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Finally, murder trial begins in fungal meningitis case

Flickr User Sanofi Pasteur
Contaminated pain meds caused the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak in 2012.

For more than four years, victims of the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak have been waiting for this.

Two men face second-degree murder charges in a trial set to begin this Friday:Barry Cadden and Glenn Chin, both of whom worked for the drug company that pumped out tainted back pain medications. 

Those pain injections were then sold to doctors around the country as safe, sterile and affordable alternatives to pricier pharmacies. But in reality, they were deadly: The U.S. government says the company’s operators were so profit-hungry, they cut corners to churn out bulk prescription meds using fake patient names, in such unsanitary conditions that fungi started growing inside the medication vials.

In the resulting outbreak, 64 people died. Michigan was the hardest hit state, with 19 people dead and more than 260 sickened, according to the CDC.

Now, after years of lawsuits, hearings, and motions, a jury will decide whether Cadden, the owner and head pharmacist of the New England Compounding Center, and Glenn Chin, the supervising pharmacist, should be found guilty of second-degree murder.

Even if they didn’t have “specific intent” to kill those patients, the feds argue, they “acted with extreme indifference to human life” and knew that people could die from these meds.

“These were not mere ‘regulatory deficiencies,’ as the defendants would have this court believe, but rather the actions of ‘depraved hearts’ that directly led to the deaths of Karina Baxter and 24 others,” prosecutors argue in court document filed last month. “This was not an unfortunate unexplainable tragedy, an accident, or a mere coincidence, as the defendants have stated in their various court filings in this case; this was second-degree murder.”

Cadden and Chin’s attorneys, meanwhile, argue that these charges are a major overreach on the government’s part, and should be dismissed because of insufficient evidence and faulty legal standing. The feds, they argue, are wrongly using “a private industry code [for pharmacies]…as a standard for criminal conduct.”

The defendant’s attorneys have also argued that the government’s allegations are “vague” and fail to show how Cadden and Chin created the contaminated steroids. Most recently, Cadden’s attorneys filed a motion to keep FDA investigators from testifying in the case.

Meanwhile, for meningitis victims and their families, this case has taken on major emotional significance. Civil lawsuits won’t make any of the victims rich, their attorneys say, and at best will cover some people’s medical costs. But the murder trial is, to some, the last opportunity to see somebody held responsible for these deaths. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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