Judge tosses charges against ex-GSK lawyer

The ex-GlaxoSmithKline lawyer who found herself in the hot seat for obstruction of justice and other cover-up charges has been acquitted. A U.S. District Judge tossed out the charges, saying that Lauren Stevens should never have been prosecuted in the first place, Reuters reports. The ruling came about two weeks into the trial after the jury had heard some of the evidence.

"I believe that it would be a miscarriage of justice to permit this case to go to the jury," U.S. Judge Roger Titus said in court (as quoted by Reuters). "I conclude that the defendant in this case should never have been prosecuted and she should be permitted to resume her career." It was the first time in his more than seven years as a judge that Titus had dismissed charges in the middle of a trial.

The unusual move came in a case that has been closely watched by the pharma industry. Stevens' charges stemmed from an FDA probe into GSK's marketing of its antidepressant Wellbutrin. Regulators were investigating whether the company had promoted the drug off-label as a weight loss remedy. Prosecutors said that she had lied to FDA and held back documents that might have implicated the company.

Stevens' lawyers maintained she was only doing her job as GSK's lawyer and acted as she did on the advice of the company's outside counsel. Titus agreed, and his ruling stands to resonate in the pharma industry.

The U.S. government officials have been increasingly zealous in pursuing individual managers for corporate violations, because they believe company settlements--even billion-dollar settlements--have failed to deter off-label marketing and other illegal behavior. The failure of these charges could make prosecutors more reluctant to continue that push.

However, Stevens' case was unusual, because it involved legal advice, which is usually protected, the Wall Street Journal notes. Titus specifically cited the dangers of "allowing prosecution of an attorney for the giving of legal advice." Presumably, there are other cases that don't take the same tack.

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