescriptions in exchange for going on dates or, on one occasion, if he could “get a feel,” authorities said. Agents noted that Burton’s conversations with the informant were secretly recorded.

Drug Enforcement Administration Officer Raymond Baker said in an affidavit that his investigation led him to believe “that Burton exchanged prescriptions for sexual favors.”

It is hard to overstate the impact Burton had as medical examiner serving multiple metro counties from the late 1970s through the 1990s. He worked with the FBI and the GBI on the Atlanta missing and murdered children cases and was involved in the Sara Tokars murder investigation, among many others.

Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Jeff Brickman, who represented Burton at his bond hearing, said Burton performed important work for local prosecutors for decades.

“Dr. Burton has an outstanding reputation in the legal community, both in Atlanta and throughout the nation,” Brickman said. “He has spoken on behalf of thousands of victims of horrific crimes and has given them life through his testimony.”

Federal prosecutors also filed a forfeiture motion seeking to seize Burton’s office on Ga. 9 in Alpharetta.

Burton, who is a doctor and licensed forensic pathologist, prescribed oxycodone to a large number of patients, according to the forfeiture filing. From July 2015 through Aug. 12, 2017, Burton issued 1,507 prescriptions — 1,107 of which were for opioids, the filing said.

This amounted to 108,850 individual doses of opioids, the filing said.

“From their investigation, agents learned that many of the 108,850 individual doses of opioids were resold or diverted to abusers and addicts,” prosecutors said.

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