CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A jury will begin deliberating today on whether John Costino, a North Wildwood physician charged with drug distribution and healthcare claims fraud, is a drug dealer or a good doctor.
Costino was arrested in September 2007, but his trial did not begin until October 9. On Wednesday, jurors finally heard closing arguments and today they will be charged in the law and then left to decide Costino’s fate.
The doctor faces nine counts of drug distribution, a third-degree crime that carries a penalty of three to five years in prison, and seven counts of healthcare claims fraud, a second-degree crime with a penalty of five to 10 years in prison.
During closing arguments, Assistant Prosecutor Dara Paley argued that Costino prescribed Percocet, a painkiller, to two undercover police officers posing as exotic dancers from Atlantic City who presented him with no legitimate medical purpose to take the controlled drug.
"The defendant gave illegal drugs to people just because they wanted it. Sounds like a drug dealer to me," Paley told the jury.
Paley recounted the case and the testimony of the two officers who each carried recording devices to document the conversations they had with Costino between April 12 and Aug. 23, 2007.
Paley said those conversations, which the jury can to listen as it deliberates, show that both women never told the doctor they had any pain and that the doctor never conducted a thorough examination of either woman.
"The case turns on the complaint of pain," she said.
Part of the defense case included the argument that a transcript of one visit showed the second undercover officer using the word pain, but Paley said that wasn't the case. "You're not going to hear pain," Paley said as she challenged the jurors to turn the volume up as loud as they could.
Paley also challenged the idea that Costino examined the women.
She said the doctor used only a stethoscope to diagnosis all manner of problems.
"That stethoscope — it's magical," Paley said.
Paley said Costino's testimony amounted to damage control as he attempted to explain what he did during each visit.
"You don't have to explain the truth," Paley said.
As she held the prescriptions above her head, Paley said Costino prescribed 240 pills of a controlled narcotic in 134 days for strains and sprains.
"According to him all dancers should be taking Percocet," Paley said. "Hey, let's give it to everybody."
Paley said Costino diagnosed problems that didn't exist and then billed an insurance company for what would amount to about $400.
"He wasn't being a doctor; he was being a drug dealer," she said.
Defense attorney John Tumelty said Costino ran a mom and pop operation in North Wildwood that was targeted by investigators.
He pointed to a first visit by an undercover officer who pretended to be a heroin addict seeking drugs. "He wouldn't do it," Tumelty said. "He wouldn't write the prescription for pain medicine."
Fourteen months later, the second undercover operation began as the two women posed as exotic dancers who worked long days on their feet.
"They thought if they didn't say the word pain they did everything right," Tumelty said.
But he argued that the women indicated they held physically demanding jobs and that Costino used the word pain in their visits without any objection from them. At one point, one used the phrase, "not much pain."
He also pointed to Costino's cautions against taking too many pills and the dangers of addiction as well as the occasion when the women asked for another drug, Oxycontin, and the doctor refused to give it to them.
Costino, Tumelty said, believed he was helping the women, offering sound medical advice and submitting accurate bills for the visits that took place in his office.
"There's good faith all through these seven visits," he said as he questioned the investigation and how it was conducted.
Tumelty said even one of the undercover officers had testified to using the word pain and added that the undercover officers told Costino about symptoms such as not being able to sleep.
"The case is only as strong as the investigation," Tumelty said.
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