Sex for drugs: Ex-metro Atlanta medical examiner pleads guilty

Dr. Joseph L. Burton, a once-renowned medical examiner and forensic pathologist who served counties across metro Atlanta, pleaded guilty Tuesday to trading opioid painkiller prescriptions for sexual favors and romantic attention.

Burton, 73, faces a potential federal prison sentence of more than 20 years for his practices, which U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak has said resulted in 1,100 prescriptions, including one that led to a woman's death in 2016. The sentencing is set for Aug. 29.

Burton's attorney, Buddy Parker, said he intends to present the court with a report on his client's medical and psychiatric condition in hopes of explaining how the respected doctor fell so far after decades of service to counties including Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Clayton.

In the past few years, Burton, of Milton, has had strokes, a car accident and, as recently as earlier this month, was suffering from delusions and admitted briefly to a local hospital.

“He’s a physician who I believe has been impaired for a number of years,” Parker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Burton prescribed opioids from 2015 to 2017 while operating as a consulting pathologist to determine the cause of death and disease.

He wrote the prescriptions though he often hadn’t examined the patients, or, in some cases, met them.

At least three women were involved in sexual relationships with the doctor in exchange for prescriptions, the government said.

The defense attorney said the prescriptions in exchange for sex were only a small percentage of those Burton wrote. The doctor didn’t even take money for the prescriptions, making his behavior harder still to explain.

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Prosecutors said Burton supplied the co-defendants with blank prescriptions and instructed them how to fill them out.

“He prescribed these pills even though he was not regularly seeing patients or operating a medical facility,” said Robert J. Murphy, special agent in charge of the Atlanta Field Division of the DEA. “The community is now safer because of his prosecution.”

Burton pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances. As have co-defendants Jennifer Hunter, Tiffany Willis, Michelle Danner, Jerry Stephens and Rodney Kennedy.

Burton has similar cases pending in Cherokee and Cobb counties.

Parker likened the doctor's descent into crime to that of former federal Judge Jack Camp, who in his late 60s was disgraced for a series of illegal behavior involving a stripper. Camp's attorneys argued that his reasoning had been made worse by bipolar disorder, brain damage sustained in a bicycle accident and improper prescriptions.

“That’s what happened to Burton,” Parker said.

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