One of the nation's deadliest outbreaks of fungal meningitis in decades was utterly preventable—except that the compounding pharmacy sending out the massive quantities of injectable steroids to pain clinics in numerous states ignored obvious problem signs, like visible mold in the lab and discolored medication. Now, the first defendant is set to go on trial for the second-degree murder of twenty-five of those who received the tainted drugs. Here's why he's standing trial alone, instead of with his co-defendants, and why it's important to understand.

A total of 14 people were accused, but only 2 stand charged with murder.

A total of 14 people were originally charged with everything from fraud to racketeering, but only two men—Barry Cadden, the New England Compounding Center (NECC) pharmacy's co-owner and head pharmacist; and Glenn Chin, a supervisory pharmacist—stand accused of murder.

The two charged with murder were set to be tried together.

Both have pled not guilty and, up until very recently, were slated to stand trial together. Co-defendants are often tried together when they face similar charges involving the same set of facts. The other twelve defendants couldn't be tried with the two who are charged with murder because not all of the facts of those cases were substantially the same since they were involved in different parts of the compounding operation. 

Joint trials can help make prosecution and defense easier, especially when there are complex issues involved, as it can be too chaotic to have all of the "players" in the courtroom at once. The state also favors joint trials because they are more expedient and they are less expensive to prosecute. Defense attorneys sometimes prefer a joint trial because it can help keep the potential jury pool for subsequent trials from becoming increasingly tainted as the press spreads the news around about each case. There can also be a certain strength in numbers when everyone is asserting the same denials or defenses for a jury to hear over and over again. Defending a joint trial can also be cheaper, as defendants can pool their resources and defense attorneys can work together.

Joint trials have to be separated when there's a chance that a defendant can't get a fair trial otherwise.

Usually, when cases are so similarly linked, they aren't separated unless there is a compelling reason to do so. When the defense requests it, as in this case, it usually is seeking to do one of two things:

  • limit the damage that could be done to one defendant by evidence against another defendant that could inflame the jury and make it harder for them to see the defendants in separate lights, or
  • protect the defendant's right to a fair trial when one or both plan to assert that the other defendant committed the crime

For example, if there's evidence that one of the defendants joked about mold in the bottles of medication and made callous remarks about the possible consequences, that might be enough for a judge to separate the trials so that the evidence against one defendant isn't held against the other.

Similarly, if the two defendants intend to deny knowledge of the problems and place the blame on each other, it might be impossible for a single jury to hear both claims fairly. This seems to be the case for this particular NECC defendant, whose attorney has already alleged that he oversaw operations but was unaware that the pharmacy's so-called "clean room" was far less than clean and that drugs were being mixed and under-sterilized.

If you've been charged with a serious crime along with one or more co-defendants, it's important to discuss the pros and cons of a joint trial in advance with your attorney. If it seems like you can't get a fair trial without distancing yourself from the others involved, you'll need to petition the judge for a trial separation as soon as possible. Talk with a criminal defense attorney, such as Thomas A Corletta, for more information and help.