United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
Defendant Susie Michelle Strength pled guilty to tampering with a consumer product, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1365(a)(4). At her sentencing, the court granted her motion for a downward variance, ' but rejected the parties' plea agreement, primarily because the agreement failed to assure timely, needed drug-treatment for Strength. The court, instead, fashioned what it believed to be a sufficiently comparable sentence that will assure such: a sentence of six months in custody followed by two years in a residential drug-treatment program. This opinion explains why.
Strength, a former nurse suffering from a severe drug addiction to opiate painkillers, took morphine for personal use from the pharmacy at the hospital where she worked and then covered up the theft by replacing much of the morphine with saline solution. This cover-up was the basis for her conviction of tampering with a consumer product.
Strength's addiction to pain medications stemmed from a series of physical and emotional traumas. Strength was physically healthy until January 2008, when she was "t-boned" on the driver's side of her car, while driving with her five-year-old daughter. Strength lost consciousness and was airlifted to the hospital. She suffered pelvic and hip fractures, a lacerated scalp, and a concussion. After the accident, she experienced high levels of pain and was unable to work for about two months. She was prescribed Lortab, an opiate painkiller, for about six months for the pain.
Near the end of her second pregnancy in 2009, she again experienced significant hip pain, and she was again prescribed Lortab. She ended up having a C-section, after which she was prescribed morphine and Percocet for pain. After her son's birth, she was also diagnosed with depression and treated with anti-depressants, which she felt were ineffective.
In 2010, she again experienced severe hip pain, as well as a newly bulging disc in her back that made it difficult for her to function. Her doctor prescribed Lortab and a muscle relaxer. She was given epidurals and nerve blocks for pain, but they were ineffective. She was referred to a neurologist, who diagnosed her with nerve damage on her left leg and referred her to a pain specialist. The pain specialist prescribed Lortab, along with other medications. This treatment was successful. Strength reports that she was responsible with her medication during this period.
Unfortunately, in 2012, Strength was in another serious car accident, which resulted in a fatality. The accident occurred late at night in the rain. A car was disabled on the side of the road and a good Samaritan' had stopped to help the driver and occupant of the car. Strength accidentally hit the three people, who were standing in the road at the time. One of the people who had been in the disabled car died. (Strength was not charged in the incident.) Strength sustained contusions and was prescribed Percocet for pain.
Severe hip pain returned after the accident. Strength also became overwhelmed by grief about the death. She cried constantly for the three months afterwards. Then, a few months after the 2012 accident, one of the people from the accident sued her, causing additional stress. She began going to a psychiatrist and therapy. She felt exhausted, overwhelmed, and "shut down, " and began having great difficulty at work.
Strength was diagnosed with PTSD due to the accident. She suffered nightmares and insomnia and was unable to drive in wet weather or on the road where the accident occurred. Her husband had to drive her to work. She still experiences anxiety when anything reminds her of the accident.
Strength also has been diagnosed with recurrent Major Depressive Disorder and generalized anxiety. As mentioned above, she was first diagnosed with depression after the birth of her son. Strength currently is prescribed two anti-depressants. She also takes Motrin and Tylenol for pain, and continues to experience chronic pain. She attends therapy and receives psychiatric care.
Strength's narcotic abuse developed after the accident in 2012. At first, she avoided taking her prescribed Lortab on days when she worked. By the fall of 2012, Strength had begun taking extra Lortab on her days off of work. She gradually increased to taking Lortab every day. She also abused Xanax, which she had been prescribed for anxiety.
Her addiction grew progressively worse from there. In late 2012, she left her job in pediatric oncology after concern arose that she was coming to work while under the influence of narcotics.
In 2013, she obtained a new job at a hospital tending to adult patients. She heard that another nurse had taken morphine and replaced it with saline. Overwhelmed and in pain, she did the same. A suspicious pharmacist sent three bottles of morphine that had loose tops to a lab for analysis, and the analysis revealed that out of the 10 mg of fluid in the bottles, only 1.8 mg was morphine. The investigation also noted that some patients under her care complained of ineffective pain ...